“A Journey” : Tony Blair
Where to Draw the Line
For those of us brought up with traditional values and views of authority, the most memorable moment in recent history must have been the Tabloid headline – “Liar Blair”. This assignation was given to the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, after it became clear that there was no evidence for the 45 minute claim of discharge of weapons of mass destruction from Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, as well as issues of the legality of invading Iraq. This and the digitally enhanced Pinocchio pictures circulating at the time, served to undermine the tradition confidence – though often misplaced – we had in those in national leadership.
It is often proclaimed that the first causality of war is truth – in this case the truth became a casualty even before the war began.
It was with these past events in mind that I was anxious to read Tony Blair’s political memoir, “A Journey”. I wanted to see what he would say about these events, but particularly issues of faith, truth and trust, in relation to Northern Ireland.
The ‘creative ambiguity’, the necessity of which appeared to be accepted by those involved in producing the Belfast Agreement, developed further during the negotiations at St Andrews in 2006.
How these ‘half-truths’ or ‘creative ambiguity’ develops into lies is explained by Carne Ross, who was First Secretary responsible for the Middle East at the United Nations, as he gave his evidence to the Chilcot inquiry. He accused the Labour government of issuing “lies” to the public about the dictator’s capacity to launch weapons of mass destruction. He puts it like this:
“This process of exaggeration was gradual, and proceeded by accretion and editing from document to document, in a way that allowed those participating to convince themselves that they were not engaged in blatant dishonesty,” . . . “But this process led to highly misleading statements about the UK assessment of the Iraqi threat that were, in their totality, lies.”
Blair, of course, does not confess to telling lies. As I read it he actually tries to justify it. He says in reference to the negotiations at St Andrews:
“I took horrendous chances in what I was telling each the other had agreed to – stretching the truth, I fear, on occasions past breaking point – but I could see the whole thing collapsing because of the wording of an oath of office. Somehow, with creativity pouring out of every orifice, we got through it.” (Page 188)
New Labour appears to have produced a new language when Blair describes trust as being “multilayered”:
By the way, trust, as a political concept, is multilayered. At one level no one trusts politicians, and politicians are obliged from time to time to conceal the full truth, to bend it and even distort it, where the interests of the bigger strategic goal demand it be done. Of course, where the line is drawn is crucial, and is not in any way an exact science. (Page 186)
This whole scenario can be best understood within the overall context of the New Labour approach. The abolition of academic selection and the bringing in of comprehensive non-selective schooling was a Labour mantra. Yet Harriet Harman, having previously sent her children to schools outside her catchment area, contrary to ‘Labour doctrine’, went on in 1996 to send one of her children to a Grammar school. This was clearly a case of ‘do what I say not as I do’. Given this background it is little wonder that, ten years later, lies became acceptable as hypocrisy became a way of life.
Blair’s use and understanding of the word ‘truth’ is a million miles away from how the New Testament uses it. The New Testament word αληθεια (truth) communicates the idea of certainty, reliability, real state of affairs, truth of statement, true teaching and genuineness It is, in effect, ‘the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth’.
The acknowledgement of “stretching the truth, I fear, on occasions past breaking point, and to conceal the full truth, to bend it and even distort it, is surely a classic example of the danger of embracing the philosophy that “the end justifies the means”, without qualification.
Ian Paisley was already on record, much to the chagrin of some of his own constituency, of regarding Tony Blair as ‘a man of faith’, at a time when it was well known that he was going to convert to the Roman Catholic Church.
Blair reciprocates by describing his relationship with Ian Paisley in the following terms:
“It’s true: we were both fascinated by religious faith as well as being people of faith. He gave me a little prayer book for Leo.” (Page 195)
In an amazing revelation Blair goes on to say that Paisley sought spiritual council from him:
“Once, near the end, he asked me whether I thought God wanted him to make the deal that would seal the peace process. I wanted to say yes, but I hesitated; though I was sure God would want peace, God is not a negotiator. I felt it would be wrong, manipulative, to say yes, and so I said I couldn’t answer that question, that only he could and I hoped he would let God guide him.” (Pages 195-196)
In this context neither of these men defined what they meant by ‘faith’ – such is the ambiguous language of modernity.
Those of us brought up on the Shorter Catechism might well remember Question 86. What is faith in Jesus Christ? The answer comes: Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.
In the subordinate standards of our church, The Westminster Confession of Faith, our forefathers summarised the Biblical teaching in Chapter 14. This Chapter includes such phrases as:
“By faith the believer humbly submits to and obeys God’s various commands . . . the chief actions of saving faith are accepting, receiving and resting on Christ alone for justification, sanctification and eternal life . . .”
Was the sixteenth century reformer John Calvin really ahead of his time or have we failed to learn the lessons of the past? Calvin affirmed in his Institutes of the Christian Religion:
“We must scrutinize and investigate the true character of faith with greater care and zeal, because many are dangerously deluded today in this respect. Indeed, most people, when they hear this term, understand nothing deeper that a common assent to the gospel history”
It is the Apostle James who draws together the relationship between faith and deeds/works. He poses the challenging question to the early Church, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?” He goes on to affirm “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:14-18)
Those elected to positions of national leadership are elected by and from the people. In that respect they are a product of the people who elect them. Yet we do expect, perhaps unrealistically, higher standards from those in public life and service.
In the past those who misled the House of Commons were forced to resign. In 1963 John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War in Harold Macmillan‘s Conservative government, was forced to resign as a Member of Parliament – not because of his relationship with a call girl – but because he misled the House of Commons and lied in his testimony.
There are many questions which are raised in my mind about the behaviour of those in leadership roles within our national life. Of course we live in a world where truth is often to be found at a premium. However, when a man claims to be ‘a man of faith’, we have a right and even an obligation to ask questions. Can faith be seen in “stretching the truth . . . on occasions past breaking point? Can faith be seen in conceal(ing) the full truth, to bend it and even distort it?
As James said of Abraham – “You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.” (James 2:22) If deeds and actions – what we say and do, defines our faith, then clearly a ‘faith’ defined by “stretching . . . concealing . . . distorting the truth”, bears little resemblance to New Testament Christianity.
Every national leader wants to leave behind a legacy for future generations. One is left with the impression, within the context of this book, that Northern Ireland was part of Blair’s overall goal of self-aggrandisement.
The vast majority of citizens of this island will hope that the Blair legacy of peace will be enduring, even though it was based on the unstable sands of, “stretching . . . concealing . . . distorting the truth”.
Blair may have left many legacies from his 10 years in office – one of them must surely be to have left truth and trust a devalued currency.
Not so much ‘the hand of history’ perhaps – as the hand of EGO.
This article appeared in the October 2010 edition of the Presbyterian Herald