Today was Tony Blair’s last day as UK Prime Minister. He is stepping down in mid-term to be replaced by his Chancellor of the Exchequer (equivalent to our Treasury Secretary), Gordon Brown.
Blair came into office during President Clinton’s 2nd term. At the time he was the head of a political movement in liberal UK politics, called “New Labor”, which seems awfully similar to Clinton’s push in the Democratic Party for the “New Democrats”. Blair and Clinton seemed like the best of pals.
I went to visit the UK for the first time in 1999. I had the opportunity to talk politics with some of the locals, sleeping at B&B’s (bed and breakfasts), thankfully always keeping it cordial. At one place I stayed, the husband in the family and I got into a conversation about our respective national leaders. We both agreed that we didn’t like Clinton, but he gave me his own distaste for Blair, saying that he “spins everything”. He also complained, “I hardly know what he’s talking about half the time.” It sounded familiar. I told him we had the same problem of spin with Clinton. Fortunately with Blair there appears to have been no scandal about “getting a hummer in the office from an employee.” From these conversations I assumed that Blair was like Clinton: shallow and without principles.
I had a delightful conversation with a man and his wife in a pub. We talked about our perceptions of each other’s countries. I mostly talked to the husband. I remember he said they had an American made luxury car, and that it was a bit wide for their roads (I can imagine! Their one-way streets would pass for narrow alleys in the U.S.). He said that they had made a trip to the U.S. recently, and they were amazed at how cheap everything was. Their money went quite far. He said he was also amazed at the sheer size of our country, and I believe he said he could understand why we used airplanes to get across it. He said he remembered learning that the UK would easily fit in the state of Texas. I, on the other hand, commented about the roadways in the UK, and the lack of road signs. Whenever I’d get directions from anyone it was so disorienting, because they’d have to give me directions by landmark, like “take a left at the pub” and “drive down the windey road”; not road names or designations. Road designations were spotty at best. Writing down the directions was like writing an essay! It was so easy for me to get lost. I also commented on how expensive everything was, though the B&Bs were quite affordable. The difference in perceptions on cost was due to the exchange rate. The UK’s has long been higher than ours.
Then the man asked this question that flabbergasted me: “Does everyone in America own a gun?” I sat there a bit stunned for a moment. I said, “No. Why do you think that?” He said something about how the movies they see always have Americans shooting at each other. Something like that. I explained that most movies are set in the major cities, and yes there’s gun violence in those places, but even so, not everyone there has guns. Secondly, American movies tend to exaggerate and sensationalize to create excitement so people will go see them. There’s an air of unreality about them, because it’s meant to be an escape. I’m sure they also hear about the gun violence occasionally through the news.
As just a funny aside, after I got back to the States, I happened upon a movie called “This Is My Father”, starring James Caan, about an American man who discovers a family secret by travelling to his ancestral home in Ireland. During his trip two Irish girls walk up to him on a road and talk to him for a bit. I’m not making this up. It’s like they have a script over there…the girls asked him, “Does everyone in America own a gun?” Notice that it’s exactly the same wording as the question the man in the pub asked me. Get it through your heads, people! Not every American owns a gun! Sheesh! 🙂
One thing the man at the pub said has stuck with me years later. We were talking about international relations a bit between the U.S. and the UK. He said something about how he was glad that our two countries had held together a “special relationship” for so long, and he hoped it would continue. I agreed wholeheartedly. It was wonderful to meet people who were aware of what was going on in their own country and around the world, even if their view of the U.S. was a bit skewed. I find that a lot of people in the U.S. are not as aware of what’s going on in our own country, even, much less what’s happening in the rest of the world. The attitude we Americans display is that we have better things to do than to pay attention to this stuff, at least until our government enacts some policy that steps on certain Americans’ toes, or doesn’t lift a finger to solve a pressing problem.
After George W. Bush was elected president, he and Blair had their first meeting. It appeared to get off to a rocky start. They didn’t seem quite comfortable together. This concerned me for a bit. I hoped that liberal/conservative politics wouldn’t get in the way of our relationship with the UK.
The strength of the relationship between Bush and Blair really changed after 9/11. We learned from President Bush that Blair was the first world leader to call on the President to express his condolensces for our loss. What brought tears to my eyes was the vigil that was held at Buckingham Palace by British subjects, mourning our loss with tears in their eyes, waving American flags and playing our national anthem. Wow. To me that really said something, that they would go out of their way to do that, to express their solidarity with us at a time when we feared that things could fall apart–things could get worse. There was a genuine fear on the part of many that the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were just the first in a series of planned attacks, and that we might see more in the days and weeks ahead. For the first time in so many years we felt vulnerable.
The Canadian Prime Minister held a vigil for us as well with Canadians, doing much the same. It didn’t get as much coverage though, which I thought was a shame.
I can’t remember when this was, whether it was a special session of congress, or if it was Bush’s first State of the Union address after 9/11, but Blair was there in the gallery sitting in a seat of honor during the President’s speech.
I watched “The Blair Decade”, a documentary on PM Blair that aired recently on PBS. It was very interesting. It showed various members of his staff, and associates, talking about his term in office. They said that Blair strategically wanted to forge a close relationship with the Bush Administration after the 9/11 attacks, to help make sure that America didn’t “fly off the handle” and do something rash in response. To be sure, Americans were tempted to do that. I can’t say the Bush Administration had those thoughts, but American citizens certainly did. In my opinion he accomplished his goal. The documentary also revealed that Blair helped forge pro-American international relationships that would help us begin the global War on Terror. This was not done just because Blair was “Bush’s poodle”. Blair genuinely believed in what we were doing, and it turns out that extended all the way to Iraq.
Blair offered his support of the U.S.’s policy towards Iraq on the condition that we would try to get the U.N.’s stamp of approval for an invasion first. The Bush Administration did this. The documentary revealed that when things were not going well in the U.N., and we were pushing ahead with our invasion plans, and public opinion in the UK towards our policy was not good, Bush called Blair and offered him an out. He told Blair, “I want regime change in Iraq. I don’t want to see it happen in the UK as well.” Bush said it would be fine with him if Blair decided that the UK should not participate in the invasion. Blair wouldn’t have any of it. He believed, just as Bush did, that Iraq needed to be dealt with forcefully. He honestly believed, as Bush did, that Saddam had WMDs. Blair told Bush that despite public opinion at the time, the Blair government was with us on this. It cannot be said that Blair was forced into any of this. He chose it, and I think of him highly because of that. No, Blair was not an “empty suit”. I think he showed true leadership qualities. I’m sure that Blair was aware of the UK’s past history with Iraq, that Winston Churchill had dealt with it, before he became PM, and said, “I hate it!” He knew what he was getting into.
Based on what the documentary revealed about Blair I think that there are some common traits between him and Bush. It said that Blair tended to be more passionate about the general thrust of policy, and was not so interested in the details. This has been true of most of our recent Republican presidents: Reagan, and George W. Bush. I think George H.W. Bush was more of a policy wonk. Both Bush and Blair have a strong moral compass, and both are basically in agreement on the righteousness of spreading freedom. Both are devoutly religious, though Blair is not public about that.
The times when Blair came to give a speech before congress were really stirring. He is so articulate. He’s explained the War on Terror better than our own president. I don’t think that means he got it more than Bush does. Bush is a man of few words, and has trouble being articulate, though he has managed it on occasion. The anti-war forces have had a lot of success due to his inability to communicate well about it. I’ve sometimes wished that Blair would’ve made more visits so he could’ve explain our own war to us. I can understand Blair’s unofficial designation as “the Prime Minister of the United States” by his detractors, though I mean no offense by that.
I am sad to see him go. He was a good friend when we needed one. He stuck by us, by his own volition, despite being unpopular at home. He did indeed have convictions. Perhaps he found them on the job. I don’t know. In the “Pantheon” of British Prime Ministers I am sure he will be remembered in the history books, along with Margaret Thatcher, who was another consequential PM. In our public consciousness, at least among those who remember history, Winston Churchill is still at the top of the heap. In any case, I hope that in his retirement Tony Blair will make more visits to the U.S. As always he will receive a warm welcome here. I hope that Gordon Brown will measure up to Blair’s stature.