historian, one of the editors of the New Left Review as well as the author of many books, including Rough Music: Blair, Bombs, Baghdad, London, Terror.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair has announced his plans to resign next month after more than a decade in power. British author Tariq Ali talks about Blair’s legacy, his fatal decision to follow the Bush administration into Iraq, and his likely successor, Finance Minister Gordon Brown. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re going to move now to England, where British Prime Minister Tony Blair has announced he plans to resign next month after more than a decade in power.
PRIME MINISTER TONY BLAIR: Today, I announce my decision to stand down from the leadership of the Labour Party. The party will now select a new leader. On the 27th of June, I will tender my resignation from the office of prime minister to the queen.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Blair made the announcement on Thursday in a speech to Labour Party members in his Sedgefield constituency. He will stay on in Downing Street until the Labour Party elects a new leader, widely expected to be Finance Minister Gordon Brown. In his address, Blair defended his decision to send British troops to war in Iraq.
PRIME MINISTER TONY BLAIR: But I ask you to accept one thing: Hand on heart, I did what I thought was right.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Blair, President Bush’s closest ally, invoked 9/11 to defend his staunch backing of U.S. foreign policy.
PRIME MINISTER TONY BLAIR: And then came the utterly unanticipated and dramatic September the 11th, 2001, and the death of 3,000 or more on the streets of New York, and I decided we should stand shoulder to shoulder with our oldest ally, and I did so out of belief. And so, Afghanistan and then Iraq, the latter bitterly controversial. And removing Saddam and his sons from power, as with removing the Taliban, was over with relative ease. But the blowback since from global terrorism and those elements that support it has been fierce and unrelenting and costly. And for many, it simply isn’t and can’t be worth it. For me, I think we must see it through. They, the terrorists who threaten us here and around the world, will never give up, if we give up. It is a test of will and of belief, and we can’t fail it.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Back in Washington, President Bush paid tribute to Tony Blair at a Pentagon news conference.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: First of all, I’ll miss Tony Blair. He is a — he is a political figure who is capable of thinking over the horizon. He’s a long-term thinker. I have found him to be a man who has kept his word, which sometimes is rare in the political circles I run in. When Tony Blair tells you something, as we say in Texas, you can take it to the bank. We’ve got a relationship, such that we can have really good discussions. And so, I’m going to miss him. He’s a remarkable person, and I consider him a good friend.
AMY GOODMAN: We return now to London to Tariq Ali, historian and one of the editors of the New Left Review, as well as author of many books, including Rough Music: Blair, Bombs, Baghdad, London, Terror. He joins us from a London studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Tariq.
TARIQ ALI: Hi, Amy. Good to be with you again.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Talk about Blair resigning.
TARIQ ALI: Well, it was classic New Labour spin, well orchestrated, designed for the global media networks, a self-serving speech, a carefully hand-picked audience so that there would be no trouble at all, and, actually, for him, a very bad speech. I mean, and I’ve always regarded Blair as a second-rate politician with a third-rate mind, but he’s had better speech writers than this, and I wondered whether he had written it himself. I mean, it’s sort of full of contradictions and half-truths. I mean, if he was going to see the so-called war against terror through, why quit?
We had no real accounting of why he’s leaving as prime minister. And the fact is, he’s leaving is because he’s hated. And the reason he’s hated is because he joined the neocons in Washington and went to war against Iraq, which now 78 percent of the population in this country oppose. And when people are being asked what will Blair’s legacy be, a large majority is saying Iraq. And I think that’s what he will be remembered for, as a prime minister who took a reluctant and skeptical country into a war designed by Washington and its neoconservative strategists, all of whom are in crisis.
And you listen to Blair now and his successor, Brown, and they sound much worse than any Democrat in the Senate or the House, because they realize the war’s unpopular. These guys carry on living in a tiny bubble, media bubble, which they construct. And I think the BBC’s sycophancy, the way in which they portrayed him yesterday as if he was a sort of dead Princess Diana, doesn’t do them proud. It was a low point in BBC journalism, with one of their political correspondents saying, "Gosh, look at him. Isn’t he a winner?" Well, he isn’t a winner, which is why he’s leaving. And a reluctant party is saying farewell to him, because they think they’ll lose the next election if he’s in charge. That’s what’s going on.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Tariq, he did try in his speech to point to the continued prosperity, economic prosperity, of the British under his tenure. Your response to that?
TARIQ ALI: Well, I mean, you know, it is prosperous for some people and some regions of the country. But if you look, for instance, at various regions in the north and northeast, you have a tiny proportion of the population which is relatively well off, and you have people who are not so well off, people who are dependent on social welfare, which is constantly under attack. You have a two-tier health system now, which you never used to, where if you have money, you can go in a hospital and get treatment any minute, but if you don’t, you have to stand in queues. You have lots of hospitals who he sold to private finance initiatives, which are now saying they can’t fund their hospitals anymore. The failures, the domestic failures, are not being talked about.
And you have large-scale corruption. I mean, recently a mega-scandal with a British arms company, which had paid massive bribes to leading Saudis, including probably members of the royal family. This came up. Blair put a stop to it. His attorney general, not unlike Gonzales, said we can’t sue, because the country’s future interests are at stake, so corruption is fine. It’s a total mess. Something is rotten in this kingdom. And a very sycophantic media rarely talks about it. It’s left to small indie media outlets or satirical magazines like Private Eye, basically, to carry on regular reporting of what is going on.
I don’t think his legacy is anything new. He tried to carry on what Margaret Thatcher did, and the results have not been too dissimilar. He’s had a bloodier reign than Thatcher. He has taken Britain into more wars and actually antagonized, as I point out in a number of recent articles, large swathes of the British establishment, who feel very ashamed that they are being led by a leader who is so totally and completely and a sort of favored attack dog in the imperial kennel.
AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Ali, President Bush in Washington, D.C., said he’ll miss Tony Blair and that he’s ready to work with his presumed successor, Gordon Brown, confident that he, quote, "understands the consequences of failure in Iraq." Talk about that statement and also who Gordon Brown is.
TARIQ ALI: Well, I think Bush is right. He will miss Blair. I mean, you can’t have a more loyal politician in Europe than Blair. I mean, he’s done virtually everything the United States has asked for, and not just after 9/11. Even prior to that, he was extremely pro-Washington in everything. He never raised any questions. So I think Washington will miss him. Mercifully, very few people in this country will.
Now, as to his successor, Gordon Brown, he backed the war in Iraq, as he himself said yesterday, and it was felt it was necessary. He backed the war in Afghanistan, felt that that was completely necessary — and think that they wiped out all the problems with this. But they’re completely wrong. On all the central issues of the day, there is no difference between Blair and Brown. The tone Brown adopts will probably be marginally less aggressive, but in terms of substance, there’s nothing to choose between them.
And this is essentially yet another New Labour trick: OK, we’ve got rid of the big bad warmonger, and we’ve got a decent prime minister again. But this guy is also a warmonger. The difference is he is more intelligent than Blair. If I were to say that Blair is a second-rate politician with a third-rate mind, I’d say Brown is a second-rate politician with a second-rate mind, which makes him a bit better than Blair. But he’s no different, and he is going to carry on in Britain in exactly the same old way. They’ve already lost Scotland, which is a Labour stronghold. They are declining in Wales. And they will lose England at the next election. So essentially they will hand the countries back to the Tories, and that, too, will be no different. So it’s a grim prospect which faces us here.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I wanted to ask you that: In terms of the political prospects for progressive-thinking people within Britain, for the labor movement, for the racial minorities that are increasingly under attack in your country, what are the alternatives that those folks have?
TARIQ ALI: Well, interestingly enough, you know, the Nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales are the only alternatives in those countries which are more progressive than Labour, Conservative or Liberal. I mean, they’re against nuclear weapons in Scotland, against Trident missiles, against the war in Iraq, want more money spent on public services, health, education, etc. So the progressive voices at the moment exist only in Scotland and Wales. In England, which has the bulk of the money and is the largest chunk of the country, there is no real alternative, and that is a big tragedy.
Of course, there is Ken Livingston, the mayor of London, who is probably the only Labour politician respected by sections of the population. He has been very, very strong in defending racial minorities, in attacking Islamophobic trends in British culture, and in staunchly attacking the war in Iraq. He came out very hard against that war when it first started and warned prophetically that it would put the citizens of London at risk. But he, after all, is a mayor of a large city — that’s all. On a national level, the alternatives at the moment are very limited. And I think we will likely — we will carry on in this way 'til New Labour is defeated, as it probably will be in the next elections, which might then open up some possibilities of new forces emerging. But at the moment, it's grim.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, on a different issue, Tariq Ali, as we wrap up, Alan Johnston, who has not been heard from since he was kidnapped in Gaza, was just named Broadcasting Journalist of the Year at the annual London Press Awards. The award was accepted by his father Graham Johnston and the BBC Director-General Mark Thompson. Your comment?
TARIQ ALI: Well, you know, I feel for him, you know, and I feel for all journalists in war zones who try and do their reporting and are kidnapped. But, you know, that happens on the one hand, and on the other hand what we have is, I mean, you know, one can sympathize with Johnston and his family and hope that he is released. But on the other hand, Amy, what is going on in this country is that whistleblowers are being punished. Yesterday, a British civil servant who leaked information regarding a secret memo was sentenced to six months in prison by an incredibly unpleasant judge, who said "You put our country at risk." Put our country at risk? By coming out with the truth? It’s just astonishing.
AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Ali, we’re going to go to break. When we come back, we’ll be joined by another guest in that London studio that you are sitting in to talk about that very issue, about a memo that reportedly says that President Bush asked Prime Minister Tony Blair to bomb the Doha headquarters of Al Jazeera. I want to thank you for being with us. And we’ll be back in the London studio in a minute.