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Tony Blair and the examination of conscience

2010 August 17
by Paul Vallely

“The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King,” Hamlet famously plotted. For Tony Blair it was not a play so much as an autobiography which has perhaps performed the same function.

Much debate has taken place in the short time since the former prime minister announced that he is to hand over all the profits from his autobiography – starting with the $4.6m advance – to a charity for the Armed Forces. Generous gesture or guilty conscience? But there may be a false polarity in the question.

Conscience, the American essayist H L Mencken once said, is the inner voice which warns us that someone may be looking. As a convert to Catholicism, Blair will have a more particular understanding of the term. “Conscience is man’s most secret core, and his sanctuary,” says one of the foundational  documents of the Second Vatican Council. “There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths”.

What Blair will have encountered in his journey from the Church of England to its Roman counterpart is the duty which is laid upon Catholics to examine their conscience regularly – and then lay out their wrongdoings before a priest in the sacrament of Confession.

The forgiveness which the priest pronounces can be conditional on some act of penance. Usually this is the instruction to spend a certain amount of time in prayer. But it can involve an act of restoration – the return of stolen goods, for example – or reparation of some other kind.

This is not to suggest that Tony Blair’s massive donation to the British Legion has been proposed to him by a priestly confessor, though it might have been. But it would chime in with the mindset which would accompany the process of reviewing his life as he started to think about his autobiography. It might explain why he says he first mooted the idea of donating the profits to charity when the book was being auctioned to publishers in 2007.

It is important not to over-dramatise this.  Blair has been pretty tight-lipped about his faith – much as he has about the private fortune he is said to have amassed behind the Windrush Ventures No 3 Limited Partnership vehicle he has set up to shield his personal finances from prying eyes. But we do know that he is not a literalist in his faith from the way he dismissed suggestions that he might once have prayed with President Bush as if he were some evangelical charismatic who heard the voice of God in his ear, presumably whispering: “Invade Iraq”.

The tradition which Blair has joined has a different understanding of what it means to be religious. For Catholics to “do God”, in Alastair Campbell’s reductive paraphrase, is something far more assimilated and internalised. It is about being part of a community and a shared moral tradition which moulds the conscience and informs the worldview against which each individual’s decisions are made.

There is also something distinctively British about the importance of conscience. Both Latin and French make do with a single term for conscience and consciousness. But we Brits have separated moral discernment from awareness in its more general sense.

 Aristotle spoke of what is true: “the high-minded man must care more for the truth than for what people think”. And the Hebrew scriptures – and the Christian gospels – used the notion of “the heart” to stand for conscience. It was only with the abstract theology of St Paul that the concept of conscience (syneidesis) appears.

But from that early point – and many might think this significant in considering Tony Blair’s decision to back George Bush’s invasion of Iraq – there was central to Christian teaching the idea that one must always obey one’s conscience – conscienta semper sequenda – even when others say it is in error.

That is an inheritance which has remained with the West. It was central to the trial of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg after World War II. Only obeying orders was no defence. And it goes wider than the West: in matters of conscience, the law of the majority has no place, Ghandi taught.

But it is a double-edged principle, as Tony Blair’s friends found when they detected echoes of that in the run-up to the war on Iraq.

There is another key Catholic notion. Ignorance, it has for centuries taught, can be invincible or vincible when it comes to acting upon the dictates of conscience. For an individual to follow his conscience is not just a question of going with instincts. Feelings are not enough. That way lies an anarchy of moral egotisms and the bolstering of prejudices, for conscience can be corrupted by personal, social, economic or political interests.

Rather each here. Each individual has a duty to inform their conscience. If, as the Church’s greatest theological philosopher Thomas Aquinas suggested, conscience is “the mind of man making moral judgements” that mind needs to be educated to grow in sensitivity and the art of discernment.  Without that, as the official Catholic Catechism puts it, individuals, politicians included, might be “tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment”.

In religious terms that would mean attending to the scriptures and the accumulated wisdom, and mistakes, of the Church over the past two thousand years. In political terms it might mean giving more weight to the collective wisdom of Cabinet colleagues rather than sidelining them in the way that evidence to the Chilcot inquiry shows Tony Blair did in 2003. Invincible ignorance is where we could not have been expected to know otherwise; it carries no moral blame. But when a man “takes little trouble to find out what is true and good”, to quote the Catechism once more, then “the person is culpable for the evil he commits”.

There are those who think that Blair was wilfully hypocritical or self-deluded over Iraq. But that is to misunderstand the dichotomy which runs deep through Blair’s political personality. He is driven by two impulses, which are often in tension and sometimes contradiction. He has a strong sense of moral commitment. Yet he is the quintessential political pragmatist.

Those dual drivers were repeatedly clear. He launched his Commission for Africa because world poverty was “the greatest moral challenge facing our generation” but he also saw it as addressing the UK’s national interest since “many of the problems which affect us – war and conflict, international crime and the trade in illicit drugs – are caused or exacerbated by poverty”. He demonstrated the same combination of high-mindedness and political canniness on climate change, offering lofty admonitions about the stewardship of the planet along with plans for British businesses to seize the best new opportunities through green technologies.

Blair saw no conflict in this. Rather he believed that the interplay of moral imperatives and national self-interest was a creative one, creating an unanswerable case for action.

It was the same with foreign policy. There Tony Blair was, above all else, an activist. He was charged with a sense that he had a duty to intervene to try to rectify wrong. After years of the Douglas Hurd do-nothing school of foreign policy – which led Britain to walk away from ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and turn its back on genocide in Rwanda – this was a significant shift. But his conscience prompted the right call on Kosovo and Sierra Leone and made an egregious mistake with Iraq.

Yet his huge donation to the British Legion recognises no such distinctions. In making it he cites the courage and sacrifice of our troops in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and Iraq without differentiation.

Sigmund Freud regarded conscience otherwise; it was seated, he suggested, in the repressive superego. Another tragic hero of Shakespeare’s, Richard III, saw it as “a word that cowards use… to keep the strong in awe”.  But conscience, the Catholic Catechism insists, may never be used to justify evil on the argument that good will result from it.

“Were its might equal to its right”, said the novelist Samuel Butler, “conscience would rule the world”.  Perhaps it is as well that it does not.

One Response
  1. August 19, 2010

    Hey, I read this on the Independent website and thought it was interesting, though graffitti’d over by the have-your-sayers (all syllogising to the distressing effect of ‘Blair is a Jew, Jews are Evil, Therefore Blair is Evil’).

    This – ‘he believed that the interplay of moral imperatives and national self-interest was a creative one, creating an unanswerable case for action’ – must be a scarily powerful belief to have. I can see why you’d become a zealot, for better or for worse, with that kind of conviction coursing through your veins…

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