Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced earlier this week that he intends to donate all proceeds from his forthcoming memoirs to the Royal British Legion (known as 'the Legion), a charity caring for British servicemen. In total, Blair is donating the £4.6 million advance and all future royalties to the charity, the single-largest donation ever received by the Legion in its 90 year history.
The money will go to support the Legion's new "Battle Back Challenge Centre," a state-of-the-art rehabilitation center for seriously injured Service personnel. The center is due to open in 2012, providing accommodation, a gym and training facilities.
Chris Simpkins, Director General of the Royal British Legion, said:
"The Legion is delighted to accept this very generous donation which gives an excellent start to our fundraising target of £12m for the Battle Back Challenge Centre and a total of £25m as our contribution to the provision of the world class service for injured personnel for the next 10 years. The culture of the Centre will very much be about what users of the service can do rather than what they can't but some of the servicemen and women are likely to need the Legion's support for the rest of their lives. Mr. Blair's generosity is much appreciated and will help us to make a real and lasting difference to the lives of hundreds of injured personnel."
Predictably, there has been a backlash. Blair stands accused of trying to appease a guilty conscience, while other remarks have suggested that his donation amounts to little more than "blood money." Iain Martin, from the Wall Street Journal Europe, notes, "It is widely presumed that nothing Blair is involved in can ever be wholly straightforward."
And this is precisely what has played out. An acerbic article in the Daily Mail by Max Hastings howls that Blair's donation "should not change our minds in the smallest degree about Blair's record as Prime Minister. There is a long tradition of big crooks giving big to charity because they want to buy a ticket to respectability — and sometimes succeed."
That might be so, but to cast aspersions over Blair's intentions is an exercise in futility. Blair has not asked his critics to suddenly revise their opinion of him or his decision to take Britain to war. Nor has he asked for new-found respect or public adoration. All of these judgments have been retrospectively applied to Blair by his critics.
Put aside the – for many, still lingering – bitterness surrounding Blair's decision to invade Iraq. The Legion's scope is much broader than simply treating the injured from Basra or Helmand: Through its doors also pass soldiers injured in Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Sierra Leone.
Do they, along with their comrades inured in Afghanistan and Iraq, not deserve rehabilitation?
The debate surrounding Blair's donation now threatens to overshadow the vital work being carried out by British Armed Forces abroad. In his last appearance in the House of Commons before stepping down as Prime Minister, Tony Blair told the House:
"I believe that they [the British Armed Forces] are fighting for the security of this country and the wider world against people who would destroy our way of life. But whatever view people take of my decisions, I think that there is only one view to take of them: they are the bravest and the best".
Blair was right; and whatever the debate surrounding his decisions, we should not lose sight of that.