Petition to rescind Tony Blair's knighthood gets hundreds of thousands of signatures

The petition said former British PM Tony Blair should be held accountable for war crimes. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (NYTIMES) - By tradition, former British prime ministers are honoured by Queen Elizabeth some years after leaving No. 10 Downing St, so the elevation of Mr Tony Blair to a knighthood on New Year's Day could have been a routine event.

Instead, more than 600,000 people have signed an online petition asking that the honour be rescinded, illustrating how one of Britain's most successful politicians remains a divisive figure, never forgiven by his critics for taking the country to war in Iraq.

The petition, which has no legal force, said Mr Blair, 68, was "personally responsible" for causing the deaths of countless civilians and service members in various conflicts, adding that "he should be held accountable for war crimes".

That sentiment reflects the extent to which the legacy of the opposition Labour Party's most electorally successful recent leader has been defined by his staunch support for the United States and President George W. Bush in a war in Iraq that became steadily more unpopular in Britain.

The petition comes after Sir Tony became a member of the Order of the Garter, following an appointment made on New Year's Eve by the queen. Dating back almost 700 years, the order is the oldest and most senior Order of Chivalry in Britain. The current prime minister, Mr Boris Johnson, was not involved in the decision, his office said.

Sir Tony stepped aside as prime minister in 2007, became a Middle East peace envoy, set up a foundation and has recently made a number of well-received suggestions about how to handle the pandemic. But the speed with which the petition went viral illustrates that his efforts at political rehabilitation have had only limited success.

"It's a fool's errand," said Dr Steven Fielding, professor of political history at Nottingham University. "His reputation for the moment is locked into the Iraq War. He spent the last year of his premiership trying to establish his legacy, and it was all pointless because his legacy, like it or not, was Iraq, and is Iraq, and will remain Iraq."

Sir Tony led his Labour Party to a landslide election victory in 1997, was prime minister for a decade and won two more general elections along the way. He pulled Labour towards the political centre, helped negotiate a peace agreement in Northern Ireland and presided over a generally healthy economy spending buoyant tax revenues on health and education.

But after leaving Downing Street, Sir Tony became a wealthy man and advised some foreign governments and multinational companies, reinforcing his reputation as someone who liked to cultivate the rich and powerful.

He is disliked by those on both wings of the political spectrum: Those on the left accused him of betraying his party's values by shifting Labour to the centre, while those on the right resented his formidable electoral appeal.

"In a way the hate is in fact a tribute to Tony Blair," Dr Fielding said. "If he could see it like that he would almost enjoy it, but clearly it's painful to him."

Of the other four living former prime ministers, only John Major has received a knighthood-level honour, though Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May served in Downing Street after Sir Tony.

Despite its support, the online petition is unlikely to succeed in its aim of rescinding Sir Tony's knighthood, and the current leader of the Labour Party, Mr Keir Starmer - who has also been trying to shift the party to the political centre - defended the decision to award it.

"I don't think it's a thorny issue at all for me; I think Tony Blair deserves the honour," Mr Starmer told ITV, citing achievements including his work on the Northern Ireland peace process. "He won three elections; he was a very successful prime minister."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.