Tony Blair’s controversial journey

Tony Blair’s recently published memoir, A Journey, thrust the former British Prime Minister (left) back into familiar territory –the vortex of controversy. Pelted with eggs and shoes at a book signing in Dublin earlier this month, the man with the infamous grin thought better than to face off angry anti-war protesters and proceeded to cancel his book launch party at the Tate Modern in London.

Like Marmite - an extremely salty and savoury British dark brown spread of sticky consistency, with a distinctive, powerful flavour – people either love or hate Blair. As angry anti-war protesters vented their spleen outside Waterstones bookshops, inside hordes of avid readers snapped up more copies of the former premier’s book on the first day of its release than fellow New Labour architect Peter Mandelson’s memoirs sold in three weeks.

The attention directed at Blair is warranted. The middle England magician’s ‘big tent’ strategy – which positioned New Labour on the centre-ground to draw support from both left and right-leaning voters – dispensed with ideology and transformed British electoral politics. As a result, the erstwhile toxic Labour Party coasted to an unprecedented three terms in government after 18 corrosive years in the wilderness of opposition politics.

Adept at navigating the media-saturated landscape of 21st century British politics, with its 24-hour news cycle, Blair’s savvy presentation has spawned ardent disciples among the leading political protagonists in this country, including Tory leader and current coalition government Prime Minister David Cameron and his Lib Dems deputy, Nick Clegg.

On the opposite end, Blair’s deeply hostile, shoe-throwing critics are a harvest of his own specious argument for taking Britain to war in Iraq. The thinking behind both argument and action was of course several years old by the time Blair got to railroad the House of Commons into endorsing Britain’s co-star role in the American-led ‘shock and awe’ of Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad in 2003.

In his memoirs, Blair reveals how the Kosovo crisis of the late 1990’s came to shape the moral crusade that saw him commit Britain to four wars and totter on the verge of declaring one against Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe. In April 1999, he set out his ‘doctrine of the international community’ in a speech in Chicago in which he argued the case for military intervention on humanitarian grounds.

But as the Oxford Research Group observed, Kosovo was a flawed expression of the Blair doctrine, whilst Afghanistan and Iraq were clear violations of it. In the latter case, Blair rode pillion on the American neoconservative doctrine of pre-emptive strikes, which had more to do with taking out perceived American and western security threats before they had materialised than with advancing humanitarian considerations.

An Irish anti-war protester clashes with police at Blair's Dublin book signing event

Quite unsettling with respect to Zimbabwe is Blair’s admission that he wanted to whack the Mugabe regime militarily. On getting rid of Mugabe, he says: “I would have loved to; but it wasn’t practical (since in his case, and for reasons I never quite understood, the surrounding African nations maintained a lingering support for him and would have opposed any action strenuously)”.

In reality though, it was his former Chief of Defence Staff, General Charles Guthrie who persuaded Blair from charging into Harare with guns blazing, telling him to ‘hold hard, you’ll make it worse’.

But rather dishearteningly in his voluminous memoir, Blair completely blanks out Britain’s colonial relationship with Zimbabwe and his discussion of military action against Mugabe is shorn of political context. The two countries’ chequered history – particularly their fallout over land redistribution from the white settler minority to colonially dispossessed blacks after Zimbabwe’s independence – is conveniently missing.

Apart from his glib admission of failure to understand the reasons for the lingering African support for Mugabe, readers are left none the wiser about the alternative arguments that Blair was presented with by those African leaders with whom he was engaged in dialogue. For instance, there’s not a whisper on former South African President Thabo Mbeki’s ‘quiet diplomacy’, to which all western – including British -and African diplomatic efforts on Zimbabwe ultimately deferred, resulting in the establishment of a unity government in Harare in February last year.

Blair’s failure – or reluctance - to engage seriously with these African perspectives on Zimbabwe explains the lack of traction for British foreign policy towards Zimbabwe among the Southern African nations. The most influential of these – South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia and Angola - are governed by parties that, like ZANU PF, were national liberation movements that had fought white settler colonialism to gain independence.

Crucially, these countries saw New Labour’s blunt refusal to fund land reform in Zimbabwe as a betrayal by Britain of its colonial obligations whilst simultaneously defending the property rights of white landowners under the guise of promoting human rights.

Sensing the perfect regime survival strategy, a beleaguered Mugabe latched onto his fallout with Britain over land to deploy a crudely edited anti-colonial nationalist narrative – or ‘patriotic history’ - accompanied by much violence, as a buffer against growing domestic opposition led by the MDC.

Adopting an outside-looking in approach, Mugabe and ZANU PF used Britain’s shrill criticism to argue that the crisis in Zimbabwe had its roots in a bilateral dispute with Britain over the seizure of commercial farmland. Unwittingly, Blair and his ministers would on occasion also speak of their support for Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC rather inappropriately, thus providing more grist for Mugabe’s propaganda mill.

More than three years after Blair’s departure from office, the unresolved question of whose responsibility it is to compensate dispossessed white farmers in Zimbabwe continues to cast a dark shadow on relations between Britain and Zimbabwe.

A recent report by the UK Parliament’s Africa All-Party Parliamentary Group (AAPPG) declared that “the narrative that Britain betrayed its promise at Lancaster House has no basis as no agreement was reached on land in 1979”. It urges Britain to do more to counter this ‘perception’.

In an as yet unpublished response to the report, a Zimbabwean land expert wrote: “It is clear that the AAPPG report is meant to respond to the Global Political Agreement demand that the UK Government be approached to contribute to paying for the land reform, and that its purpose and conclusion is to reinforce earlier British arguments that the UK has no bi-lateral obligation to pay for the land.”

But according to former Commonwealth secretary-general and key player at the Lancaster House talks in 1979, Sir Shridath Ramphal, ‘solid assurances’ to fund land reform by Britain and the US were indeed recorded in the documents of the conference and notified to all Commonwealth countries, although no sum of money was specified.

Ramphal’s authoritative, contrasting account of what was agreed at Lancaster House burns a huge hole in the AAPPG report and robs Britain of the foolproof final word it had hoped to achieve on the land matter. When Britain does finally decide to engage the Zimbabwe government directly on land issues, it is best advised to do so with more tact than Blair’s government displayed when they took over in 1997.

And as for Blair’s contribution to British foreign policy on Zimbabwe, thank God Almighty for General Guthrie’s advice, for military intervention in Zimbabwe would certainly have made things worse