Tony Blair's knighthood is not a surprise. He is the bloody face of the British Empire.

Tony Blair's knighthood is not a surprise. He is the bloody face of the British Empire.
5 min read
14 Jan, 2022
Standing against Tony Blair's knighthood is not only about holding him accountable for the death and suffering he has caused in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is also about confronting the imperialist endeavours he stood for, writes Malia Bouattia.
A protestor sets fire to a mask representing former British Prime Minister Tony Blair outside the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London, on the fifth day of the Iraq war inquiry, on 30 November 2009. [Getty]

The news that Tony Blair was awarded a knighthood by the Queen was not the best start to the New Year.

To hear that the greatest order of chivalry in the country, becoming a Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, was bestowed upon Blair, of all people, was too much to bear for many. Especially given that just months prior, we marked the 20th anniversary of one of the bloody military invasions that the British state was complicit in, under Blair's leadership: Afghanistan.

The record of Blair's time as prime minister is paved with so much destruction and injustice that it is difficult to know where to begin listing the reasons why the decision to award him such an honour is such a slap in the face – and not just to people in the UK, but all around the world. Most famously, his role in signing the country up to the US-led Afghanistan and Iraq wars remains an international disgrace. Blair actively lied – over and over again, to get Britain into the war on the false pretence that there was a direct connection between 9/11 and the Taliban regime, as well as the fabricated claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

"The record of Blair's time as prime minister is paved with so much destruction and injustice that it is difficult to know where to begin listing the reasons why the decision to award him such an honour is such a slap in the face"

A petition was set up in the wake of the highest honour being bestowed upon Blair, calling on the decision to be rescinded. "He was personally responsible for causing the death of countless innocent, civilian lives and servicemen in various conflicts. For this alone he should be held accountable for war crimes," explained Angus Scott, the instigator of the petition. In just over a week of its publication, more than 1 million signatures have already been collected.

The levels of anger that this subject has stirred up amongst so many makes it difficult for politicians to avoid responding to the popular discontent, especially given that this has gone well beyond the number of signatures needed for petitions to be debated in Parliament.

On the other hand, as Tony Blair taught us when he ignored the 1 million people who marched against Britain's involvement in the Iraq war, the political establishment has an impressive ability to avoid popular will and is unlikely to intervene – let alone to get the knighthood revoked.

Perspectives

Worse than this, it is likely that Blair will be actively supported in the honour he has received. It is, after all, a traditional gift given to former PMs by the Queen. In fact, many prominent figures have already started to come to his defence.

Current Labour leader Keir Starmer said that the "very strong views on the Iraq War", "does not detract from the fact that Tony Blair was a very successful prime minister of this country and made a huge difference to the lives of millions of people in this country." Pity Starmer does not seem to care about the nature of said difference, to people in this country or for the million people killed in Iraq.

Even Tory Cabinet minister Michael Gove supported his knighthood and stated that Blair was "an outstanding statesman". The leader of the Liberal Democrats Ed Davey denounced those supporting the petition for "disrespecting the Queen."

In some ways, it is unsurprising that Blair would be rewarded in this way. He did carry out services to the British Empire and the state in the most traditional way. He continued the legacy of invasions in the Middle East to strengthen the country's interests in the region. It is then only fitting that the monarchy, an institution that has benefited financially and politically from the wars, interventions and colonial exploitation abroad, would recognise his achievements in these continued practices.

Benjamin Zephaniah summarised the nature of all the so-called honours bestowed by the Palace when he was asked about why he turned down the OBE by artist and presenter Big Narstie. "I've been fighting against Empire my whole life, I've been fighting slavery and colonialism all my life" the poet explained, adding, "how could I go and accept an honour that then puts the word empire on my name? That would be hypocritical."

As well as fighting for Tony Blair to be held accountable for his crimes, for the death and suffering he has caused, we should also be fighting for an end to the imperialist endeavours he stood for. This includes the celebration of the very practices that bolster them.

The petition sends a strong message, that is undeniable, about the continued widespread public rejection of Blair, his wars, and his political legacy.

"The political legacy of the many who marched and organised against the government's plans during the Blair years remains of great importance today"

It should be built upon through the strengthening of anti-imperialist movements from below. The political legacy of the many who marched and organised against the government's plans during the Blair years remains of great importance today. It demonstrated how we are capable of uniting school children, teachers, the young, the old, migrants, trade unionists, community leaders, health workers, artists, students, and religious leaders in holding our leaders to account.

We may not have won then, but the power to change the course of history remains in our grasp, as long as we are prepared to continue to collectively fight even after the defeats.

Because in the end, we can expect little from the institution that, "still refuses to apologise for sanctioning slavery" as Zephaniah wrote in his public refusal of the OBE Blair and the Queen invited him to accept in 2003. We would do well to restate the poet's sentiments: "[s]tick it, Mr Blair - and Mrs Queen, stop going on about the empire. Let's do something else."

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.