Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Tony Blair on the Today Programme

Tony Blair was on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme this morning, talking about the tsunami, the past year's events, the forthcoming Election, relations with Gordon Brown, Iraq and his own position.

Following an article by Gordon Brown in today's Guardian, Blair made very encouraging noises about the welfare state, especially on extending universal childcare for children between the ages of three and fourteen. I'll believe it when I see it, but it's a positive commitment.

Anyway, I've transcribed a few of his comments which are over the fold, relating to Africa, the recent Law Lords Ruling regarding the detention without trial of terrorist suspects and Iraq.

I should begin by saying that my transcribing skills are pretty poor and, in any case, you can't really get a sense of what he had to say from reading what I've put here. I mark pauses or gaps or revisions with ellipses.

The much more satisfactory audio recording of the interview is here. You need Realplayer to listen to it. I've included everything I heard from the sections I am most interested in so, coupled with my shoddy punctuation, Blair might sound a little incoherent. Only on paper. He came across as articulately as he usually does, although some of what he says buckles under a basic analysis. Especially given that he was responding to prepared questions that would have been submitted prior to the interview and was almost certainly speaking from briefing notes.

Anyway, with that set of contextual caveats in place, here's a few of his comments. I have one or two things to scribble about, but I'll leave them to the end.

On whether the tsunami would divert attention from Africa, which is one of the governments major priorities for 2005, he said:
Over the past five years in the Congo alone almost 4 million people have died. Every day over six thousand people die of AIDS in Africa preventably. Every day, 3000 children die under the age of five preventably from malaria alone. If you add up all the deaths that happen in a week for children in Africa it will come to tens and tens of thousands. Now, these things aren’t so visible to us as the impact of the tsunami has been but I think if we raise the profile and visibility, hopefully what will happen is rather than people saying that we have to spend all this money looking after the effects of the tsunami, people will say ‘yes we have to do that but actually we should same spirit of generosity and use it for Africa too.'

On the Law Lords Judgement, ruling in favour of non-nationals who have been detained indefinitely without trial in the UK, James Naughtie pointed to Lord Hoffman's comment that 'the real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these.' Blair's response went as follows:
When a law lord uses language that strong you’ve got to reflect very carefully on what you’ve done. Let me try and explain it to you from the point of view of the law maker…and just remember incidentally it’s only because we have introduced basic human rights law into this country that such a case could be brought. But the difficulty that we have is this: these are people who aren’t British nationals. They’re people who our security services believe are engaged in and planning terrorist acts in this country. They go through a judicial process that is not a normal judicial process…I entirely accept that…but has a high court judge presiding over it. They are…if they are then…em…incarcerated or imprisoned as a result of the verdict of that court, they are free to leave the country. What they’re not free to do is to walk the streets of this country and the reason for that is that, you know…I think it’s very easy to become complacent about this. We still have an active terrorist threat in this country. I don’t…I’m not trying to alarm people by saying that. I’m simply trying to say that we have a serious problem, all countries do actually…em…and have been more aware of it since September the 11th and I think…I understand entirely the civil liberties considerations and I am not dismissive of them or disrespectful of them in any way at all, but I just…the fear I have as you will imagine is what happens if the security services are telling us these people are a threat, we allow them to walk the street, and then they end up killing large numbers of innocent people. Now I’m not saying these…this is going to happen, I’m simply saying that that’s the dilemma we face.

Naughtie: Do you accept the idea or at least the possibility that laws like that could themselves be a threat to the life of this country which is what Lord Hoffman said?

Blair: Look, I think that if they lead us to be casual or as I say disrespectful of the basic liberties of the subject then yes they could be. But that is not our attitude. On the contrary, it is only in the most exceptional circumstances that we’re doing this with very small numbers of people and we’re doing it because of our genuine worry and fear that otherwise we would be subject to the legitimate criticism that we knew people who had come from abroad into this country who were a threat to this country and we weren’t doing anything about it. And so I…you know…it’s what…I think it’s one of these…it’s…the important thing about an issue is not that people end up dismissing each other’s point of view but just understanding…I understand the civil liberties argument against the legislation. I hope people understand the security argument for it.

On Iraq, Naughtie said that 'It gets worse and worse. Even the president of the country now says there’s a question mark over whether elections can be held at the end of this month. Are you absolutely committed to that?' Blair replied:

I am committed to it, yes because I think it’s extremely important that the terrorists don’t gain a victory. I mean…whatever the original conflict and the removal of Saddam…let me just make this thing very clear…I just saw this for myself talking to people when I visited Baghdad before Christmas. Nobody in Iraq wants Saddam back. The vast majority of Iraqis want to participate in these elections. When I talked to the United Nations organiser there he said that he thought that everybody including Sunnis wanted to participate. The question is…and this is what this conflict is now about…it’s not about us versus Saddam…it’s about a group of terrorists and insurgents who want to stop the Iraqi having the democratic say.

Naughtie: But what happens if in the end they can’t, if the terrorists to that extent win and you get a government which doesn’t generally represent the views of the Iraqi people, which is quite likely now, isn’t it?

Blair: Well I…I don’t believe that will happen, I mean I think that…because remember there’s a vast number of people, there’s two…over two hundred and fifty names on this list including many Sunnis. Now it’s important that we provide security to people in the areas where the terrorists are trying to kill people involved in the electoral commission, kill members of the United Nations, kill ordinary Iraqis who want to make the country better, but surely our attitudes got to be to defeat them because, this is what I think is also important to say, if we establish, establishing democracy in Afghanistan has been a huge blow against this worldwide terrorism, establishing democracy in Iraq, allowing Iraq to become a democratic country, that would be a massive blow to everything they’re trying to achieve.

Well, there's lots to mull over there, and I won't try to add much in the way of interpretation. I think that most of what Blair said makes sense, more or less, but he also pulls a few characteristic rhetorical stunts that are probably less than helpful to his cause. Primary amongst these is the suggestion that we should be comforted that the Belmarsh inmates were in a position to take the government to court under human rights legislation. Blair omits to mention that when a government ignores human rights rulings it implies that those rights are really privileges, the honouring of which is subject to the whims of those in power.

One of these is the marvellous 'trust me' turn that he always takes. So, the Lord Hoffman is correct in describing the threat, but there is no need for concern because Blair and co don't approach the undermining of civil liberties casually or with a disregard for the opposing argument.

Putting aside the coherence of Hoffman's comment (David Velleman makes some interesting observations on indefinite detention, including Hoffman's remark, from an American perspective over on Left2Right), Blair's line suggests that he doesn't actually understand the rule of law. The problem is not solely what individuals in power ('law-makers,' as he pointedly describes the government) do, but what they could do. Restrictions on the discretionary power of the state, embedded as they are in traditions of British government, are what defines the state as democratic, not the degree to which the PM is a nice guy.

I should also say that I'm not at all reassured by Blair's saying that these laws, contrary as they are to human rights legislation, only target a small group of people. That's hardly the point, is it?

All that said, Blair is right to point to the dilemma that policy-makers face when they're trying to deal with terrorism. There is undoubtedly a dilemma here. But that's a subject for another post...

Another element in Blair's manner is his incessant personalising of the issues. Apart from the 'hey, I'm a nice guy' schtick, you also get a personal report from Baghdad and lots of 'I understand the opposing argument' stuff. These are lines that have repeated themselves in various forms especially since the invasion of Iraq. The events leading to the publication of various dossiers (as catalogued on the huge Hutton Inquiry website. If you're sane enough to not be bothered, the BBC has a helpful site on the various issues) were interspersed with Blair telling us that the opposition were reasonable but he had to make the call and that, as reasonable people, they would change their minds if only he could share the information he personally had with them. This particular leadership neurosis, spotted in Nixon and Kissinger by Daniel Ellsberg is fascinating, but also pretty galling.

Finally, and briefly, it's interesting how Blair pulls both Saddam and Afghanistan into his comments on the elections in Iraq. As I said above, he must be speaking from notes, so I suspect that he did these things on purpose. Again, they're rhetorical sleights of hand. Whether they are effective in the circumstances, I don't know.

I suppose my line on the interview is that, on balance, Blair said a lot of reasonable things. But this shouldn't obscure his evasions and the manner in which he uses the issues at hand to retrospectively justify Britain's presence in Iraq. A skilled operator at work: pity the other lot are worse!

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