Saturday, 30 January 2010

When love goes cold

Why do people hate Tony Blair so much? We saw it on display again, yesterday, both inside the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre and, even more, outside it, among the demonstrators with their "Bliar" placards and the commentators in the TV studios: not just disapproval or disagreement but real, visceral hatred. What's it all about? Why has national embarrassment at an unfortunate foreign war turned into such personal animosity?

Everyone knew what was going to happen yesterday: what he was going to say and how he was going to say it, how he would put on an Oscar-worthy performance, how the members of the Chilcot panel would fail to land a glove on him, how his eyes would blaze with righteousness and sincerity. Everyone knew, too, that the performance would be accounted a triumph. But also that it wouldn't convince anyone who disagreed with the war and hated Tony Blair on account of it. It would just make them hate him more. And so it proved.

If Tony Blair wanted to defend his record, to make no concessions, to run rings around his questioners, then his performance was indeed a success. If he wanted to win back the reputation he once had as an honest politician, a "pretty straight sort of guy", and regain the trust of the British people that brought him to power in 1997 and lasted - despite accumulating evidence to the contrary - almost until the eve of war in 2003, then he failed. Because the two are not compatible.

Arguably, going to war with Iraq was the most honest thing Tony Blair ever did, despite the twisting of evidence and legal shenanigans that accompanied it. The means may have been less than ideal, and the outcome lamentable, but the motive was pure. He was, and remains, utterly convinced that he was right. If he was acting at Chilcot, it was method acting, and he has been in character for most of the past decade. Blair can be terribly hammy, it is true, but yesterday his performance was for real.

That's the paradox. When he was acting - blubbing for Diana, for example, or telling John Humphrys he was a straight sort of guy - he was popular and trusted. When his economic miracle turned out to be as insubstantial as the Lamia's palace - or the Dome - Gordon Brown got the blame. Blair's luck held: however bad the state he left the country, he sails serenely on, richer and more tanned by the day. It's galling. Iraq is the one issue on which he didn't come up smelling of roses, the one apparent chance to nail him. That we can't, that he will never admit his mistake and never be held properly to account, makes the whole thing even more exasperating.

Above all, people are angry with Blair because they voted for him; or if they didn't vote for him, they were impressed enough in the early years to wish that they had. They remember how much optimism he inspired in 1997, and what has happened to it, how it all turned out to have been built on sand - and they look at the man primarily responsible, how undamaged he seems, how upbeat, how untroubled and how rich. They're angry at Blair, but they're even more angry at themselves, that they were taken in by him. I wasn't taken in, which is one reason I'm not particularly angry, any more than I would be angry at a venemous snake that turned round and bit me after I decided to pet it. I'm not disappointed.

But why were so many people originally taken in, when the evidence of his phoneyness was so apparent to others? Tony Blair is a perfect exemplar of the type identified by Malcolm Gladwell - the Persuader. In The Tipping Point, Gladwell describes a meeting with such a specimen of humanity, a financial adviser who makes millions of dollars a year. He really loves his clients. He really, really loves his clients. And they love him back, which is why they give him so much of their money. Gladwell clearly liked him too.

What was interesting about Gau is the extent to which he seemed to be persuasive in a way quite different from the context of his words. He seems to have some kind of indefinable trait, something powerful and contagious and irresistable that goes beyond what comes out of his mouth, that makes people who meet him want to agree with him. It's energy. It's enthusiasm. It's charm. It's likeability. It's all those things and yet something more...

When I first read that passage some years ago, around the time of the Iraq War, I couldn't help thinking about Tony Blair. Gladwell goes on to say that "what I felt with Gau was that I was being seduced, not in the sexual sense, of course, but in a global way, that our conversation was being conducted on his terms, not mine." Actually, I think there probably is something sexual about it. Or at least, the same qualities will also guarantee their possessor (if that is what they want) unusual sexual success.

But now, with Blair, all is turned to dross. The same performance that once seduced people now reminds them of how they were duped. It's a huge turn-off, because it's not just hatred of Tony Blair himself, it also has a large element of self-disgust.

Clare Short is perhaps the clearest example of this phenomenon. Short was on the point of resigning alongside Robin Cook - something that, as she well knows, might just have tipped the balance of opinion in the Labour party decisively against the invasion of Iraq. By a mixture of charm and (she now says) downright lies, Blair talked her round, only to renege on all his promises a few week later, leaving Clare looking weak and naive. Her reputation has never recovered, whereas Robin Cook's resignation made his (what a witness he would have made before Chilcot!). She can't forgive herself, so she turns her hatred onto Tony Blair.

Yet it would have been absurdly easy for Tony Blair yesterday, even after everything that has happened, to win back at least some of his popularity. All he needed to do was apologise - if not for the entire war, then at least for something: for misrepresenting the evidence, perhaps, for not insisting on a second UN resolution, for falsely linking Saddam's supposed weapons programmes with the post 9/11 terrorist threat. If he had made a more contrite statement, if had been less impregnable in his performance, if he had shown more human sympathy for the victims of the war, he would be reading more sympathetic headlines today.

By refusing to apologise, Blair is fuelling the anger against him. Despite themselves, despite knowing how he misled the country and the world, despite all the deaths he caused, on some level people still want to love him. He still oozes charm. He's still Tony. If only he could see it within himself to apologise, to throw himself on the public's mercy, all would be forgiven - if not quite forgotten. I'm reminded of a passage in Jane Austen. Mr Knightley is complaining to Emma about how easily Frank Churchill has been forgiven by the people of Highbury despite his outrageous behaviour.

"Frank Churchill is, indeed, the favourite of fortune. Every thing turns out for his good.--He meets with a young woman at a watering-place, gains her affection, cannot even weary her by negligent treatment--and had he and all his family sought round the world for a perfect wife for him, they could not have found her superior.--His aunt is in the way.--His aunt dies.--He has only to speak.--His friends are eager to promote his happiness.-- He had used every body ill--and they are all delighted to forgive him.-- He is a fortunate man indeed!"

But Blair didn't take the opportunity yesterday to show humility and be granted the public's absolution in return. His self-belief is too great - or, perhaps, too fragile. To admit that he was wrong, given what Iraq means to his legacy, to his very identity, would be too much. He can't do it.

So there's an impasse. The people want to forgive Blair, but they can't, because he would first have to apologise, and that would be psychologically devastating to him. The result is that people hate him even more. They hate him not because of what he did but because of what he is doing now, which is to deprive them of the right to love him.