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Paul Vallely: Blair deserves knighthood, despite Iraq

05 January 2022

His achievements in office deserve to be recognised, argues Paul Vallely

Alamy

HERE is a tale of two knighthoods. More than 600,000 people have signed a petition asking the Queen to rescind her decision to make Tony Blair a member of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, the highest honour that our monarch can bestow. Meanwhile, a far smaller group is expressing unalloyed delight at the knighthood awarded to the former Labour MP John Battle. The contrast is illuminating.

Sir John Battle was an MP for Leeds from 1987 until his retirement in 2010. He served under Sir Tony Blair as a Minister of State for Trade and Industry, and then in the Foreign Office, before becoming the Prime Minister’s envoy to faith communities for eight years. Since he retired, he has immersed himself wholeheartedly in voluntary work in Leeds. A committed Roman Catholic, he is chair of the Justice and Peace Commission for his diocese. His knighthood is entirely uncontentious, thoroughly well merited, and, if anything, overdue.

Sir Tony’s knighthood might equally be said to be overdue. Past prime ministers have routinely been made members of the Order of the Garter. Press reports last month suggested that the Queen was reluctant to admit him to the order because of the way in which he handled the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. But the half a million people who have signed the online petition against Sir Tony have other issues in mind.

Its wording holds him “personally responsible for causing the death of countless innocent, civilian lives and servicemen in various conflicts”, and brands him a “war criminal”. More intriguingly, it also refers to him having “caused irreparable damage to both the constitution of the United Kingdom and to the very fabric of the nation’s society”.

Undoubtedly, he made a grave error of judgement over the war in Iraq. Sir John Chilcot’s official report found that he had exaggerated the threat of Saddam Hussein’s having weapons of mass destruction. Sir John said that he was not “straight with the nation” in the run-up to the war.

It is fairly clear now that as Prime Minister his top priority was maintaining the special relationship between Britain and the United States — and this clouded his judgement over the intelligence on Saddam. It is, however, extraordinarily wide of the mark to talk about irreparable damage to the fabric of the nation: quite the contrary.

Sir Tony made the Labour Party electable again after decades in the wilderness. He lifted millions of pensioners and half a million children out of poverty. He gave free nursery places to every three- and four-year-old. He allowed gay couples to enter into civil partnerships. He established the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. He introduced the National Minimum Wage, the Human Rights Act, and the Freedom of Information Act.

He granted the Bank of England operational independence and oversaw 11 years of uninterrupted economic growth and the longest sustained period of low inflation for half a century. He oversaw successful foreign-policy interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone. And he brought peace to Northern Ireland.

All of this, even put in the balance against his catastrophic misjudgement over Iraq, seems well worthy of a knighthood. Somehow, I can’t see the Queen changing her mind.

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