13 January 2022
Sir Anthony Blair
KG or not KG?
By John Watson
So, Sir Tony it will be. The Garter is the direct gift of the monarch and has been so since the creation of the order in 1348 by Edward III, who borrowed the idea from Arthurian legend. Originally the members were Edward’s warrior friends and the rules forbade them from fighting against each other or leaving the Kingdom without permission. In return they were his first call when he went to war and the great figures of the Hundred Years War – Lancaster, Beauchamp, Chandos, the Captal de Buch – are all found there. The Garter tied them together, an outward demonstration of their links to the King, and helped close the disastrous gap between sovereign and aristocracy which had destroyed Edward II.
Fast forward 674 years and things have moved on. The Queen has never led troops into France or indeed controlled the political decisions which determine the fate of the nation. None the less the initials KG denote what she regards as the top team and among the Knights and Lady Companions (The Queen and Prince of Wales are knights ex officio and there are up to 24 others – not royalty or foreign royalty, they are in a separate category) are found Sir John Major, Lord King, Baroness Amos, Lords Sainsbury and Salisbury and an assortment of top people from the Military, the Civil Service, the Law and the Court. This is the group which Blair now joins.
Blair’s knighthood has been met with dismay. More than 500,000 people have signed a petition calling on the Government to request the Queen to rescind it, only “requested” mind because the choice is the Queen’s rather than that of the Government, the bile being stoked by those parts of the media which know that bile sells copy. We at the Shaw Sheet, however, deal neither in bile nor hero worship so perhaps it falls to us to put matters into perspective.
First, the government of Tony Blair. In 1997 the Tories had been in for 18 years and were quickly losing credibility, largely over disputes about Europe. Tony Blair’s New Labour swept to power with its vision of a modern, outward facing, inclusive, better educated Britain, contributing to everything from World Peace to the arts and channelling the gains made by Thatcherism for the common good. “Cool Britannia”, that was the slogan, and improvements in the educational system, the introduction of a minimum wage and the opening of the borders to East European workers were among the vehicles through which it was to be achieved. The philosophy fitted in well with the public mood and powered Labour to three successive electoral victories. Did it work? In part it did. New hospitals and new schools were built. The Bank of England was made independent. These were solid achievements although much was undermined by the austerity which followed the 2007 financial collapse. Still, on the domestic front Blair was an honourable man pursuing a decent vision and, despite the hissing and spitting of the left, probably laid the foundation for the centrist British politics we see from Boris Johnson and Sir Keir Starmer today.
Those who attack Blair, however, are not focusing on his domestic record but on two decisions. The first was to commit Britain to the second Iraq war and it hinged on a bet. Was the admittedly genocidal regime in Iraq developing weapons of mass destruction? That danger was the casus belli and it turned out to be wholly wrong. Was it just a simple mistake then? Probably not. The decision was complicated by a desire to please an ally, something which would have made a last minute change of mind very difficult. Who knows when the penny dropped that the intelligence might be defective?
That is only one of the questions which will never be answered. Others focus on effect rather than cause. Who knows where we would be if there had been better follow-through? Who knows where we would be if the invasion had never taken place and the genocidal Saddam Hussein had retained power? It is very hard to say but if we assume that the invasion made things worse on a grand scale, we also need to bear in mind that those who step up to political office inevitably make important decisions which can have catastrophic consequences. The size of the decisions does not make them less likely to be wrong.
The second decision, that to join with the Americans in the invasion of Afghanistan, went wrong in rather a different way. Again it began with the neutralisation of a threat, that posed by Al Qaeda from its strongholds in the mountains post 9/11. This time the threat was real but the attempt to stay on to build a modern democratic nation failed miserably, leading to last year’s disastrous withdrawal. Many people, including British servicemen, have lost their lives, yet would it have been better if we had not gone in at all or had left immediately rather than trying to build a nation? That I suppose depends on the outcome. If leaving Al Qaeda in place had led to a series of terrorist outrages across Europe we would be cursing the politicians’ lack of will and failure to exterminate them. Had we gone for a quick exit and just left Afghanistan in the control of the Taliban a whole generation of women would have been denied education. Perhaps that would not have mattered. Perhaps, on the other hand, that generation will lift Afghanistan out of its feudal mould in due course.
Whatever you think of Blair’s decision-making on these issues, there are areas where his achievements were clearly solid. The Good Friday agreement owed everything to his commitment to peace in Northern Ireland. His advice to the Queen following the death of Princess Diana did much to heal a nation that was tearing itself apart.
It is no surprise that a career at the top mixes success and failure. Politicians are human beings with human failings who are willing to devote themselves to public service. Among those 24 military knights who Edward appointed to the Garter, there will have been wise men and foolish ones, good men and bad men, including men who took part in the depredations by the Great Companies which preyed on France after Poitiers. The point was that membership of the order carried a commitment to struggle bravely together for King and Country. Did Tony Blair meet that test? The Queen thinks he did and it is hard to see that she is mistaken.
Cover page image: the World Affairs Council / Wikimedia / Creative Commons