LIKE the packing away of Christmas decorations the publication of the New Year honours list has become a seasonal regular. Just another marker of time’s passing, an accepted routine.
Even those of us who think the system is ridiculous, outdated, and, at its worst, open to corruption, are content enough to keep the outrage at a low peep. In 2022 there is more to be upset about than the award of gongs to minor celebrities and time-serving civil servants, and some recipients genuinely deserve the nod of recognition.
This year was different. The announcement that Tony Blair had been made Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, one of the highest honours available and one in the gift of the Queen, landed like a physical blow.
As the newsreader on the radio tried out the phrase “Sir Tony” for size the effect was visceral. The head could just about accept that the award of such honours to former Prime Ministers was nothing special – yet more routine – but the heart said “no”. As for the stomach, it turned. Sir Tony? Not in this house.
Days on from the announcement and a petition calling for the honour to be revoked has received more than 700,000 signatures. From Lloyd George to Wilson, honours have caused uproar before. New Labour had its own scandal to deal with while in office, though no-one was ever charged. Why, then, should this announcement have upset so many people to such a degree?
There are the obvious reasons,and the not so self-evident ones. The latter show how feelings about politics and politicians have changed in the UK, and are developing still, but the former will always loom largest.
Among those objecting to the honour are the families of British military personnel who died in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some of the mothers have written directly to the Queen, accusing the former Prime Minister of going to war “on a bed of lies”, resulting in deaths that could have been avoided – 179 in Iraq, 457 in Afghanistan. To that tally should be added at least 200,000 civilians.
Rose Gentle, whose Glaswegian son Gordon, 19, was killed by a roadside bomb in Basra, called the knighthood a slap in the face for bereaved families. “What did our sons’ lives mean?” she asked. “You always think we can’t be hurt anymore and that we are at the end, and then something like this happens and we just can’t move on.” She wants the former Premier to think again and refuse the honour.
The Iraq war was not just another conflict that Mr Blair led his country into. The reasons for his doing so, and the manner in which it was done, remain hugely controversial to this day. Those who put forward the honour recommendation are clearly aware of the sensitivities, hence the delay.
What of that delay? Who decided, and why, that it was acceptable to do so 14 years after he left office? All this, too, just months after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer had reopened so many old wounds. While there would never have been a good time to honour Mr Blair in this way, to do so in 2021 of all years demonstrated appalling judgment.
He has never shown any clear contrition for his actions in Iraq, despite the Chilcot report finding that he and his government had rushed into war, misjudged and misrepresented the threat from Saddam Hussein, and failed to prepare for what came after. Fundamentally, Mr Blair still believes to this day that he was right. He will see this honour as confirmation of that idea. What a grotesque twisting of reality that would be.
Post Chilcot, another politician might have considered a quiet retirement from public life. Yet Mr Blair never had any intention of slipping into obscurity. His thoughts turned to his legacy before he left Downing Street. Hence the creation of the pompously titled Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, an establishment that always reminds me of an episode of Succession, the one where Logan Roy’s brother notes the opening of a school of journalism in the media mogul’s name. “What’s next,” he asks, “the Jack the Ripper Women’s Health Clinic?”
With increasing boldness, Mr Blair has inched his way into the spotlight again, most recently on Covid. Was it this that persuaded the honours committee that his time in political exile could safely be deemed over? If so, it was another mistake. Every sight of him today is a reminder of what happened in the past.
Who cares if he was holding up the queue of subsequent premiers waiting for their honours. The committee could have passed him by. Excluding him would hardly have upset anyone outside of himself and his immediate circle.
As for the party’s current leader (another Sir) wholeheartedly defending the honour, that was a blunder. Keir Starmer’s attempts to bring Mr Blair back into the fold have gone too far, too fast as it is.
There is, finally, another compelling reason why Mr Blair should not have been given this honour. He has spent the time since he left office making a lot of money, much of it in property and consultancy. He has not been alone in doing so: see Dave Cameron Enterprises for more information.
In time, Mr Blair had everything millions could buy. But he did not have a knighthood. He was not Sir Tony. Denying him that honour mattered to him and to us, the public. It was a reminder that there was a line in British politics and he had crossed it.
The last two years have brought home to people what fundamentally matters in life and what they want from governments. It might be thought we ask too much of politicians but we don’t really. In times of greatest peril we expect them to put the interests of the public first, to put vanity aside, act in good faith and by the rules.
If a mistake is made, as will inevitably happen, responsibility should be taken and contrition shown. Some wrongs can never be made right, but they can be acknowledged and, at the very least, the situation not made worse.
The award of a knighthood to Mr Blair fails all these basic tests. Whatever he tells his reflection in the mirror, declining the knighthood would be the most honourable action he could take.