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Values in public life

If you are a prominent public figure your values often become apparent over a period of time. For example, my take on Tony Blair would be that he was driven by: (1) a desire to please the mob; and (2) a desire to do something great (which would go down in history); (3) a desire to avoid embarrassment.

The snag, of course, is that none of these three are “values” in any traditional sense. But by values I mean the core beliefs or driving factors which play a big role in how the individual responds to events.

A few comments. (1) is fairly trite. Books have been written about it. Within limits, it is not such a bad thing. Certainly, no politician can survive by consistently displeasing the mob. Where there is a choice between presenting a policy in a way which looks good and a way which looks bad, it is surely folly to choose the latter. On the other hand, few politicians have chosen all their policies by consulting focus groups and polls. Most have things which they really believe will improve the country’s well-being and which they try hard to implement when they finally get into the cabinet. In ten years of Blair I never saw such things.

(2) became apparent well before all the snide comments about his “legacy” in his last twelve months. The ironic part was that he did something great on day one: he persuaded the Labour party to take over all the Tory policies. Now that a large majority of Labour MPs are not socialists it is easy to forget how things were in 1997. Had Blair decided to start undoing the Thatcher privatisations and reviving the unions, he could have plunged the country into a decade of debilitating struggle. By becoming on day 1 the “Son of Thatcher” he instantly moved her policies from “right wing” to centre ground.

He hoped to be judged on education and health, both disaster areas. The problem was his absolute inability to focus on any kind of detail not immediately essential for digging him out of a hole. Education has been a fairly unmitigated disaster in the UK for fifty years. That is a topic for another article, but it has nothing to do with resources. It is all about how and what you teach, so grand gestures are useless. You have to get to grips with the detail.

I sometimes feel sorry for him on health. He increased expenditure in real terms by more than half. Some aspects of the NHS have undoubtedly improved. But many have not. Part of that was a bizarrely incompetent negotiation over GPs’ pay and conditions, most of it was a much longer-standing problem about the power of consultants in hospitals. But after ten years you judge a prime minister on results and he failed.

All that pales into insignificance beside Iraq. For me, as for many others, this was the most important political issue of our lives. At the time I was absolutely outraged at the invasion, and nothing that has happened since has changed my opinion much. With one exception. I grossly underestimated the damage to Iraq and its citizens. It is now in, or close to, the top ten world horrors with more than a million Iraqi lives needlessly lost.

But at heart I am a puzzle-nut. I spend endless time trying to figure things out, for no better reason than a desire to do so. Why on earth did Mr Focus-Group do it? He knew it was wildly unpopular. He had a million people on the streets protesting, by far the UK’s biggest ever demo. He knew all the stuff about Weapons of Mass Destruction was bunk (he was just scared of proclaiming that he wanted to topple a bad ruler, because like any good barrister he knew that could get him into trouble with the International Criminal Court). So why, why, why? I have probably spent hundreds of hours puzzling over that one.

Eventually I decided it was just (3). He knew nothing about Iraq or its history. Indeed he apparently knew next to nothing about foreign affairs generally, but he promised his buddy George he was with him. Then he began to discover that maybe that was not so smart. But George kept pressing him, and his commitments got firmer, even as he began to realize just what a mess he was getting himself into. So he went ahead because he was too embarrassed not to. Then like any good barrister he presented his brief as forcefully as he could. There is an argument that Bush would not have been able to go ahead without him. So that is quite some first: the first person to kill a million people out of embarrassment.

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