The idea that a person's opinions matter in themselves is an aspect of our egocentric "me" culture - the notion that we are all special people, entitled to respect. But we're not. As Rumsfeld said, people are fungible.
Blair, as in other ways, embraced this culture. In his resignation speech, he said:
But it doesn't matter what you thought was right, matey. What matters is what was right.
I ask you to accept one thing. Hand on heart, I did what I thought was right.
I may have been wrong. That is your call. But believe one thing if nothing else. I did what I thought was right for our country.
This prioritizing of sincerity - how often did Blair claim to "passionately believe" something? - isn't just ugly. When it enters politics - as it did long ago - it's downright pernicious.
First, when we identify people and beliefs, an attack on an idea becomes an attack upon people. This leads to pointlessly hot-headed slanging matches: just look, if you can bear to, at almost any "debate" about religion or Israel.
It also increases the power of cognitive biases. If I invest my personality into a belief, I'm apt to defend that investment . So I'm more prone to use the confirmation bias - to look for evidence that defends my belief and proves that I was right.
Similarly, if I like someone, I'm likely to give his views an easy ride. And this can lead to groupthink; we each think: "he's a good bloke, and he agrees with me, so we must be right", and so get carried away with damnfool ideas.
Secondly, the culture of sincerity leads to a political cycle which alternates between a cult of leadership and "crises" of authority. We look for political leaders with sincere good judgement and every test of that then becomes a crisis. So, for example, the debate about jailing alleged terrorists for 42 days without charge becomes not a question of the trade-off between liberty and security, but rather a challenge to Brown's authority. This is what happens when ideas are identified with people.
But there are alternatives. As Richard Sennett showed in his wonderful The Fall of Public Man, public life has not always been about narcisstically sincere revelations of the "self." Until the late 19th century, it was the norm for men to adopt roles, masks, in public.
When we are discussing something in a meeting, instead of just asking everyone for their tuppenceworth, we can assign individuals de Bono hats. This identifies support and criticism of proposals not with individuals, but with their role.
And it is possible for political discussion to break the equivalence between individuals and beliefs. Take for example, the Cuban Missile crisis*. Khrushchev proposed to Kennedy that he would remove missiles from Cuba if the US withdrew their missiles from Turkey. Kennedy's private response to this, to George Ball, was:
He's got us in a pretty good spot here. Because most people would regard this as not an unreasonable proposal.
Kennedy did not say it was a reasonable proposal - that would have foreclosed discussion about whether to agree to these demands. Instead, in attributing the belief to most people, he was inviting more dispassionate consideration.
And in disputing this view, McGeorge Bundy said:
Again, in crediting others with the idea, it is being depersonalized, so it can be weighed on its merits.
[This would suggest] we were trying to sell our allies for our interests. That would be the view of all in NATO. Now it's irrational and crazy, but it's a terribly powerful fact.
Who knows? If Kennedy and his advisors had been more sincere, maybe none of us would be around now.
* I draw on this essay by Tony Judt