As I write this, in the quiet, unfussy, English manner, Tony Blair has resigned and Gordon Brown is the new Prime Minister. The lack of pomp, the absence of crowds cheering, the measured way the process has taken place, with its precise choreography, its traditions and rituals—Blair leaving to meet the Queen in a motorcade and, later, going to his constituency in a train—is remarkable. Such smooth transitions are rare.
An election did not precede the outcome—not at the national level,with people voting in a new government, nor within the party. The personal accord, if there was one between Blair and Brown at Granita restaurant in Islington in 1994, was finally being honoured, too late for Brown’s liking.
The absence of an emotional outpouring is unusual; it shows Britain returning to its steadfast, stodgy, John Bull nature. We don’t know if it’s a basic change but, remember, it was Blair who understood, before anyone else, the emotive significance of Princess Diana’s death 10 years ago.
At that moment, when the nation was still absorbing the news from Paris, Blair captured that moment, called Diana the People’s Princess, and unlocked the reserve, letting the stiff upper lip wobble, and the sidewalk near Kensington Gardens, Diana’s home, became an ocean of flowers. At that moment, Blair taught the British that it was OK to cry, all right to show emotions.
This emotionalism had consequences, and there’s nothing worse than the zeal of a convert. While Diana—who hardly led an ordinary life—managed to make people feel she was one of them, in the atomized British society, it became easier for people to express grief over lives lost or tragedies suffered by unknown people. Diana’s death taught people how to cry, Blair told them it was all right to do so. Now, almost every time a child is abducted, you find sportsmen wearing ribbons. In the case of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, two schoolgirls from Soham (a town near Cambridge) who were abducted and murdered by a paedophile, Manchester United (the team the girls supported) ran appeals; and now, in the case of Madeleine McCann, who has been missing for nearly two months since she was abducted at a Portuguese resort where she was vacationing with her parents, author J.K. Rowling is considering adding a bookmark in the final Harry Potter novel, with her photograph. When England got knocked out of the World Cup last year, captain David Beckham cried.
Then there is collective anxiety. While that cannot be blamed on Blair, who clearly identified the tipping point, he permitted people to step out of their castle-like homes and share the public space. Personal became public, and the public became personal. Rule Britannia became Cool Britannia; ironically, the day Blair left, the Spice Girls, who were icons of the Blair era (and then split) said they were reuniting to stage a world tour. One of the Spice Girls, Victoria, is of course, Mrs. Beckham—the circle is complete.
Emotionalism has also led to ridiculous disclosures: Arthur Batchelor, one of the sailors Iran abducted during a stand-off in April, won no honours for his pathetic display. He was one of two sailors who managed to sell their stories to the media, an appalling mistake by the Navy’s media handlers. He claimed he cried and felt tortured because his Iranian captors said he looked like Mr Bean. Was this the Navy that defeated the Spanish Armada, which engineered the miracle at Dunkirk, whose ships sailed on all seas, and that ran an empire?
Blair did not create any of this. He capitalized on it. The disconnect in his governance, then, was precisely this: he made some bold foreign policy decisions, sending British troops to defend the defenceless in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina and, later, trusted his instincts and good intention of helping Iraqis get rid of tyrants and sent troops to Basra. The nation he led, meanwhile, had ceased being Churchill’s nation; it was Diana’s nation now. Which is why over a million people marched in February 2003, trying to convince him that the war in Iraq was a bad idea.
Almost any British prime minister would have joined the US forces in Iraq. Blair could have only influenced the decision on the margins. As Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat peer who had a successful stint as the high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, told some of us, the idea of getting rid of Saddam Hussein was a good one. The execution of the policy was shockingly poor. It is Blair’s tragedy that he will be remembered for that failure.
It is an apparent failure—as Chou En Lai said of the French Revolution, it is too soon to tell if it was successful—because the real irony is that he wanted to be Churchill abroad and Diana at home. While England was emotional about Diana, it seemed to have lost the will to fight on the beaches, if necessary (the naysayers had a point; the beaches weren’t in Brighton, but near oilfields in West Asia). But as those two worlds drifted apart, he had little choice but to step aside. And that’s why it is ironical that when he did, there was neither celebration nor tears. The reserve reappeared, and the outburst proved as short as Diana’s life.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org