Tony Blair and Three Faces

Argus title : Goodbye and good riddance

In a few days, Tony Blair will resign. The long goodbye is drawing to an end, the increasingly desperate scrabble for a “legacy” almost complete.

Blair will retire to a life of affluence, almost certainly devoting himself to a lucrative lecture round in which he will continue to serve US interests. With time on his hands, he will, no doubt, continue to be a thorn in the side of his likely successor. His obstinate refusal to go could not have done more damage to a Brown administration.

Blair leaves our country mired in war on two fronts and committed to renewal of a nuclear weapon system it shouldn’t have, doesn’t need and can’t afford. He leaves a Health Service in chaos which haemorrhages money to the private firms and management consultants that have battened upon it – and an education system in which the common factor is bullying, rather than academic excellence.

The British have a healthy scepticism about their leaders, but many people hoped for great things from Blair. He has disappointed them. By his arrogance and dishonesty he has stripped a nation of trust. He has made people angry, but worse, he has made them cynical.

The danger now is that the electorate, expecting lies and manipulation, may vote in politicians purely on the basis of celebrity and media competence, rather than what they say they believe.

Tony Blair came to power flaunting his Christian credentials, but he is Thatcherite to the core. He has ruthlessly pursued Thatcher’s agenda of privatising the NHS by stealth. Like her he has undermined public services and squeezed local authorities, bludgeoning them into selling off their council housing. Under his leadership, as under hers, the rich have become richer and the poor poorer.

Labour initiatives which have ameliorated exploitation and poverty, such as the minimum wage, have almost always been the achievement of others – developed despite Blair, not because of him.

Blair promised a moral lead, but instead delivered sleaze, cronyism and greed, compensating a despairing nation with deregulated access to alcohol and gambling – and presiding over an exponential increase in illegal drug use.

It is fashionable to say that “at least Blair achieved success in Northern Ireland”, but I query even that. Recall his failure to support Mo Mowlem, when she was Northern Ireland Secretary, and the disastrous decision to bring Peter Mandelson into the job – a move which set back the peace process by years.

Perhaps I too have grown cynical, but it seems to me that Blair ceased prosecuting the war against nationalist community in Northern Ireland, not because of any great desire for justice, but because he was encouraged to do so by the last US administration.

Since the accession of President Bush the “peace process” has progressed on the British side, largely I suspect, because it has freed up British troops to prosecute bloody US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There must be many a squaddie sitting in the dust and mayhem of Iraq who wishes he was back jemmying up floorboards in the houses of West Belfast.

As I contemplate Blair’s “legacy” it is difficult for me to view him other than through the prism of Iraq. Day after day the front pages of our newspapers display photographs of tens of young British soldiers needlessly killed, while on the inside pages we learn of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead.

It’s hard to grasp the extent of such suffering. So despite the fact that Tony Blair must be held accountable for the deaths of thousands, it’s simpler to hold up a mirror to a smaller group.

Of all the images that have pierced my consciousness over the past few weeks, there are 3 which have stood out, one from Iraq and 2 closer to home. They are photographs of an adult and two children, face to camera. None of them knew Tony Blair. Yet they seem to accuse him. All are male – and all are dead.
The first is the sweet, smiling face of 11 year old Ben Vodden from Sussex. He was just one casualty of a culture of bullying which is now endemic in our schools and is slowly corroding every aspect of popular culture.
A recent inquest heard that Ben hanged himself after enduring months of savage bullying at school, much of it on the school bus – some of it allegedly led by the bus driver.
On the day he died his mother said she then heard him sobbing in his bedroom as she had never heard him cry before. He was found hanged by his father with shoelaces wrapped round his neck.
Adam Rickman, aged 14, also throttled himself with his shoelaces. He was a young offender who had gone off the rails after the death of three beloved grandparents, including one who had acted as a father to him. He was the youngest of the 29 children to die in British custody since 1990.
He was found hanged from a curtain pole by staff at the privately-run at Hassockfield Secure training Centre in Co Durham, where he had been remanded in custody. He was sent there, 150 miles from his family and home in Burnley because there were no suitable places available in Lancashire. He was desperately homesick and had repeatedly threatened to kill himself.
He had a history of self-harm and suicide attempts and had been known to Social Services since he was 3 years old.
It is known that just hours before his death Adam was restrained by a custody officer using a so-called “distraction” technique which involved the use of force on his nose. The boy telephoned his solicitor and told her he was being bullied and feared his nose was broken.
Later, when his mother telephoned the Centre she was told her son had been restrained by means of a “tweak” to the nose.
The published photographs of Ben Vodden and Adam Rickwood show them alive and smiling. It is hard to reconcile these happy images with the misery which must have assailed them in their last hours alive.
The mortuary photograph of Baha Mousa, a 26 year old hotel worker, who died when in the custody of Queens Lancashire Regiment, is very different. He died with signs of 93 injuries on his body.
His father described the state of his corpse: “…his body was literally covered in blood and bruises … He had a badly broken nose. There was blood coming from his nose and mouth. The skin on one side of his face had been torn away to reveal the flesh beneath. There were severe patches of bruising over all of his body. The skin on his wrists had been torn off and the skin on his forehead torn away and there was no skin under his eyes either.”
The family lawyer alleged that prior to death he was hooded, bound, held in a stress position and starved for two days.
A medical report by an RAF forensic pathologist stated: “The multiplicity of injuries and their widespread distribution is consistent with a systematic beating taking place over a period… “
Seven soldiers were acquitted in March. Another, a corporal, admitted the war crime of treating a number of Iraqis in his custody inhumanely.
After listening to the evidence, the judge, Mr Justice McKinnon, suggested there had been a cover-up. He said: “None of those soldiers has been charged with any offence, simply because there is no evidence against them as a result of a more or less obvious closing of ranks.” All of the soldiers said they could “not remember” what happened.
The family’s solicitor later said: “The video played in the court martial makes it very clear that unless you were stone deaf, if you were on that base you knew what was going on.” In response, our government acted not to root out the guilty, but to dispute whether the Human Rights Act applies abroad.
What these 3 deaths say about our society is that it has become inhumane and lawless. We do not protect our children as the law requires us to do. We do not protect prisoners and others who are powerless and in captivity. We collude with torture. When it suits us, we condone murder.
Over the years Tony Blair has become ever more presidential in style, glorying in his ability to defy his critics. Therefore, he has to take full responsibility – not just for damage done by warmongering abroad – but also for the corrosion of moral principle which affects every aspect of our domestic life.
Fish rots from the head down.
I’m glad to see Blair go.

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