The Church of England has a distinguished history of producing eccentric clergymen, but few tales in its long annals can match that of Harold Davidson. The sum of his story is as follows: a former showman, the Rector of Stiffkey in Norfolk declared himself to have a mission to rescue young girls in danger of falling into vice – and approached and befriended hundreds of them. The Bishop of Norwich eventually instituted disciplinary proceedings. Davidson was convicted and defrocked after the prosecution produced a photograph of him with a near-naked teenage girl. He returned to his former career as a showman, exhibiting himself in a barrel – and variously freezing in a refrigerated chamber; being roasted in a glass-fronted oven while a mechanised devil prodded him with a pitchfork, and confining himself in a cage with lions.
In two ways at least, Tony Blair’s tale is unlike Davidson’s: he has not been put in trial and, unlike the former clergyman, has never run short of money. But the parallels in other respects, though fanciful, are beginning to look uncanny. Like Davidson, Blair had an earlier spell as an entertainer (starring as Mark Antony in a production of Julius Caesar at Fettes, and as a singer at Oxford in a band called Ugly Rumours). Davidson insisted there was nothing improper about his relationship with those girls; Blair insists there was nothing improper about his role in the invasion of Iraq. Davidson was turned out of his living by the church; Blair was turned out of Downing Street by his party. Davidson freezed and roasted himself; Blair is the Special Envoy of the Quartet on the Middle East and has set up the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Both men have in common the protestation of their innocence – which, in both cases, is virulently contested.
As I argued yesterday, Iraq would have been torn apart by the civil war within Islam regardless of the 2003 invasion, such is the primal ferocity of the strife between Sunni and Shi’ite – a struggle on a scale so huge and a canvas so vast as almost to be beyond the grasp of the western liberal imagination. Historians in some future age may thus be kinder to Blair than people in this present one, especially those who are members of his own Party. Just as some now say that Davidson was ill-treated, others may claim that Blair didn’t wage an illegal war (because no court has ever pronounced), didn’t take Britain to war (since Parliament voted for the invasion) and was always open about his desire for regime change. The problem for him is the modern equivalent of Davidson’s compromising photograph. The charge that he bent the evidence; that corners were cut, and that Whitehall was too servile – Blair then being at the height of his power – is simply too strong to dismiss. We do not need to wait for Chilcott to confirm this; Butler has already done so.
In the meanwhile, Blair continues to assert that he was right about Iraq, for all the world like Davidson making speeches to the crowd outside that lion’s cage. And just as Davidson’s accusations against the church, after his defrocking, grew more and more vociferous, so Blair’s proposals for action in the Middle East, now that he has left office, grow more and more extensive: drones, bombs, air strikes, military intervention in Syria: he supports the lot. Devils – or rather former Cabinet colleagues, such as John Prescott and Clare Short – prod at him with pitchforks. Guardian and Daily Mail readers join to plunge him into the ice-chamber of their disapproval. The crowd outside the cage is baffled, murmuring, hostile: he is finished in Britain. Blair, the former actor in Elizabethan drama, might echo the words of Marlowe’s fallen angel: “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.”
Davidson was eventually mauled to death by a lion in Skegness. Blair’s parallel life with the former Rector has distance yet to run.