The English attitude to Tony Blair’s stratospheric rise to virtual world leadership is one of skeptical admiration. Naturally, the Brits are proud of the way their prime minister has effortlessly assumed verbal if not military command of a dangerous situation, but there is also a sense that he may be overreaching. During his speech to the Labor Party Conference on October 2 (“Surrender the terrorists or surrender power”), Blair not only made the case for a war in Afghanistan, he also appeared to suggest that it was in the West’s power to right climate change, rid Africa of dictatorships, settle the Palestine problem, create a just global economy and generally turn the world into one nice big happy place in which Muslims would quote the Talmud and Jews would reply with a lovely little anecdote from the Koran.
Although the British press generally applauded the speech (“Blair’s finest hour,” the Daily Telegraph called it), certain sectors seemed alarmed by the near-cosmic scope of its ambitions. “The poor man has let the war against terrorism go to his head,” tut-tutted The Economist. “The speech gave me the impression that he is going very slightly mad,” sniffed Peter Oborne in the conservative Spectator. “Missionary Tony will cleanse the planet of disease, poverty and conflict,” Andrew Rawnsley summed up acidly in the liberal Observer. “The sun will never set on a Holy British Empire. The tough and tender Third Way will rule from Kinshasa to Kabul.”
Well, that’s the Brits for you. They once ruled a land where the cow is holy; now they live in a country where the cow is mad. They once had the great British Navy; they no longer have even the terrible British Rail. Their film industry is the glory of Santa Monica, their school system looks like Hollywood High, and their National Health Service is like a gigantic Roach Motel with a waiting list. All this may annoy them, but they’re also used to it. They’ve come to think of themselves as amateurs, and the essence of amateurism is not taking oneself too seriously. Combine postcolonial pride with the traditional fear of rising “above one’s station,” and the prevailing English sentiment might be expressed as follows: We love the way Blair has captured the world stage, because that’s where he and we belong. But we’re not going to let him get away with it. Who does he think he is? No wonder the Groucho Club has been such a hit in London.
Listening to Blair speak at the Labor Party Conference, the inescapable impression was of a man yearning to take up (in Kipling’s phrase) “the white man’s burden.” In properly modified form, of course: Call it “the multicultural man’s burden.” (Multiculturalism being, in essence, what Osama bin Laden is fighting against.) Unluckily for the prime minister, it’s no longer Britain’s job to impose Western rule on non-democratic parts of the globe, if indeed it’s anyone’s. The English don’t have an empire anymore, and most of them prefer it that way. They don’t mind if Blair wants to take care of Africa, but they’d like him to sort out the National Health Service first. Blair may have a taste “for war’s clarity of purpose,” Polly Toynbee chided in the Guardian, but he “cannot afford to forget his home battlefield in the dirty wards and waiting lists of no-star district general hospitals as winter crises and recession beckon.”
Poor Blair. He wants to remake the world, but the press wants him to empty bedpans.
Cynical or not, there’s a considerable dose of pragmatism in the British view of their prime minister. He bestrides the world like a colossus, but takes his orders from the U.S. State Department. Meanwhile, on the home front, he has not only consigned the Conservative Party to history’s scrapheap, but threatens to make his own party irrelevant as well. Although only 59 percent of the country bothered to vote in this year’s June election, Blair’s grip on power is virtually unopposed, and it is making his fellow baby-kissers nervous. “The spectacle of Blair the war leader raises hackles across the spectrum,” reported Anne McElvoy in The Spectator. “I asked a shadow Cabinet member — usually a loyal Blairite — what he thought of the speech. He made a swift vomiting gesture and muttered, ‘Very gung-ho.’ Gung-ho is the phrase that has become code in and around Labour for ‘self-aggrandising warmonger.’”
But what looks like vainglorious saber rattling to a Brit looks like sweet reasoning to many Americans, who value Blair’s ability to think on his feet and frame Western policy in morally uplifting terms. He’s Gore with blood coursing through his veins, he’s Clinton without the sleaze — but without the power, too. And there’s the rub. It’s not that Blair has become too big for his boots; it’s that he’s become too big for Britain, as have so many of its luminaries, half of whom seem to live in New York. We know an expat when we see one, and Blair is an expat chained to his own country. As the New York Observer put it, he’s “an American with a British accent.” Itching to run a great power, he’s stuck with a middling one while living out a fantasy life as president of CNN and ambassador to Al-Jazeera.
Oh well. That’s life when you’re prime minister in the 21st century. You can fly to the Middle East in a fraction of the time it took your forebears to sail there, but you can’t actually rule it. Colonialism is over. Back to the bedpans.