Enough With the Tony Blair Awards

Tony Blair
Former British prime minister Tony Blair. Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

I have a proposal for an urgent new U.N. Security Council resolution: that it shall be deemed contrary to the spirit of the United Nations Charter to give any more awards to Tony Blair.

The U.S. would probably veto it. But surely it's still worth making the point: Enough already. Perhaps you recall Tom Lehrer's complaint when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize: "Political satire just became obsolete."

The latest Blair bauble—a "Global Legacy Award"—comes from the U.S. branch of Save the Children, which says the former British prime minister was recognized for his role at the G-8 summit at Gleneagles in 2005, which pledged to "make poverty history" and agreed to write off $40 billion in debt owed by the world's poorest countries.

But the award doesn't seem to have gone down too well with some of Save the Children's own staffers. An internal letter signed by 200 of them called the award "morally reprehensible" and said it was "inappropriate and a betrayal of Save the Children's founding principles and values." An online public petition protesting it has been signed by more than 100,000 people.

As it happens, I'm not one of those who believe that Blair is evil incarnate. I met him on only a handful of occasions during his time as prime minister, and I was always left with the impression of a man possessed of almost messianic certainty that he was put on Earth to make it a better place and rid it of bad people.

I do believe that he made an appalling error of judgment in backing President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003. It was an error that involved the U.K. in one of the biggest foreign policy blunders of recent times—I described it some months ago as "the most disastrous military adventure since the German army marched into Poland in 1939."

So yes, Tony Blair must share responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of deaths that followed the 2003 invasion. I suspect one reason so many now feel such deep antipathy toward him (including, I imagine, many who voted for him in the past) is that to this day he has never admitted that he got it wrong. (He did, though, tell the Chilcot inquiry in 2011: "Of course, I regret deeply and profoundly the loss of life.")

Compare that to, for example, Hillary Clinton, who also backed the invasion but who wrote in her memoirs: "I wasn't alone in getting it wrong. But I still got it wrong. Plain and simple." If only Blair could find it within himself to say something similar.

I'm sure you'd want me to be fair-minded about this. (Actually, I'm not at all sure, but I'll try anyway.) Because there is a case for the defense, and it was robustly put by Blair's former director of political operations, John McTernan, in The Guardian.

It goes like this. First, that as a result of Blair's commitment as prime minister to halve U.K.'s child poverty by the end of this decade, "huge sums were spent and the number of children in poverty fell. It was one of the greatest triumphs of government social policy."

Second, that at the Gleneagles summit "the ambitions of the development movement were not just tabled, they were fulfilled. Debt became, for a time, not just an issue to campaign on but one to resolve once and for all.… The persuasive power of the UK hosting and chairing the G8—the power of the bully pulpit—was used to change Africa for good."

And that, presumably, is what Save the Children regards as Blair's "global legacy." (We'll assume for the sake of argument that the presence of several former top Blair aides in the higher echelons of the Save the Children management structure has nothing whatsoever to do with it.)

The McTernan defense has some merit. But to me he sounds too much like a character witness giving evidence on behalf of a defendant in the dock. "Members of the jury, he may have committed a terrible crime, but don't forget all the charity work he did." It's not really a defense at all; it's a plea for leniency.

So please, no more awards. Ever since Blair picked up the U.S.'s highest civil award, the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, in 2009, he's been collecting them like a schoolchild picking up gold stars for good behavior. "Look, Mum, I got another one. Aren't I good?"

It looks needy. And it's undignified. And it sends out an appalling message: that those countless, unnecessary deaths in Iraq don't matter—that history has already expunged them from the balance sheet because Tony Blair also did some good things.

But those deaths do matter. They matter a great deal, and they are a reason for profound, lasting shame. So let's save the baubles for more deserving recipients.

From 1989 to 2012, Robin Lustig presented Newshour on BBC World Service and The World Tonight on BBC Radio 4. His award-winning blog can be read here.