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The Blair Hitch Project

Since leaving 10 Downing Street, Tony Blair has faced continuing public condemnation for leading the U.K. into Iraq, converted to Catholicism, and plunged into the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Debating Blair in Toronto, the author finds the former prime minister battered but unapologetic.
BELIEVE IT OR NOT
Christopher Hitchens at the Munk Debates, in Toronto.

Say “Toronto” or “Ontario” and the immediate thought associations are with a somewhat blander version of North America: a United States with a welfare regime and a more polite street etiquette, and the additionally reassuring visage of Queen Elizabeth on the currency. But this part of Canada also has its quixotic and romantic dimension. It was to here that the Tory loyalists fled the American Revolution. In the village of Deptford, Ontario, on the banks of the local river Thames, the great Canadian novelist Robertson Davies cast and situated a trilogy variously composed of the elements of magic and exile. One of his chief characters, Percy “Boy” Staunton, gives up much of his life and energy to the cause of the Prince of Wales, a once dashing and promising young blade who shatters and demoralizes his admirers by falling under the thrall of a designing woman and abdicating the throne without a fight.

As I was led past a phalanx of guards to be admitted to Tony Blair's hotel suite overlooking Toronto and Lake Ontario, I was mentally running through our previous meetings. The first had been in the room of the leader of the opposition in the House of Commons shortly after he had been elected to head the Labour Party and to re-brand—or should I say re-baptize?—it as “New Labour.” Then I had seen him in the private office of the prime minister in Downing Street, just before he became eligible to celebrate an entire decade in the job, almost eclipsing Margaret Thatcher and setting an indoor record for any Labour politician. Most recently he had slipped downstairs to say hello while he was on a private visit to the British Embassy residence in Washington. The surroundings were still grand, but by then he had abdicated and was being forced to watch his disliked and inferior successor throw away an election he knew in his heart he himself could have won.

Now he was traveling with a very small but devoted staff, and looking like a Prince Charming in exile. The high-wattage grin was still there, but framed in a lined face with cropped and graying hair that still gave the ephemeral impression of youth. We were due to have a public debate: the first he had agreed to since he had left office. Blair had made an appearance before the Chilcot committee, which is still investigating Britain's participation in the invasion of Iraq, looking tight-lipped and conceding nothing. The taunts against him had swollen from run-of-the-mill abuse (“Bush's poodle,” “Liar,” or sometimes “Bliar”) to full-out hatred. “War criminal!” “Murderer.” The first two public launches of his new memoir, A Journey, had been disrupted or canceled. At a bookstore signing in Dublin he had been pelted with shoes and other objects by a mixed mob of anti-war types, stiffened with some gaunt lads from the periphery of “the Real I.R.A.” A later event at the Tate Modern, in London, had to be called off. “It just wouldn't have been fair to everyone else to go ahead,” he says with a rather lame shrug. Perhaps he was relying on the legendary politeness of Torontonians, and on the apparently more neutral subject of our dispute, which was religion. He now operates under the somehow touching name of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which can sound rather like a body set up to express faith in Tony Blair. His principal day job is to serve as mediator for the “Quartet” of powers that supervise the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.” This means regular efforts to reconcile Muslims, Jews, and Christians in the Holy Land. Cheer up, I want to tell him. At least it's a job for life.
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TAGGED: CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, COMMENTARY, SPEECHES


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