Blood, Toil, Sweat, Blair

It seems inexplicable. Donald Rumsfeld even offered him a way out last week, when he dismissed the idea that the British would be helping America fight and win in Iraq. Right then, Tony Blair could have seized the peacekeeper’s role: After all the shooting, British troops march into Baghdad-to help enforce the Pax Americana. But no: Within minutes, Tony Blair was on the phone to the White House, insisting on a retraction (“clarification” in diplomatic-speak)-because Britain is going to war, whether it costs him his premiership or not. There is no way the 30,000 British troops will languish in Kuwait for lack of that second United Nations resolution he fought so hard for. Never mind the reasonable doubts about the legitimacy of a pre-emptive invasion; never mind the massive domestic opposition; never mind the 149 members of parliament who voted no Tuesday night when Mr. Blair asked the Commons to support “all means necessary” to disarm Iraq; never mind the resignation of a cabinet minister and of other members of his government, or the threat of a leadership challenge-Mr. Blair is going to war.

Why, oh why, is this savvy politician, this “third way” enthusiast, this friend of Bill Clinton, so hot to join forces with George W. Bush and his band of ultra-conservatives when the political risk is great and growing?

Theories abound. As he likes to say when his motives are questioned (it’s for oil, his critics charge, or to preserve the “special relationship,” or because he and George pray together, or because he craves the international spotlight, or because he’s a wannabe Gladstonian liberal)-as he likes to say, it’s worse than that. He believes passionately that Saddam Hussein cannot be allowed to continue to govern Iraq, and that if it takes force to remove him, so be it. He believes what he’s doing is right.

I think we should take him at his word-with these few caveats. Watch Tony Blair carefully, watch him smile blamelessly and protest that he believes in what he’s doing, and you’ll see deepening gullies on his face that betray the enormous strain he’s under. Consider, also, that Mr. Blair has won two landslide general-election victories, subdued the notoriously fractious Labour Party and governed successfully for six years-all of which requires political guile, a talent for measuring political risk and a certain ruthlessness. And for all his bellicose language, he and George Bush are not and can never be ideological bedfellows. His ideas are different and so is his sensibility; sooner or later, those differences will out. So, once again, why?

Anthony Charles Lynton Blair is a product of three key influences: the British private-school system, the Church of England and the British legal system. Young Tony was educated at Fettes in Scotland, a classic “public school.” Fettes and the more famous schools of its kind-Eton, Winchester, Westminster-do not simply offer a first-class education; they also confer self-belief, remove self-doubt and provide a passport to the pinnacles of the British class system. Those fortunate enough to attend know that they are part of a caste destined to lead, whatever career they may choose-politics, rock ‘n’ roll, finance, the British army. Only one successful leader of the Labour party-Harold Wilson-was not privately educated. Even in these supposedly democratic and egalitarian times, Mr. Blair’s education, his “public school” manner and his acquired self-confidence, still hugely count in Britain.

Young Tony Blair put his absence of self-doubt and assured self-belief not in the service of conservative politics, where it sits more naturally, but progressive politics. For this, the explanation lies with Britain’s state church, the Church of England. Mr. Blair is a committed Christian, but his Christianity does not lead him to the same conservative views as Mr. Bush-and that’s because the Church of England is a church organized, as it must be, as the most socially inclusive institution in the country. It preaches kindliness, tolerance and generosity towards the poor. Unlike many American Protestant churches, the Church of England is anything but fundamentalist. Moreover, in the 1970’s and 80’s the Church shed its links with the Tory establishment, rejected Thatcherite individualism and tried to reach out for a more ancient, gentle liberal tradition. Mr. Blair is part of that change.

And then there’s the law, Mr. Blair’s chosen profession. Mr. Blair believes in fairness and fair play in the fundamental English sense-and he wants to see fairness and fair play systematized in codes that everybody observes without being told to. He is against regulation, but not for the same reasons as Mr. Bush, who sees regulation as an extension of government power and intrusion against the liberty of the individual. Mr. Blair believes that in the good society, we should all observe the law of our own volition and without compulsion, because the law incorporates a common-sense view of what is fair. Of course, transgressors should feel the full force of legal penalties. But the idea is that people will internalize good and moral behavior in their own interest. (In his speech to the Commons on Tuesday night, he emphasized duty .) Throughout his leadership of the Labour party, he has struggled to square this world view with more traditional social-democratic theory-thus his interest, variously, in responsible capitalism, communitarianism and, latterly, the “third way.”

The longer he has led the Labour Party, the more convinced he has become that his cocktail of views, his very English sensibility-combining kindliness and fairness with a tough-minded insistence that just laws must be obeyed to the letter-is right. And he has so far been able to persuade the British public to agree: He has remained ahead of his opponents in the opinion polls for an unprecedented nine consecutive years.

And this explains why he has done what he has done on Iraq. Saddam Hussein must obey international law-or suffer the consequences of breaking it. The U.N. Security Council must enforce international law, because without it there can be no international justice. And without the rule of law, the prospect of relieving the condition of the poorest people on the planet, in particular in the Middle East, is nonexistent. Tony Blair, educated and trained morally and professionally to accept this burden of responsibility, must shoulder it. It is not easy-look again at his face.

Will Hutton is a columnist for the London Observer. His new book, A Declaration of Interdependence , will be published by W.W. Norton in May.