As I wrote on Saturday, The National Post was "the great journalistic adventure of my life" - and undoubtedly the last: No one will ever launch a national newspaper again; today we have "media platforms", whatever the hell that means, and most of the western world gets its news from Facebook and Google, which is increasingly like volunteering to be walled up with only a lifetime subscription to Pravda and Izvestia. So I have happy memories of the launch of Canada's National Post twenty years ago on October 27th 1998. Conrad Black and Ken Whyte put together an amazing team of editors and writers, and I was privileged to be a small part of those glory years. To mark the occasion, we're dusting off a few yellowing columns, and my old big-haired picture byline. So, having carted the thing up from the far moldering corners of the Steyn archive, I thought we'd start with a column that addresses the central oddity of the byline pic. This first appeared in the Post on February 22nd 2001:
Whenever I meet National Post readers, they rarely comment on my insight and perception. Instead, they want to know why I'm not wearing a tie in the above picture. Andrew Coyne, Norman Doidge, Rod McQueen, you name 'em, they've all got ties, while the token open-necked bylines -- Paul Wells, Noah Richler -- at least look like a principled rejection of ties, their shirt collars flapping breezily across their shoulders like a cut-price charter stuck in a holding pattern over Mirabel. "But you," said one reader accusingly, "your picture looks as if you're supposed to be wearing a tie but it fell off on the way to the office."
Well, here's the reason. I lent my tie to Tony Blair. True story. This was a couple of years back, at the BBC's New York studios, where I happened to be early one Friday morning when a callow youth wearing jeans and a ghastly leisure shirt wandered in from Fifth Avenue. I assumed from the mad, random grin that he wanted to recruit me for some sort of religious cult, so I was about to call security when he announced that he was Britain's Shadow Home Secretary and had been obliged to interrupt his Manhattan vacation to respond to that week's prison breakout "down the line," as they say, to BBC Radio in London. He did such a good job that they asked him if he wouldn't mind saying the same things all over again, this time for the TV news. They could film him above the waist, so the jeans wouldn't show, but he was still concerned about his open neck and, as I was the only guy in the building, he inveigled me into handing over my tie -- a tasteful yet splashy number from Ogilvy's in Montreal, if memory serves.
A couple of weeks later, I was in Britain and sought out a political insider: "Ever heard of a fellow called Tony Blair?" I said. "Claims to be shadow Home Secretary. I lent him my tie."
"Are you nuts?" said my friend. "He's now the new Labour Party leader, 87 points ahead in the polls, the most popular man in the country after Tinky-Winky in the Teletubbies. He's completely revitalized the Labour Party, got rid of all that socialist baggage from the past. He wants to sever the party's union ties." Well, I can't say I blame him, I thought. All that kipper-wide polyester and hideous paisley motifs. I met Tony again a few days later when we were both on the David Frost morning show. At breakfast afterwards, he was churlish enough to deny me full credit for his victory in the leadership race, but he did concede, à propos that BBC interview, that back at Labour HQ no one had paid any attention to anything he actually said but they did comment favourably on the tie. The spin doctors, not to say the knit-and-weave doctors, thought its bold colours projected both authority and innovation, gravitas and dynamism. You'll notice that my own neck now projects none of these qualities.
As the Bard said, some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have great ties thrust upon them. Tony's in North America this week for talks with Messrs Chrétien and Bush, and flies in fresh from sending in the RAF to bomb Saddam -- an Anglo-American operation that, according to Washington, was not Dubya's idea but Bomber Blair's. It is possible to agree with every word of Mark Kingwell's dispatch yesterday, and yet recognize that Britain is still the only other serious Western country. London punches above its weight: Its defence spending is, to all intents, as pitiful as Ottawa's, yet it's prepared to send its forces to bomb and kill in its national interest, as opposed to marketing them as international school crossing guards, the wretched state to which our own historic regiments are now reduced. But aside from his strange appetite for warmongering -- during the Kosovo business, while Clinton was under the desk consulting his polls, it was General Blair who wanted to push on and occupy Belgrade -- the UK Prime Minister, viewed from Canada, seems oddly familiar.
Since he took office in 1997, bewildered observers have tried to get a handle on what's known as "the Blair project." Taking advantage of the vast powers that accrue to the Queen's first minister under the Westminster system, Mr Blair has set about remaking the United Kingdom with an unprecedented zeal. For example, he's wrecked the House of Lords and turned it into a worthless chamber of cronies and has-beens. He's introduced "asymmetrical federalism" to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, allowing the last to maintain privileged relations with sovereign governments (Dublin), as Quebec does with France. An Ottawa-style Upper House of pliant deadbeats, "distinct society" status for problematic territories, the introduction to Scotland of a local Parliament divided between separatists and "soft nationalists," the unceasing demand that ancient institutions and symbols "modernize" themselves for the needs of a multicultural society ... After four years, it seems pretty clear that what Tone's exciting "New Britain" boils down to in practice is boring old Canada. "Cool Britannia" (as the Blair regime dubs itself) is cool mainly in the sense that Nunavut in February is. One assumes that New Labour is remodelling the mother country along the lines of its forgotten lion cub mostly unintentionally, but nonetheless, when a Blairite think-tank proposes replacing the Union flag with some designer logo, they are, consciously or not, searching for a UK Maple Leaf.
In 1997, no Fleet Street analyst foresaw that Mr Blair would embark on the abolition of Britain and its substitution by a new nation made in Tony's image, as Trudeau remade us in his. Where did it come from? One could certainly argue that there's something quintessentially Canadian in the Prime Minister's smug niceness. But I think back to our encounter in New York and find myself nagged by guilt: Did some sinister Canadian organism jump the evolutionary chain from my Ogilvy's necktie to Blair's bloodstream? On the day I bought it, had the elderly M Trudeau perhaps tried it on? Did some fatal Trudeaupian virus seep through Tony's shirt and lead him on to the Canadianization of Britain? Surely no sane person would deliberately model every single one of his constitutional reforms on Canada, given that Canada is one of the great constitutional swamps of the western world. Surely, if he was going to mimic North American federalism, he'd take up successful US ideas, not failed Canadian ones. But the tie I loaned Tone is now a noose around the collective neck of the United Kingdom. Britain's second Canadian Prime Minister (after New Brunswick's Andrew Bonar Law, who briefly occupied Downing Street in 1922-23) is defining the country out of existence.
Perhaps, while he's here, Mr Blair will wear my tie -- signaling, like Bill Clinton wearing Monica's tie on TV during the impeachment business, that he still cares. In those far-off salad days of the mid-Nineties, cocky Westminster Tories thought Tony was a lightweight, a chicken pretty boy in a fancy necktie. As another Westminster PM remarked on another visit to Canada, "Some chicken, some neck."
~from The National Post, February 22nd 2001
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