In an essay with the cryptic and indecipherable title, ‘Tony Blair, Neo-Con’, the political philosopher John Gray has argued that Tony Blair is best understood as a straightforward neo-conservative. Certainly, he embraced the neo-liberal belief (prevalent at the time) that the free market was the key to prosperity and modernisation, and the state should adapt to accommodate and support it. ‘He never doubted that globalisation was creating a worldwide market economy that must eventually be complemented by global democracy. When he talked of the necessity for continuing ‘economic reform’ – as he often did – he took for granted this meant further privatisation and the injection of market mechanisms into public services… For him the clichés of the hour have always been eternal verities.’
So yes, he was a neo-liberal in practice, and by default. But in Gray’s reading, his deeper convictions were properly neo-conservative.
Neo-conservatives perceive that there’s more to life than the market, and government is required to promote the virtues that the market is bound to neglect. Blair accepted the need for discipline and punishment, as well as viewing religion as a source of social cohesion – apparent in his support for faith schools. He also held the neo-conservative suspicion that market forces alone can’t topple regimes and bring about positive social change, and military intervention is sometimes needed to make this happen.
This brings us to Iraq. His involvement is often viewed as a naked power play, a cynical attempt to curry favour with the US and re-establish the UK as a major actor on the global stage. But in Gray’s view, this perspective disregards the extent to which the invasion chimed with his earnest convictions. He viewed Saddam as a tyrant on the wrong side of history, and acted according to a deeply-held belief that the ‘end of history’ would come about when every nation was a capitalist liberal democracy. The US led this normative march of progress, and Blair saw it as his duty to support them in their eternal fight against darkness.
Every time he took the UK to war (in Sierra Leone, the Balkans, then Afghanistan and Iraq), it was done as form of humanitarian intervention. And this was based on a very specific view of the modern age and the nation-state.
The view that we’d entered a ‘post-Westphalian’ world, in which nation states were no longer the central players, was popular in the ‘90s, and Gray traces this to the post-Cold War lull in which the US was largely able to act un-challenged. With no other nations to oppose them, their law became a global law. Of course, this didn’t really signal the death of the nation state, and rival powers started to stir in the form of China and India. However, the belief in a post-Westphalian world was useful to Blair, and supported his crypto-religious view of world events. If we were finally entering an era of global (rather than merely national) governance, the purposes of war had now expanded. It now became an instrument of progress, as clearly expressed in his address to the World Affairs Council in LA in 2006:
‘Our values are worth struggling for. They represent humanity’s progress throughout the ages, and at each point we have had to fight for them again.’
Neo-conservative that he was, Blair viewed the US as the paradigm of liberal modernity, and backing them in Iraq was backing progress. Ultimately, though, his ‘faith in American invincibility was misguided. America’s defeat by the Iraqi insurgency was in no way unexpected… The lesson of asymmetric warfare – where the militarily weak use unorthodox tactics against the seemingly overwhelmingly strong – is that the weak have the winning hand.’ He ignored this lesson of the past, since it contradicted his view of history as the inevitable ‘unfolding of a providential design’, a US-led march of progress.
John Gray connects this sense of political providence with Blair’s somewhat creative approach to ‘truth’:
‘For him truth is whatever serves the cause, and when he engage in what is commonly judged to be deception he is only anticipating the new world that he is helping to bring about… Deception is justified if it advances human progress – and then it is not deception…’
Under Blair, the shaping of public opinion became the government’s overriding purpose, and integral to its function. To justify the invasion of Iraq, he had to construct a pseudo-reality, willing it into existence with the help of a legion of liberal hawks, some of whom maybe shared his faith, and some of whom maybe just rode the wave, engaging in power politics while bright-eyed Tony gushed about the Kingdom of God that waited always, forever, beyond the horizon.