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Jewish World Review Oct. 1, 2003 / 5 Tishrei, 5764

Barbara Amiel

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Blair's dilemma today is Blair himself | LONDON — In the spring of 1992, the then Sunday Times editor, Andrew Neil, had one of his attacks of enthusiasm. I kept quiet, since my grasp of Neil's enthusiasms, especially the nitty-gritty of politics, was marginal.

Neil was very keen on Labour's employment spokesman, Tony Blair. "He's the one to watch," he said. The outcome was an assignment for me to profile Blair, whom I'd never heard of till then, on the dodgy theory that ignorance of Westminster would bring a fresh approach to the story.

After weeks of following Blair about, I had a strong impression of him. He was inchoate when it came to explaining how his political journey had led to Labour and unable to explain the rationale for most of his ideas, but to those ideas he cleaved with tremendous passion. And his central idea was to reform the Labour Party.

Blair quickly saw that the Soviet Union's demise buried more than an empire. It demolished the myths of scientific socialism, syndicalism and any lingering notion of the superiority of planned economies over free enterprise. He knew Labour hadn't a chance in hell of being elected while it held on to any of those ruined orthodoxies.

But he and his mates wanted to rescue something for social democracy. They chose "community," a vague, pleasant concept, linked somehow to "social justice."

Blair couldn't explain this and I doubt anyone could, but "community" became the pacifier for Old Labour while they held their noses, dumped their creed and came to power. Then, Blair was the knight in shining armour for Labour, their Moses after years of wandering in electoral deserts.

Now polls in the Guardian and Financial Times claim his back bench is in revolt, while 50% of British voters want him out. What happened? It seems that as the years went by in office, Blair discovered that not only was the Left wrong about economics but that classical liberals were right about quite a few other things.

This insight applied more often to his foreign policy than domestic policy and it led Blair to support NATO in Yugoslavia. He recognized that old communists turned nationalist were hooligans, and that barbarians are barbarians. Which led him directly, against all his manifest interests, to support America in Iraq.

The United States went to war in Iraq to enforce a number of things, including 18 UN resolutions, but also to get rid of a thug who required no-fly zones to stop him from killing his own people with chemical weapons.

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A thug, moreover, who kicked out UN inspectors when they wanted to be certain he wasn't manufacturing more biological and nuclear devices. Further, he was openly and proudly supporting terrorists abroad.

British public opinion is heavily weighted in favour of appeasement as a policy until the last possible moment. Appease "foreign" terrorism in the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Northern Ireland or America. Few people would admit that.

It is far more respectable to buy into the notion that terrorism, whether religious, nationalist or state-inspired, is a legitimate political expression of grievances, capable of being addressed. Talk to them. Listen. Or, just leave suicide bombers alone and they will leave us alone. Then everyone can go back to grumbling about transportation issues.

Blair was not of this cut. He took the terrorists at their own word — war against the West. He saw they couldn't be appeased with the equivalent of Benes's Czechoslovakia, namely Israel, when what they wanted was New York, Paris, Moscow and London as well.

He saw, too, that this war with terrorism was a new kind of a war and, if it was to be won, it had to be fought long before the public could see the whites of their eyes.

If ever a political decision was made not out of calculation but principle, it was Blair's stand with America. There were no votes in it. He was not running for election in New York or Seattle. Nor could he hope to be rewarded by some great international trophy like a UN appointment or the Nobel Peace Prize.

It was simply right. His solidarity with America has been that of a man pulled overwhelmingly to the recognition that Britain's place as the mother of parliamentary democracy is alongside the world's central defender of democracy. This position has put him at odds with most of his party and the country.

The double paradox of this is that Blair, who breathed new life into Labour by jettisoning old Left shibboleths, breathed new life into the soft Left, which was moribund and in disrepute until his invention of New Labour. It is this soft Left, so influential in British institutions from the BBC to schools and media, that is massed now against him.

Blair is not all of one piece and Blair's dilemma today is Blair himself.

Does he see that Europe's notion of setting itself up as a "counterweight" to the United States is at total odds with his support of America? If something is, on the whole, good, like the United States, why set yourself up as a counterweight? How can a counterweight be an ally? Blair's attachment to the European Union and his casual dumping of British sovereignty are part of his 1960s yen for a world with fewer borders. It isn't Lenin: it's Lennon.

Unhappy voters want Blair to stop focusing on the war against terrorism and concentrate on improving public services, specifically transportation and health care. Britain has a dreadful shortage of specialists. Hospitals are often inefficient, unclean and uncaring. Waiting lists are a scandal.

But, apart from the obvious fact that, if the West is subverted by terrorism, the list for hip replacements will be the least of Britons' worries, there is a flaw here.

The inadequacies in public services have to do with British culture and enterprise, not government. Socialized medicine has consequences. But the National Health Service is too much a cultural sacred cow for government to replace it.

Meanwhile, patch-up measures to fix it give Britons only the flaws of both free enterprise and socialism. Similarly, it isn't government's fault that British workers are so negligent that trains derail over half-repaired tracks. Nor can government undo a culture that objects to highways cutting through a favourite patch of meadow, but still wants faster roads.

Blair is slowly coming to see all this. In doing so, he is far ahead of the British public — and his party. Ironically, it appears that, as Blair grows better and better as a person and politician, he becomes less and less liked.

Given the current candidates in all political parties, if Labour chooses to dump him, the loss may not only be theirs, but Britain's. Half a loaf is better than none.

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JWR contributor Barbara Amiel is a columnist with London's Daily Telegraph, where this column originated. Comment by clicking here.

09/09/03: The UN in Iraq? That's the last thing that America needs 04/15/03: It's time for Russia to choose our side in the Great Game
04/01/02: Turkey should be wary of its Franco-German friends
03/18/02: Blair's dilemma: This time he cannot be all things to all men
02/18/02: Letter from London: What you don't see is what you get
02/05/02: The UN is fast becoming a threat to world peace
10/29/02: When dealing with the devil, words like "dialogue" and "agreement" are comic
09/10/02: Never mind the dossier, just leaf through 'Iraq for Dummies'
08/27/02: How Kissinger the hawk was twisted into a fake dove: Lessons in liberal journalistic integrity
05/15/02: Why protecting the peace will make a mockery of justice
05/01/02: Why has it taken Le Pen to ask the awkward questions?
04/17/02: Truth about Israeli casualties is being ignored in this war
02/18/02: America's war on terrorism is a fight for all democracies: What the European elite are clueless about
01/29/02: Pity the al-Qa'eda detainees? Why is liberal 'torture' kosher?
12/18/01: What those in the London salons don't -- or won't -- see
12/04/01: We are not risking world war so women can show their ankles
11/20/01:"Anti-terrorism" has become the Western world's equivalent of the Arabian Nights' "open sesame"
11/06/01: We must rediscover a war mentality that persists through vicissitudes
10/31/01: The West is fighting to rescue Islam, not destroy it

© 2001, Barbara Amiel