Blair whiching

Tony Blair was in trouble. Grey-faced, uncharacteristically faltering, he could only reiterate under siege in the press, on television and in parliament that the Weapons of Mass Destruction which had convinced him to take Britain to war really did exist and would be found.

Perhaps to divert the heat, his colleague and chief spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, suddenly savaged what he characterised as the BBC’s biased coverage of the war with Iraq and the WMD dispute. He took special aim at the BBC’s defence correspondent, Andrew Gilligan, who notoriously reported that the September dossier on Iraqi WMD had been ‘sexed up’ at the behest of Downing Street.

‘We must not allow ourselves to be diverted by Downing Street, and in particular by Alastair Campbell,’ riposted the Guardian’s Richard Norton-Taylor on 28 June, ‘from extremely serious issues which go to the very heart of how we are being ruled.’ The following day, under the heading ‘Don’t Be Conned by the Campbell Sideshow’, the Independent joined in the charge, insisting that ‘Britain appears to have been led into an unjustified war, in which thousands of soldiers and civilians were killed, on a false pretext ... Unless the weapons are discovered and shown to be as lethal as Blair said, voters will not be distracted by marginal issues.’

Meanwhile, in the same newspapers and on the same days, another Blair was being argued about, though with somewhat less of a splash. This was Eric Arthur Blair who, on 25 June, while his namesake’s desperate defences were unravelling, would have been 100 had he lived. This Blair is of course much better known as George Orwell. Next to Richard Norton-Taylor’s article, headlined incidentally, ‘The BBC row has been got up to obscure the ugly truth’, was one called ‘Orwell: saint or stooge?’ in which Scott Lucas and D.J. Taylor, both biographers of Orwell, ‘argue over the inheritance of the literary icon’s fickle idealism’. And in the Independent, one page before the editorial on the ‘Campbell sideshow’, was ‘A hero for the wine bar warriors’ by Joan Smith—a flip, shallow column in which she remarked correctly that ‘George Orwell is everywhere’. The Independent and the Guardian were not alone in fulsomely if combatively recognising the centenary. Eric Blair, in his Orwell manifestation, was as ubiquitous during that week, even if in a lower key, as the other Blair—attracting praise and excoriation from admirers and the apostate Left respectively.

From my temporary headquarters in Kentish Town, where azure summer skies were mocked towards the end of each long, traffic-traumatised day by a bluer haze of diesel fumes gathering thickly above grid locked Kentish Town Road, I observed these debates with compulsive interest. Kentish Town, while thoroughly insalubrious in so many obvious ways, was nevertheless a curiously apt place to be during the time of Orwell’s memorialisation and the inquisition of Tony Blair.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the anti-hero, Winston Smith, emerges from his office in the Ministry of Truth into a balmy, blue-skied evening, so lovely that he is tempted to go for a walk. Such a decision is dangerous in the society of Airstrip One. It denotes individualism, eccentricity, a transgression defined in Newspeak as ownlife. But Winston sets off anyway, turning ‘on impulse’ away from the bus stop and wandering off ‘into the labyrinth of London’. As Harry Mount shows in a stylish piece of literary detection in the 21 June Spectator, Winston Smith walks into Kentish Town, haunt of the ‘proles’.

It had been one of Orwell’s stamping grounds in the 1930s. He worked at Booklover’s Corner, which was not far from the present Owl Bookshop, and in emergency used the nearby pawn shop, still trading. And the uninviting, rundown pubs in the area—as Harry Mount shows and as I can well believe, having drunk in most of them—are not all that different from the ghastly proles’ pub that Winston visits during his semi-licit excursion.

Winston had set out on his walk desperate to escape for a while the suffocating atmosphere of London under the ever watchful gaze of Big Brother, the lies and fabrications of the Ministry of Truth, the unblinking eye of the telescreens, the oppression of slogans: War is peace, Freedom is slavery, Ignorance is strength.

For all their interest in Eric as opposed to Tony Blair, the London columnists didn’t notice that the Iraq WMD debate was precisely about the people being told that war in effect is peace, that the concept of freedom is susceptible of endless manipulation and obfuscation, and that ignorance—being kept in the dark or, worse, lied to—will in the long run prove to be a position of strength. The Poms didn’t buy it. They were outraged and Tony Blair remains in a critically parlous position because of his apparent deceptions.

Back in Australia, the Orwell anniversary created no such interest outside the academy. Our prime minister, as he routinely does, denied and shrugged his way through the WMD-absence problem, and suggested that the Australian people wanted to ‘move on’. Apparently we did. War, the nation convinced itself, was peace. Ignorance was strength, because uncomplicated. A subsequent crass attack on the ABC was worthy of The Ministry of Truth and just as unstoppable.

And, like Winston Smith at the end of his ordeal and in the depths of his defeat, Australians loved Big Brother—the telescreen one, that is. ?

Brian Matthews is a writer and academic.

 

 

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