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Saturday, 29 January 2011

Tony Blair and shades of Grey

Unlike most people who have an opinion on Tony Blair's autobiography, I have actually read it.

This is an important distinction that can now be made when discussing Blair, his actions, his decisions, his mistakes and his successes - we do actually have his view on it, his thoughts at the time and his opinions now. The distinction can be made between those who think that judgement can be passed after hearing only the case for the prosecution, and those who are at least prepared to hear the defence before deciding on guilt.

There is nothing I find more frustrating when teaching, thinking or talking about politics and economics than those who see only black or white. There are umpteen shades of grey, and I like to explore them all before coming to a decision on what I think. I meet far too many people who think, say, 'black' on an issue, read only 'black', consider only 'black', and talk only 'black'. They then consider themselves to have formed an opinion. I don't regard them as being capable of doing so properly.

This has two consequences for me. First of all it means that it may take longer for me than for most to form an opinion, because I insist on reading as much as possible of the different views on it before doing so. Second it means I can and will change my mind on an issue, and I don't see this as a weakness.If I read a view or see evidence which causes me to doubt my previous position, I feel it's not a problem to reconsider.

Yet far too many people I have come accross during my life, and especially my career in education, be they students, teachers, parents, friends - have their view of the world and that's it. It may be the same view that their parents have, or that their favourite teacher has, or that their friends expect them to have, or it may be one that they have developed through reading books and newspapers that lean hard to one particular point of view. What I have found in too many people is an unwillingness to consider that there may be another legitimate point of view. They won't read another point of view, they won't even consider any evidence, to the point of wilfully ignoring its existence, just in case they find themselves doubting the position they think they have to have.

I find this intellectually cowardly and immensely annoying, and I must emphasise that I find it happens on both sides of the political spectrum, whether people are talking about the UK economy, UK politics, or the Global economy and international relations (particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict).

I've been trying to work out for a while why this happens. Is it because people are lazy? Yes, some of them. Is it because they are scared, maybe of what their friends or parents or colleagues would think if they were showing signs of developing independent thought? Definitely happens. Is it because they are worried about what they would think of themselves if their convictions wavered? I think so. Is it because they 'know they are right' and everyone who disagrees with them is not just wrong but a wicked person? I have come across too many for my liking who are like this.

The problem this causes is that it weakens the standard of debate around the country, and around the world. It means that we don't develop the understanding of each others' points of view that allows conflict to be resolved through sensible discussion. It means in this country too many people sleepwalk into voting for a party because "we're a Tory family, or I'm Labour and I always will be" instead of thinking about which policies may be better for the country at the time, mainly because they have no idea what other party policies actually are. I've voted in 5 elections in my life, for 3 different parties, depending on what, after much thought, reading and debate, I think would be best for the UK. When I decide what I think would be best, I'm not "right", that's just my opinion at that time.

Even if you think you will never change your view of an issue, there is nothing wrong with becoming as au fait as possible with contrary views, if only to strengthen your ability to argue against them using other tactics than just repeating your point louder and louder every time, or resorting to personal insults because you've run out of sensible points to make. You might, just might, change the view you have. Don't be scared, it's OK to do so.

I started with Tony Blair's autobiography so I'll end with it. I'm fed up to the back teeth of people saying "I'm not going to read it - it's all lies" or "I'm not interested in what that war criminal has to say". He was there, he was responsible for our country's safety, he made a decision, whether you think he is a hero or a war criminal it is important you read his views and the evidence he saw and used to make his decisions.

I've changed my position on the Iraq War many times - with different views on whether it should have happened (I think it's difficult to argue that the management of the aftermath has been anything other than a disaster). I've gone from the gung-ho - "let's kill them there terrorists" -  to the doubting - "why is regime change necessary there but not in places like Zimbabwe where people are dying but there's no oil" -  to "wouldn't the world be a worse place in 2011 if Saddam was still there?" to "really, given he was no danger to us, haven't we just contributed to a lot of muslim deaths? No surprise it's been such an effective recruitment tool".

Throughout my oscillations I relied on newspaper articles, books, films, interviews with those involved - all of these written with one bias or another. Tony Blair's autobiography is just another piece of evidence, which has obviously been carefully written with a view to the fact that he will be answering questions on this issue for the rest of his life. In it he quotes from UN inspector reports, from the UN security council resolutions and from conversations he says he had with different figures around the time.

He will have been just as selective in the information he provides as anyone, but the difference between him and others who have written about Iraq is that it was actually Tony Blair that was there. He made the decision, and we all sit in judgement of that decision, and to judge we need to hear from him.

The same people who talk about civil liberties and people being innocent until proven guilty tend also to be those most likely to decide that they have no need to read what he says. Well, until they do, they are not in a position to judge him or his decision.

As for me, having read extensively in preparing for an A-level Global Politics course and for my general interest in politics, I'm of the opinion that it was a war entered into for honest motives, but using seemingly dishonest means to persuade others of the case.

I'll read the Chilcot report too, and so will people who supported the Iraq War, no doubt, should the Chilcot report come out in favour of the decision to go to War. Should the Chilcot report come out against the decision, I'm sure those also against the War will read it. Sad that it won't be read by everyone whatever it says. But true.


  1. The only problem with your 'shades of grey' argument, which is - of course - essentially right, is that it is perpetually exploited by those whose arguments are too weak to survive without an appeal to 'balance'.

    Coming to a position without considering any alternatives is intellectually cowardly, but so is deliberately weakening your position out of a misplaced desire to avoid seeming 'strident'. Example: it's not "well, I don't really believe in ghosts, but my uncle once heard a creaking door in the middle of the night so maybe..." it's "no, ghosts don't exist, end of". Although naturally, all positions taken - however clear-cut - and then open to later revision on the basis of new evidence.

    Obviously, this rings less true for politics than for other areas of life. But even so, I can think of some examples. Was 9/11 orchestrated by the American government? Any reasonable person, on the basis of the evidence, would simply say no. You can consider the opposite point of view all you like, but legitimate consideration can (sometimes) still end with a clear-cut answer.

  2. You're right Dominic, and the examples you give are the extremes you might go for a sense of balance. I do think however, that those who "perpetually exploit" this argument are few and far between. I was, of course, referring to the majority of debates one could have - a great example being the book you are helping with!

  3. I don't have an opinion on Blair book, i do have an opinion on Blair. What did i see? Anti union laws, war and more privatisation with some nice bank deregulation. I got far to much of his point of view when he was in power from much of the mainstream press so i don't think i need to read his book to find out his side of the story. I can see parts of his book in fictionalised films which is nice (he plaguerised some from the film "the Queen") and hear him make "inconsistent" testimonies to the Chilcot enquiry by watching it on TV.

    I haven't read the memoirs of a large number of war criminals but it doesn't stop me in my judgeing them. Given the amount of the mainstream media who were in favour of the war at the time and the amount of pro British empire style propoganda that i have been lucky enough to experience since i was born i see no reason to promote the sale of his book as opposed to put it into the crime section of waterstones.

  4. Do you think he should go to the Hague to be tried as a War Criminal for the invasion of Kosovo? Sierra Leone? They were just as illegal under international law (such as international law actually exists) as Iraq was.

    If not, then what should he be tried for?

  5. i think tony blair is quite sexy.