Charlotte Leslie is a member of the Health Select Committee and MP for Bristol North West.
It was a hot London summer, and Tony Blair and Iraq were in the news. A neon-ceiling of a sky burnt down over a fretful, stifled city – or at least that’s how I saw it in the June of 2003. The events of that summer and of the autumn two years ago are why I am in politics today. Perhaps they colour my view too much, but I am not sure I am alone in holding them.
I was boxed up in Union House, off Shepherds Bush Green, shovelling contestants into shows for The Weakest Link. A surge of panic was rising from my belly as it became clearer that this wasn’t what I wanted to be doing with my life, but I couldn’t see the exit.
It certainly wasn’t the job I had envisaged two years previously, as I made the call from a Chicago sofa to inform Balliol College’s admissions office I wasn’t coming back in a fortnight’s time to start that Masters, but was going to try my luck in media instead. I was sitting down in front of the TV of my dumbstruck English host, both of us watching in mesmerised horror as the second plane hit the second twin tower. My planned flight for 13th September 2001 was obviously not going to happen. The world had suddenly changed.
The original diary that I was obliged to keep as part of the agreement for the scholarship from Balliol College, Oxford, under which I was travelling round America in my post-finals summer, sits in my bedside drawer. It’s a tatty reassurance that I haven’t retrospectively re-created my memories of my first trip to America in the light of later events.
My impressions of the USA were so strong (not entirely favourable) that I had to edit my diary when I submitted a copy to my kind American sponsors. In a rather naïve and hyperbolic student hand, I wrote about my fears of an (even more) naïve super-power colossus, wielding its magnificence to a deeply unequal world, in blind ignorance of its less-than-sympathetic global audience.
I became so engrossed by my theme that I had a massive grump on my special birthday trip to the top of the twin towers on August 11th 2001 and, on reaching the summit, insisted to my friend’s annoyance that we go down *immediately*, in case there was a bomb on a floor below us. “What would we do if there was?” I remember asking. “Would you rather burn, or jump?”. I think we both decided on jump. No one ever dreamed that exactly a month later we would be watching people as they actually made that diabolical decision.
That distant brush with one of the most cataclysmic events of our time changed my life. Returning to an academic ivory tower became an immoral cop-out. I was terrified of America’s “God on Our Side” reaction, and what it would bring. Insignificant as I was, I saw two ways to ‘get involved’ – media or politics. Politics appeared to be people barking at each other, but media seemed able to change cultures.
Putting contestants into The Weakest Link wasn’t entirely what I had in mind – but there I was, two years on, boiling with panic at the UK and at America’s determination to invade Iraq. “If I’m feeling this,” I remember thinking, “and I’m a white, middle-class girl, what’s a young Muslim man going to be thinking?” The Kurdish man selling fruit at Shepherds Bush Market convinced me. “Sadaam is a devil” he said, “but America removing him would be worse.”
As the people marched on London’s streets, I decided that my TV career was going nowhere: The Conservatives were making a dreadful mistake in supporting Blair, and politics it would have to be.
I was either too politically young or distracted during the 1990s to appreciate the impact of decisions that we had made over delayed intervention in Bosnia, and intervention in Kosovo and Sierra Leone. So perhaps my personal experience colours my perception of events too much, but that’s for you to judge.
For my part, I remain utterly mystified at how the political establishment, many in my own party included, can still look up to Tony Blair. He is still praised as the great political operator, but being a politician is not the same as being a great servant of one’s country. I cannot imagine that history will judge him as a great statesman. I am even more mystified as to how he can be ever have seriously been considered as a “Middle East Peace Envoy”. As Conservatives are fond of saying about the economy, you don’t hand the keys back to the person who crashed the car.
It was Blair and his actions that destroyed any credibility Britain may have had left in the Middle East, and Blair who has made any major future intervention – even if it was needed – almost impossible. For him now to claim that we should have acted sooner by intervening in Syria is beyond belief. We know he has a high view of his own supremacy and favours articulating it through military muscle, but even if you think we should have intervened, it was his very actions over Iraq that made this all but impossible.
When I was outside politics, I remember looking at almost the entire political class being bewitched by Blair and wondering what it was that they had lost, and why it was that they were unable to see something the British public could see very well – that nothing about that 45 minute claim added up. Now, looking at media outlets and even some politicians taking Blair seriously, I ask myself the same question.
The situation in the Middle East is dangerous, and there are not always ‘right answers’. But before we grant Blair the airwaves and space even to voice an opinion, I want to see the Chilcot Enquiry, published, now.