Ben Lowry: Tony Blair was a flawed prime minister but of course he should be addressed as Sir

The furious reaction to Tony Blair getting a knighthood reflects a worrying — and often illogical — public contempt for politicians.

By Ben Lowry
Saturday, 8th January 2022, 10:13 am
Updated Saturday, 8th January 2022, 12:10 pm
Tony Blair had into adulthood wanted to be a rock star, then he finally got his celebrity moment when hailed by President George W Bush
Tony Blair had into adulthood wanted to be a rock star, then he finally got his celebrity moment when hailed by President George W Bush

Whether or not you like the former prime minister ought to be beside the point.

Personally, I am no fan of the ex Labour leader. I do not trust people who are all-things-to-all-men, least of all people who seek high elected office on that basis.

There were early warning signs of problems with Mr Blair, not least the way that he projected himself as almost archetypal Tory English, but also in a way Scottish, and then — when he addressed the Dail and talked of Ireland being in his blood — as Irish too.

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I also deeply disliked that ridiculous image of him entering Downing Street with a guitar.

This, let us remember, is a man who wanted to be a rock star when he was younger. Not at age 14 or 16, but he actually still harboured such ambitions after he left Oxford University.

I have a theory that Blair’s undoing is rooted in that specific vanity — the desire to be a rock celebrity.

Because he achieved a variation on it in September 11 2001, days after the terrorist attacks in America.

The then President George W Bush was addressing both houses of Congress in the US, in the fevered aftermath of the atrocities. Tony Blair, who had been the first foreign leader to speak to Mr Bush after the attacks, had flown out to America and was a special guest for the speech.

The president turned at one point to the UK prime minister and said that the US needed allies like him.

“Thank you, friend,” Mr Bush said.

The cameras zoomed in on Mr Blair, who seemed to be suppressing his delight as the parliamentary leaders of America gave him a standing ovation.

At that moment, one of the biggest television audiences in America, at a time of national crisis, was cheering the MP for Sedgefield.

Think about that.

No rock star has ever had a moment like it.

Not even the Beatles, who tended to appeal to younger generations, have attracted the adoration of almost an entire superpower.

And it was almost as if Mr Blair, having had the stardom that he had long sought, resolved internally never to put in jeopardy that mass affection.

The rest, including his downfall, is history. As it happens I thought he was largely right about that thug Saddam Hussein, even if he was disastrously wrong in the specifics of weapons of mass destruction.

I also did not like Blair’s approach to Northern Ireland. While he held firm on important unionist principles in the run-up the Belfast Agreement of 1998, he then initiated an approach to NI politics of appeasement of republicans that has persisted to the present day.

But of course he should get a knighthood!

Indeed Mr Blair should have been offered it the day he left office.

If we are going to be a society that has an honours systems, and if that honours system is going to have a culture known as ‘gong by rank’ (ie automatic honours for people who have held particular positions in society), then plainly the head of government should be at the very top of the list.

By the way I recall reading many years ago that ‘gong by rank’ would be phased out, and that awards would be based on achievement, not on position. But as far as I can see high court judges still get them automatically.

A high court judicial position is one of immense importance and prestige, and such office holders should be worthy of the job and, if so, deserving of great respect.

But being prime minister is much more important still.

It is for that reason that most people can remember and name every prime minister of their lifetime (or at least every PM from when they become aware of current affairs as an older child).

Thus even the most short-tenured prime ministers such as Alec Douglas-Home in the 1960s are remembered more than 50 years later in a way that few other public figures are known.

Don’t be fooled by Boris Johnson. For most incumbents, being PM is no fun thing.

Indeed perhaps a majority of inhabitants of Downing St in recent decades have emerged as damaged human beings, in some cases almost broken (Blair among them — also Edward Heath, Gordon Brown, Theresa May and to an extent even Margaret Thatcher).

How absurd that we honour pop stars with knighthoods and people who have achieved great but brief success in, say, athletics but not someone who has been premier of the United Kingdom.

What a reflection on our loathing of those who do the vital job of politics.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter editor

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