[I’ve been sitting on this post for a little while, mulling over how it fits in with recent events.]
At the weekend I was invited along to the Progressive Governance Conference held in London and attended by centre left politicians and thinkers from around the world. It seems to have incurred the wrath of most commentators (Larry Elliot’s piece is one of the funniest) and I wouldn’t claim that it was perfect, but I think it did serve a purpose that has been overlooked. I’ll come back to this later.
The event started out as a complete farce with a computer glitch leading to a good proportion of the delegates not having passes to get into the building. I’ll tell you this, progressives can get pretty aggressive if they have to queue. I felt incredibly sorry for the poor stewards who had to deal with us — at one point I thought they needed more protection than the world leaders.
I was expecting the venue to be pretty swanky but other than the professional looking white and red stage and backdrop that the speakers used it was quite a drab and plain looking room. I suppose there are only so many places in London that can be adapted for the security but it did feel a bit like a bad wedding reception. The tinny piped classical music didn’t help. What made it interesting for me was that it was my first time seeing many of the characters of the centre left in action. As I sat down for the first session I realised the well tanned and very trim looking guy on the row in front of me was Alistair Campbell.
The first session on the Friday evening was less than scintillating (Blair’s speech wasn’t his finest) but Bill Clinton added some buzz on the Saturday morning. He didn’t speak from the podium, instead using a handheld mic and outlining what he thought were the challenges for the centre left in dealing with the White House’s current inhabitant. He has a lot of good ideas for solving immediate geopolitical problems, but I suppose I came along looking for the vision thing and he didn’t quite deliver.
As with most conferences, the interesting stuff took place on the fringes. Quite a few things from the weekend have stuck with me but one comment from a delegate has made me think. He said “It always amazes me how huge decisions are dependent on the quality of the personal relationships between the politicians involved.” He’s the kind of person who should know, so I thought about it some more.
Politics isn’t logical. Leaders are human beings and when the stakes are so high they rely on trust to make decisions. When they get together (as they did at the weekend) they are subliminally asking “Can I trust this person? Is this someone I can count on in a crisis?” In an uncertain, interrelated, complex world it becomes even more vital that the top team know each other. We now place greater demands on our elected officials, wanting them to deal with hugely complex tasks like terrorism, global environmental disasters, and diseases that spiral out of control in days.
At a time when our formal methods of global governance remain underdeveloped, we rely on the informal channels of diplomacy to maintain peace and prosperity. That’s why these conferences have value, they allow global leaders to develop trusting relationships with people who are basically on their team.
The reason the weekend was slightly uncomfortable for Tony Blair was that he’s been seen talking to players on the other team. Although nobody close to him would ever admit it, my reading is that his choice to work with George Bush was an attempt to hug him to death. He realised there was real potential for all communication between global leaders to break down, for trust on the global stage to be ripped to shreds. He took a gamble that the amount of trust he had built up with other world leaders would allow him to be the bridge between progressives and neoconservatives.
The gamble has proved to be more risky than he calculated. The moment he took the decision, there was no way back. Blair staked everything. He knew he could not survive going back on his word to Bush. Although he would be welcomed back with open arms by the left if he were to say he got it wrong, an unfettered Bush administration would almost certainly wreak havoc in the rebuilding of Iraq, the treatment of Al Queda suspects and potentially in other countries on George Bush’s axis of evil.
All this has been crystallised by Blair’s Congressional Medal ceremony yesterday evening. Just ask yourself what would have happened if Blair had stood up and denounced Bush? It makes you realise the consequences of an about turn by Blair could be very severe indeed. All he can do is hang on, slowly trying to build up trust between progressives by hosting a meeting of them in the UK, by refocusing on domestic policy and praying that the Democrats can get back into power in Washington.
I’ve got a feeling that when history comes to be written and the word ‘neoconservative’ is seen like other fallen despotic empires, we may thank Mr Blair for his Schindler-like role in dampening its effects.