My first response to finding out that Tony Blair had been inducted into the Most Noble Order of the Garter was to wonder out loud what on earth that even was. A quick Google search followed and I was navigated to the official website of the British Royal Family where I learnt to my amusement that “King Edward III was so inspired by tales of King Arthur…that he set up his own group of honourable knights.”
Suddenly, it all made sense. An obscure and aged tradition full of pomp and pageantry that is practically defined by its remoteness to ordinary life. Was ever a club more suited to Sir Anthony Charles Lynton Blair—who has made his career, post-Parliament, by sneering at us common folk for not knowing our own interests? He might perhaps have preferred becoming an Old Testament prophet, which would have been much more in keeping with his messianic brand of politics—except that most of them tended to be indifferent about money, and all of them ended up being proven right.
Not so Sir Anthony, whose legacy is even more toxic now than the day he left office. As I write these words, more than a million people have signed a petition for his knighthood to be revoked—a remarkable number given that the honor was only announced on New Year’s Eve. Much of this has to do with the findings of the Chilcot Inquiry—the official investigation into Britain’s role in Iraq—which concluded that the case for going to war had been deliberately exaggerated and that Sir Anthony had given a commitment to follow President George W. Bush long before the UN weapons inspectors had completed their work in Iraq. “I will be with you, whatever,” Blair wrote Bush in July 2002—and followed through on this promise by presenting the intelligence on WMD “with a certainty that was not justified,” according to Chilcot.
We all know what happened next. Hundreds of thousands of people died, most of them civilians; a power vacuum was created in Iraq and the Middle East that was filled by a Who’s Who of international terrorism; and Islam was once more turned into the Other—which, coupled with the refugee crisis that spilled over into Europe, led to an increase in xenophobia and support for the far right.
Indeed, so awful have been the consequences of the Iraq invasion that it is now nearly impossible to find anyone to defend it. Anyone, that is, except for Sir Anthony—who remains adamant that the world is a better place without Saddam. Sadly for our former prime minister, it is an argument that he has now been left to make in isolation, for even his most ardent supporters—he still has a few—would rather that his legacy weren’t defined by Iraq. “Look at all the good things he did in office,” they say, while pointing to peace in Northern Ireland and the national minimum wage.
But even here—these achievements notwithstanding—Sir Anthony’s record in government is checkered at best. As prime minister, he was avowedly on the side of capital. Most of the things that made Britain great fell under the scalpel of his modernizing ways. On the National Health Service—Britain’s greatest postwar achievement—it was Sir Anthony who accelerated the Private Finance Initiative and saddled British health care with hundreds of billions in debt. It was Sir Anthony’s Labour government that introduced tuition fees for higher education, despite promising not to ahead of the 1997 General Election. Even the BBC—once affectionately called “Auntie” by the British public—was unable to escape the ruthlessness of the New Labour government. Since the publication of the controversial Hutton inquiry in 2004, which blasted the BBC for running a piece alleging that the government exaggerated the case for invading Iraq, the national broadcaster has never recovered its ability to scrutinize the executive.
Ultimately, however, Iraq is the stain that won’t wash out of Blair’s legacy. There have been prime ministers in the past, most recently Margaret Thatcher, who have been honored in spite of their divisive politics. What makes Sir Anthony’s case unique is that he took the country into an illegal war on the basis of his personal beliefs rather than the evidence that was presented to him.
In the foreword to the dossier assessing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Blair wrote, “I believe the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons, that he continues in his efforts to develop nuclear weapons, and that he has been able to extend the range of his ballistic missile programme.” On the contrary, as the Iraq inquiry notes, the assessed intelligence had not proven any of these claims—and therein lies the reason Blair has become a pariah. The British people do not believe, as Chilcot did not, that Tony Blair “was straight” with them on the issue of Iraq. That is perhaps why in a recent poll conducted by YouGov only 14 percent of respondents said they supported Blair’s knighthood.
For, ceremonial though it may be, it is, in the end, a title that confers a certain amount of privilege, an honor that compels the rest of us to refer to him as “Sir,” with all the elevation that such an address implies. And, most important of all as far as the man himself is concerned, it gives a sense that time has rehabilitated his reputation—when in fact all it has done is unmask his duplicity.
So in the end perhaps the best argument for why Blair should be knighted is the one that seems at first glance to be the most perverse. It is said that for ex–prime ministers still living, induction into the order is par for the course, that every former prime minister save one—Harold MacMillan refused—has been granted this honor by the sovereign of the day, and that to pass over Blair would be to break away from tradition in a way that would be perceived as overtly political.
If that’s the system, then I am willing to accept it—provided someone tells me what we can do to dismantle it.