Tony Blair went at the moment of his choosing

May 10, 2007

200px-tony_blair_with_romano_prodi_at_g8%2c_cropped_to_blair.jpgTony Blair went at the moment of his choosing. But eventually, the moment was largely determined by a narrow window of opportunity. This was the week where his contributions to peace in Northern Ireland eclipsed his contributions to the conflict in Iraq. It also was the week of his tenth anniversary as Prime Minister.

The Times makes its sentiments clear. Its article reads like a long-prepared, mischievous (but fascinating) obituary.

Remember when ASBOs were first proposed by a fresh-faced Tony Blair in 1995? Or when Sharon Storer publicly ambushed Blair in 2001? And who could forget the G8 Summit in St Petersberg in 2007, when a live microphone picked up President Bush greeting the Prime Minister with the words: “Yo Blair”?

Equally unbalanced in the opposite direction was the glossy PM Pics on the Official Downing Street website

This gave the clue to the planning behind this week’s announcement: Ten years at number ten, May 2nd 1997- 2007.

Taking both views together, we quickly recapture some of the highlights and lowlights of his leadership.

Maggie’s influence on Blair

By 2005, Tony Blair was being compared with Margaret Thatcher for his Presidential style of leadership. There were also prescient suggestions that he might also have further parallels in the nature of his departure. Political Journalist John Sergeant was one such commentator. His insightful remarks, almost as an aside, can be found in his biographic description of his own encounters with Margaret Thatcher.

But if Maggie could claim political gain from her military adventure in The Falklands, Blair’s legacy increasingly is seen as the architect of the Iraq war, and (most cruelly) as Bush’s poodle.

‘Blair has been widely criticized from within his own party for championing the policy on Iraq of U.S. President George W. Bush. There is a general perception in the UK that Blair repeatedly misled the UK parliament and public in echoing the U.S. claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that invading and occupying Iraq was legal. As a result, some Members of Parliament have formed a group to call for impeachment hearings. Further pressure was put on Blair in September 2004, during the UK Labour Party conference, when the London Evening Standard newspaper published details of a leaked Pentagon briefing paper, Operation Iraqi Freedom: Strategic Lessons Learned. The document reveals that in October 2002, the Pentagon finalized its Full Operational Battle Plan 1003V for the Iraq war, at a time when Blair was insisting that no decisions had been made about whether to go to war.

Independent political editor Andrew Grice pinpointed the moment Tony Blair lost his authority as November 9th 2005, 4:56 pm.

Mr Blair’s first Commons defeat since coming to power in 1997 was heavier than expected and provoked speculation at Westminster about how long he could remain Prime Minister. [His] personal authority was badly dented … when he suffered a humiliating defeat over his plan to allow the police to detain suspected terrorists for up to 90 days without charge. [The defeat] was heavier than expected and provoked speculation at Westminster about how long he could remain Prime Minister.

Leadership choice and The Tarrasch principle

I have sometimes mused on Chess as a powerful metaphor for strategic decision-making. Specifically, The Tarrasch Principle, advices chess players to take action ‘because you want, or because you must, and not just because you can’. Tony Blair, like so many leaders, wanted to preserve his options on that biggest decision of all, the moment of his going. As hard as he tried to secure wriggle room, he found himself being pinned down. Eventually the next best thing to clinging on, was to go ‘before things got worse’. It was a symbolically convincing moment. He went not because he wanted to, nor because he was able, but because he had to, lest there would be no better time in the future.


The Leaders we Deserve: Is John Reid really so incompetent?

January 28, 2007

The Home Secretary Dr John Reid has replaced Tony Blair as the prime target for negative political stories of someone who is egregiously bungling his duties. Is John Reid really so incompetent? Are we fortunate to be part of a democracy in which there can be such robust criticism of our leaders? Or are we seeing the emergence of a culture in which apparent increased freedom of expression blanks out access to more thoughtful analysis in a torrent of simplistic rhetoric?

In an earlier post it was suggested that John Reid’s political honeymoon had come to an end. Reflecting further has helped me become more aware of the mostly simplistic treatment within the flood of stories about John Reid and his personal competence.

This weekend, The Sun offered a cartoon-like representation of John Reid as the head of a Frankensteinian monster, which has a space where a brain should be. This follows an earlier representation in the same newspaper of an unpopular England football manager with a turnip for a head. No prizes for guessing what image was provided in more recent times, when the team had a Swedish manager.

The Sun’s campaigns can, arguably, be seen as in the spirit of the grotesque and hugely popular cartoons in the tradition of Gilray , or the social commentary of Hogarth

It’s the Sun wot does it, innit?

The Sun has its own justification for the content and style of the paper. Unlike politicians, it can claim to win the popular vote every morning of the week. Sir Terry Leahy of Tesco made much the same point recently when asked whether there would be a Tesco party for voters at the next election.

A case can be made that The Sun may influence the voting intentions of a considerable number of people at the general election, and that Rupert Murdock may have a further influence on the words and deeds of politicians. But should we buy their claim made after one election that it was ‘The Sun wot did it’ ?

The contrary view is that the overall effect of The Sun’s political messages on voters is rather weak. Possibly, although political leaders such as Tony Blair at very least will put some effort into wooing the Sun lest its opposition will cost them valuable votes at election time. I am inclined to believe that the popular press, including its largest circulation daily paper, has some political impact (perhaps not as much as they might wish or claim).

It’s the heavies wot don’t do it: tabloidification

Less obviously, the impact of the so-called free press (The popular press in Liberal Democracies) is in sustaining a cultural norm accepting the rhetoric of the banner headline and the cartoon images. We may reach differing conclusions over whether the popular press influences political opinions. It seems clear to me that there is little doubt over the way in which the daily diet reinforces cultural behaviours. There are reasoned arguments to be found – publications such as The Economist maintain an admirable level of analysis on a range of business and political issues. In general, however, what used to be called the heavies, or the broadsheets, (or even The Quality papers) have become closer in format (and arguably even in style and content) to what used to be called the tabloids. Tabloidification has won the day.

The Case against Charles Clarke

The Home Secretary took on the job after his predecessor, Charles Clarke, was encouraged to resign by Tony Blair. A succession of damaging stories had emerged about failures in the Home Office. The leader took the rap.

The strongest ‘quality’ case against Charles Clark might be expected to be found in a paper such as the staunchly conservative Daily Telegraph. Shortly before his resignation the paper identified ‘three strong reasons why he should go’. These were mismanagement of his department; failure to address the problem when it came to light; and refusal to accept responsibility for the problem.

The problem turns out to be that the Home Secretary has failed in his primary function of ‘maintaining public order by effective management of the systems under his control. Mr Clarke has allowed some hundreds of foreign nationals, sentenced to prison in this country, to go free without even a formal consideration of whether they should be deported’.

This all sounds reasonable at first reading, and suggests that there was a case to answer. Further reading leaves me unconvinced. I am reaching a conclusion that we have here an illustration of The Nimzowitch effect.

This, simply put, is a state of general anxiety about what might happen, so that the threat appears more important than its execution. (See the earlier post on chess cheating for more on the Nimzowitch effect).

The Case Against John Reid

John Reid bought himself a honeymoon period by announcing energetic measures to put things right, and was equally energetic in indicating what a shambles he had inherited which would require quite a lot of fixing.

The combination worked for a while, but another series of stories (‘scandals’) emerged from the Home Office. The specific details now blur in the memory, but were often concerned with poor record-keeping, and the potential implications of such bureaucratic failings – ‘disappearances’ of various kinds.

The BBC has followed the stories diligently. Individually they are in varying degrees illustrative of our old friend The Nimzsowich effect. From just this week, for example, the time-line of crises includes

27 January…The News of the World claims 322 convicted sex offenders are missing across the UK
26 January….Home Secretary John Reid denies telling judges to give softer sentences to ease prison overcrowding
26 January….England and Wales Youth Justice Board head Rod Morgan quits over youth prisons’ overcrowding
25 January….Risk of being a victim of crime in England and Wales rises for the first time since 1995, figures suggest
14 January Senior civil servant suspended over failure to update police records of Britons convicted abroad

I leave others to decide the evidence of actual rather than threatened harm to the public.

So is John Reid really incompetent?

We are sometimes reminded that you may be paranoid, but you could still be persecuted. I believe that the various stories will have within them evidence that there continue to be problems that need fixing at The Home Office. But on balance, I see the evidence as demonstrating powerlessness of a political leader grappling with ‘events’. Powerless yes. Incompetent? I remain open to a reasoned argument. The view would be the stronger if it offered specific actions that could have improved things. Until then I will hold to the view arguments (stripped of political purposes) are based on a peculiar belief that a leader ‘ought to be able’ to fix everything going wrong in connection with his organization or department. It is the belief that grants the charismatic leader the high road to power, and the low road to eventual defeat.


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