Blair sparks fury with troops donation

Anna Tomforde

London (dpa) – If all publicity is good publicity, Tony Blair should count himself lucky that his decision to donate millions from his forthcoming book launch to injured soldiers has placed him – once more – at the centre of a political storm.

But, on the other hand, the 57-year-old former prime minister could be upset at being attacked – even when trying to do a good deed – and perhaps at realizing once again that he remains a highly controversial and even hated figure in Britain.

His announcement that he would donate all proceeds from his autobiography, A Journey, to a new sports centre for the rehabilitation of British soldiers injured in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other conflicts, has been denounced by critics as a gift of “blood money” with which to buy a clean conscience.

Blair, who has become a multi-millionaire since he left office in 2007, is reported to have been paid an advance of 4.6 million pounds (7.1 million dollars) for the book, to be launched on September 1.

That sum, and any future royalties, will be given to the British Legion-built centre in recognition of the “courage and sacrifice” demonstrated by British troops in conflicts from Iraq to Kosovo, said Blair’s statement.

It hit a raw nerve. “The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in the pointless death of hundreds of British soldiers and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. No amount of money will wash their blood from his hands,” said the Stop The War Coalition, and umbrella group for anti-war campaigners.

Relatives of dead soldiers were also savage in their response. Blair, they suggested, had become rich partly because of his “war legacy” which enhanced his international status. Some said they still wanted to see the former prime minister be dragged before a war crimes court.

“I think this donation is because of a very big guilty conscience for the 179 dead in Iraq,” said Carol Jones, who lost a son in Iraq.

“It is blood money as far as I am concerned,” she told the Independent.

But Roger Bacon, whose son also died in Iraq, said: “I was speechless. But at least it shows he has a conscience. He should not keep a penny of that money and it is quite right it should go to a service charity.”

Blair infuriated many relatives of Iraq victims when, during testimony at Britain’s Iraq Inquiry in January, he refused to apologize for the victims, and said he had “no regrets” over taking Britain to war.

However, those close to Blair dismissed speculation that his decision to hand over the money signalled contrition or regret.

“He wouldn’t do it out of a guilty conscience because he is quite convinced the reasons for going to war in Iraq are still right,” said John Burton, a long-term confidant.

The Times newspaper agreed in a comment Tuesday, saying that Blair would have been fully aware that a “fat cheque is a poor substitute for an apology.”

“It is confirmation of Blair’s firm conviction – whether rightly or wrongly held – that the causes to which he committed Britain’s armed forces were causes worth fighting for,” the paper said.

In his elaborate pre-launch publicity, aided by its own website and a YouTube clip, Blair shows no sign of humility or regret.

He wished to give the reader an “insight into the human as well as the political dimensions of life as prime minister,” Blair says on YouTube.

“It’s a frank account of my life in politics which illuminates what it’s like to be a leader. Both for the UK and of course on the international stage.”

Just two months ago, publishers Random House changed the book’s title to A Journey – from the more pompous-sounding The Journey.

A limited special edition of the memoirs, in a red and gold cover, will be available for 150 pounds, while the standard hardback copy will cost 12.50 pounds. The work has already been translated into 14 languages.

The scale and perceived arrogance of Blair’s publicity machine had already fuelled the anger of anti-war groups, which have announced a “mass protest” at a signing for A Journey planned at a London bookstore on September 8.

The controversy over the Blair donation is likely to swell the ranks of protestors outside the shop in London’s Piccadilly, for which police are planning tough security measures.

Organizers of the protests have set up a Facebook page calling for Blair’s arrest during the signing, offering a bounty of 30,000 pounds for anyone who should succeed in detaining him.