BLAIR AS MORALIST
by Ted Honderich
Well do I remember when Mr Blair was first elected. The glorious election of 1997, the election that ended Thatcherism, ended that dragging-down of England. Something else was beginning, if not the new Jerusalem. "A New Labour government would attempt no transformation. But during election night, despite this resignation beforehand, my feeling became the feeling of many, which was joy. Lovely joy. Long before morning, the shits were gone." The closest thing to that satisfaction since 1997, as New Labour turned into the thing it is, was the march of a million people in London against Mr Blair dragging us into an American war, the war on Iraq. My dream of England came back for a while. There was help for it, too, when the House of Commons showed some spirit. The following piece on Mr Blair was published in a shorter form in The Independent on Sunday a while after.
Mr Blair keeps telling us that he wouldn't be going to war if he didn't think it was moral. He wouldn't be doing it if his Christian conscience wasn't clear. He says he genuinely believes he's right. He's not doing it for ulterior or craven motives. He would be sleeping soundly if he wasn't making all those telephone calls.
Well, I don't love him, but I never thought he was being consciously immoral. Did anybody? We didn't think he was being amoral either. We didn't think he was untouched by moral considerations, even if he does go on about national self-interest every once in a while. But the seeming needlessness and irrelevance of Mr Blair's disclosures about himself are not the main point.
The question about Iraq is whether it is right to attack, invade and take it. Whatever the right thing to do is, it can be done out of good, bad or indifferent personal motives. We all make mistakes. Saints can do the wrong thing and monsters can do the right thing. The officer who ordered the charge of the Light Brigade wasn't a low character. The First World War generals who let men go on dying in bloody latrines were more dim than evil.
Of course being decent as a man or woman and having some moral credit for what you do is connected in various ways with doing the right thing. Somebody who really is human and OK, if they aren't also very dim and very unlucky, can't always be doing the wrong thing. That doesn't make the question of personal moral standing into the main question of what is right. It is not reassuring that Mr Blair seems not always to concentrate his mind on the main question, or runs it together with his sincerity, humility and church-going. Doesn't he want to keep looking at all of the main question?
Also, it's one thing for you to say about me that I'm human and OK, but what about my saying it myself? What I'm saying is that I'm sincere and get credit -- and so I'm likely to be doing what is justified morally. There's a little shiftiness there. There can be men of integrity who are also torturers. Anyway, what I should be doing is explain why I get the credit -- why what I'm doing is right. I should be laying it out and letting somebody else think about my soul.
Something else is unsettling. Mr Blair spent months campaigning for and presumably thinking about war against Iraq. We heard a lot about terrorism, UN resolutions, weapons of mass destruction, and so on. Then, when there were going to be a lot of people marching in London one day, Mr Blair in Glasgow discovered there was a moral case for war -- presumably about it being right. The moral case was about the probable or possible effects on Iraqis themselves of leaving Saddam in power.
That raises a question. What did Mr Blair think he was doing before that day? Not trying to figure out the right thing to do?
Maybe he'll say now he was doing that all along, but didn't think of it in terms of morality. It won't be much of a reply. It will still seem that he has been and is uncertain about what he has been and is involved in. Maybe uncertain of the fact that morality is absolutely inescapable. You can be as amoral or internationally realistic as you want, but it can't save you from moral judgement. It can't even save you from trying to put yourself somehow in the right, if only to yourself.
In any case, Mr Blair should have thought a little more about his moral case -- that we can attack Iraq because if we don't, Saddam will be free to do terrible things to his own people. That is just alarming. There is no parity between our doing something with the absolute dead certainty of killing and maiming thousands, and not doing it with only some probability, some chance, that some people will suffer as an indirect result. Saddam may not have changed, but his world sure has. What Saddam can now do has changed.
New Labour has had a habit of saying that something absolutely certain to hurt, maybe to make the poor poorer, is OK, because New Labour predicts that it will in due course be good for us. So far, it has turned out regularly that it isn't.
That isn't all about Mr Blair as moralist. Does Mr Blair have a grip on the nature of real reasons, including moral reasons? If you give something as a reason for attacking Iraq, what you do is point to a fact. Say the fact that it has gone against UN resolutions. Any such reason, by its very nature, is general. If you run into the same fact somewhere else, or have your nose rubbed in it, say with Israel and UN resolutions, you have the same reason for action there.
If you say you haven't, then things follow as night follows day. Your fact isn't a reason with Iraq either. It can't be. If it was, it would be a reason with Israel.
Of course Mr Blair says that there are differences between the two cases. Indeed there are. There are differences between any two cases whatever. Whether they are relevant or powerful differences is another matter. It is a kind of self-deception to think you can always get out of things -- always make a distinction that serves your purpose or interests. You can't. There's some actual constraining truth at the bottom of morality, about causing and allowing suffering.
Of course Mr Blair says he is really making progress with Mr Bush about Israel. And in fact he can get Mr Bush to utter a few balanced sentences every once in a while. In effect the sentences have been cleared with Zionism in Washington, Americans of dual allegiance who ought to declare an interest every time they go on television. The sentences, on the evidence of decades, will remain sentences.
One more thought about Mr Blair as moralist. If Iraq is attacked, it will not just be about fear of terrorism, let alone a clear and present danger. It will not just be about oil. It will not just be about our having the weapons of mass destruction to ourselves. It will not just be about American imperialism. It will not be just about preserving Israel's violation of Palestine. Nothing, not even the lighting of a match and certainly no war, is the result of a single cause.
To fail to see each of these reasons and to put each of them clearly, and to show how you weigh each of them, but instead to jump from one favoured item to another from week to week, is to fail in your obligation as a leader, maybe to fail culpably. It is to let down democracy. You also do that by not seeing and weighing all the reasons on the other side.
One particular way you can fail in both things, fail morally, is cant.
It is cant to say that the UN is in danger of destroying itself when you yourself are leading whoever you can against its legitimate practice and its authority, in fact acting to weaken or undermine it. It is cant to say that it is Saddam who is responsible for a war about to happen, and you are not, when you are massing armies, condemning every concession as fraud, bribing poor governments to get votes for war, and about to attack.
Cant is no part of moral intelligence. It can turn the stomach. It should. It does.
What is about to start is not a moral war, but in good part an ideological war. That is as important as any other cause of it. It is a war owed to an American realization, produced by the monstrous act of September 11 and then the mixed reaction to it. That was the realization that much of the world really is against or half-against our way of life, and also what we are doing to theirs. They are against the way of life about whose moral basis Mr Blair has not been much troubled. What we are about to do is to defend our ideology, assert our principles and prejudices and societies, by killing people.
Do you say this is philosopher's stuff? A million people marched in London for something like it. A lot of Labour MP's voted against their leader, most of the ones without something to lose. A million people and a few MP's, for the same reason, may be in the streets, not standing shoulder to shoulder with our army, when it starts killing people in Mr Blair's mission of moral confusion.
For other thoughts on Mr Blair, see the Publications List. Also Chapter 7 in particular of Conservatism: Burke, Nozick, Bush, Blair?