Notes From the Margins…

The Archbishop Removes the Emperors’ Clothes

  • September 03, 2012
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I’ve often wondered why it is that so many countries and institutions are prepared to pay so much money to hear Tony Blair’s observations on ‘faith’, ‘leadership’, ‘globalization’ and other subjects.

They clearly aren’t paying for insight or profundity, since Blair’s analyses of 21st century events, both in and out of office, are often strikingly superficial, cliched and banal, devoid of any historical depth, and certainly no more intelligent, illuminating and insightful than one might expect from less famous commentators with real intellect and real knowledge of their subject.

Perhaps they are also paying for access, since Blair has amassed a formidable network of business and political connections both in and out of office that includes the US foreign policy establishment, Goldman Sachs, Israel and the Gulf States, and Paul Kagame’s Rwanda.

Fame – and wealth – are part of the explanation, since Blair, like Bill Clinton before him, has now become a transnational ‘global’ politician, whose frenetic networking back and forth across the world supposedly reflects some special world’s-eye overview of international politics.

Once you reach this level it seems, there will always be some credulous group of businessmen willing to fork out £100,000 or more to hear your insights and pearls of wisdom, regardless of whether they or not they reach much above the level of Chance the Gardener in Being There,   and will consider that the countries or institutions they represent have gained status or prestige by merely associating themselves with your name.

Such adulation is not limited to businessmen in Shanghai, Yale University or the government of Kazakstan.   From Rowan Williams, the BBC,   the Guardian,     Cameron’s conservatives or Ed Miliband’s ‘big tent’ Labour Party,   Blair’s glassy and increasingly hunted smile has become a ubiquitous component of his Zelig-like international presence.

Mesmerised by Blair’s ‘star quality’ – and his wealth, these respectful and admiring audiences have not been particularly concerned by Blair’s role in the Iraq war and occupation.     For the most part they have either ignored it completely and passed politely over it, or dismissed it as an unfortunate ‘mistake’ as if there were nothing more to be said on the subject.

Now, like a rude and impolitic guest,   Archbishop Desmond Tutu has delivered a devastating critique of Blair and Bush and suggested that their role in the Iraq war was not only immoral but even criminal.

Of course Tutu is not the first person to make such accusations.     But until now, such statements came from marginal figures or ‘little people’ seeking to carry out citizens arrests or shouting things out at the Chilcot Inquiry, who rarely feature in the calculations of Blair and his fan-club.

Tutu, on the other hand, is a major international figure with real moral authority derived from his role in the anti-apartheid struggle.   So when he accuses Bush and Blair of behaving   ‘like playground bullies’ in Iraq his words have some weight.   Tutu is also a man of the church, and his criticisms of both Blair and Bush effectively call into question the attempts by both men to present themselves as politicians motivated by religious faith.

In his Observer article yesterday Tutu argued that

Leadership and morality are indivisible. Good leaders are the custodians of morality. The question is not whether Saddam Hussein was good or bad or how many of his people he massacred. The point is that Mr Bush and Mr Blair should not have allowed themselves to stoop to his immoral level.

He also asked

If it is acceptable for leaders to take drastic action on the basis of a lie, without an acknowledgement or an apology when they are found out, what should we teach our children?

What indeed?   This is not, on the surface, a particularly controversial question, but it is not one that Blair has heard from the   audiences who have queued up to shower coins on him or have their photographs taken alongside him at the Emirates stadium.

And now that Tutu has posed it, one suspects that it may be heard a great deal more often.   Because the Archbishop cannot be smeared or dismissed as easily as the others who have made such observations.   The usual tropes employed by Blair’s defenders to marginalize or dismiss critics of the Iraq war ( far-left ideologues, the hate-Tony-brigade, anti-American, supporters of dictators etc) will be difficult to attach to the Archbishop.

That doesn’t mean that they won’t try.   One thing the Iraq war demonstrated is that its supporters – whether conservatives, hard republicans or ‘hard liberal’ laptop warriors – will smear anybody who disagrees with them or who comes up with conclusions that contradict their own.

So it probably won’t be too long before John Rentoul – Renfield to Blair’s Dracula – or some of Blair’s other supporters in the media come up with the usual justifications for the war, and/or seek to tarnish Tutu’s moral authority.

For Tutu has said what was previously unsayable in polite company.   He has done what so many others should have done – treat Blair as persona non grata, as a politician who lied and manipulated his country into a catastrophic war and who has no moral authority to lecture the world on ‘leadership’ or any other subject.

Of course neither Bush nor Blair are likely to end up in front of the ICC.   That is not how things work in today’s world.   But at the very least, they should be held in disgrace for the rest of their lives and never allowed to rehabilitate themselves or ‘move on’ – as their supporters insist that everyone else should do.

Tutu’s brilliant intervention has made such rehabilitation more unlikely, and is likely to leave many more people turning to each other to ask what clothes the Emperor is actually wearing, and perhaps to wonder whether he is wearing anything at all.



  1. Nigel Hunt

    3rd Sep 2012 - 12:57 pm

    Thanks for this Matt. I too read Tutu’s article with some pleasure (if that is the right word). At last someone with the authority second only to Mandela for many years the world should take note of the comments. In the end, Tutu’s (and others) long struggle for freedom had a good effect. We just need to work in a similar way towards the indictment of Blair and Bush. I don’t really agree that we should never rehabilitate these people. I try to hold the position that redemption is always possible, no matter how bad the action – and given the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Tutu might agree.

    • Matt

      3rd Sep 2012 - 1:36 pm

      I take your point about rehabilitation Nigel. But you’re talking about rehabilitation following accountability, acknowledgement of wrongdoing, punishment etc.

      Blair and Bush either don’t think they’ve done anything wrong, or they know they did and are arrogant enough to believe that they are untouchable. Either way accountability is absent, and what we’re dealing with here is impunity.

      And as long as that situation lasts, the bastards cannot be allowed to hide behind a facade of virtuous good intentions.

  2. Nik Hermann

    6th Sep 2012 - 10:39 pm

    It is not a question of our “western” feelings towards those two men nor is it a question about “us” rehabilitating someone – I was upset about what I saw on TV, I was angry and felt powerless, but let’s face it: The only pain I felt were soar throats after nightlong arguments with friends or colleagues. People in Afghanistan and Iraq on the other hand were asked to be thankful for another round of humanitarian, selfless (as always), clinical, precise and of course moral bombing. Even thinking of the impression it leaves in the arab world, that creatures like Blair still lurk around in public and get paid to talk clever and pose as elder statesmen whilst doing the Jesus-Talk just blows my mind.

    The real question is: What do the people of Iraq and Afghanistan want? – a save bet would be justice. Now, since The Hague is (as it seems) reserved for people from Africa and the Balkans, and an extradition of these two men to either Afghanistan or Iraq is rather unlikely (if they ever were to ask for that), the only thing left is making sure that where possible, any public appearance of either of the two should be heckled – that’s how far our kind of “western justice” goes when it comes to the biggest crime of all, planing and waging wars of aggression.

    Short of being an (unuseful) Nazi after World War 2, an African dictator or a mystical-ancient-hatred-socialists and or nationalist from the (of course) “backwards” and “savage” Balkans, there is no way you will have the Nuremberg principles or anything resembling applied to you by the oh so civilized western community of bombers, which by default, only bomb on humanitarian and self defence grounds. All that of course with a troubled brow.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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