A lot of people don’t like Tony Blair. He’s used to that, perhaps, given the titanic animus he attracted from many of his own colleagues when British prime minister. But since he began his post-parliamentary career, which has in large part resembled a Madame Tussauds waxwork being wheeled around the world, the venom has just mounted.
He was the “man who turned amorality into an art form”, said one commentator, not untypically. He had “become a George Galloway with a Learjet at his disposal”, said another (and that’s from a former Blair cheerleader, one who really loathes George Galloway). There’s even a global campaign devoted to getting him arrested for his and Britain’s part in the war in Iraq.
And now he’s had a disease named after him, and it sounds nasty. Blair Disease.
Describing “the growing propensity of former heads of government to monetise their service”, Simon Kuper writes in the Financial Times’s FT Magazine, the condition afflicts former leaders who amass great wealth as they become mouthpieces for all sorts of characters, some of them unsavoury.
The exemplar of the form, Blair “has shilled for JPMorgan Chase, Qatar and Kazakhstan’s cuddly regime”. But he’s not alone. “Former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy have terrible Blair Disease too.”
A year before Schröder left the chancellorship, he identified Vladimir Putin as a “flawless democrat”. Soon afterwards, as if by magic, Schröder was hired by the Russian gas company Gazprom. Last month he was chastising German media for their bias against the Sochi Olympics. He himself discerned a “wonderful atmosphere” in Sochi.
Sarkozy leapt nimbly from ruling France to speaking at banking conferences. At a Goldman Sachs do in November he announced, in English, “I am ready to run a business” – and with friends like that it won’t be a start-up in his garage.
While the disease is relatively new among European leaders, it has long infected America’s ruling class, says Kuper. “Most ex-leaders link up with the plutocratic class while still in office,” he writes. “These people have been planning their careers since kindergarten.”
The sight of ex-leaders joining the 0.1%is the perfect election present to populist parties. Blair, a notional leftist, is Britain’s most vivid symbol of elite self-enrichment. Populists couldn’t have made him up …
Blair after Downing Street could have helped Britain. Running a state is the sort of job that you only get your head around by the time you leave it. Shortly before resigning, Blair bowled over some visitors to Downing Street with a brilliant analysis of Putin. That’s what 10 years as PM gives you. If only he’d then become a disinterested voice in British politics. Whenever his ousted predecessor John Major spoke in parliament on his special subject, Northern Ireland, MPs actually listened. In Germany, the word Altkanzler – former chancellor – long denoted a moral institution, a servant of the nation who spoke with unmatched experience. That could have been Schröder.
Kuper is not just in the business of diagnosis, however. He has a remedy, too: “ex-leaders from doing paid work for private interests. This free measure would instantly deflate populism, keep experience inside government and attract a better class of person to the job.”
Still, at least one commentary this week pipes up in Blair’s defence – and from an unlikely quarter, too: Zoe Williams in the Guardian. She argues that the British left is hamstrung by its widespread inability, or refusal, to consider Blair’s achievements beyond the Iraq war and his reductive “war criminal” epithet. I daren’t read the comments beneath, which already number about 1,000. She doesn’t mention Kazakhtan, either.