tony blair, a journey

bergens tidende, 12 september 2010

At the 1983 general election Tony Blair became an MP for the first time in the newly created seat of Sedgefield. He would represent the constituency for the next 24 years, the last ten as Prime Minster, until he resigned in 2007 as both PM and MP.

For the Labour Party it was a disastrous election. Torn by internal faction fighting, and under the leadership of politically disconnected Michael Foot, the party slumped to its worst defeat in the postwar years, gaining less than 28 per cent of the popular vote and losing 51 seats – despite widespread outrage at mass unemployment, public sector cuts and the Conservative assault on the unions.

Blair was secretly relieved. ‘I didn’t really think a Labour victory was the best thing for the country’, he observes in A Journey, his newly published memoirs. Why stand as a Labour candidate if you believe that the party is bad for the country? And which party did Blair think would be best for the nation? Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives? Blair never directly answers these questions. But they are key to understanding both Blair’s character and his political beliefs.

The publication of Tony Blair’s memoirs has inevitably reignited the debate about the former prime minister's legacy. For some, Blair is a man of great moral courage who, in the face of tremendous hostility, made the Labour Party electable again, brought peace to Northern Ireland, reinvented the idea of humanitarian intervention and delivered freedom to Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Iraq. For others, he is ‘Bliar’, George Bush’s poodle, a mass murderer and a war criminal, a man who became bedazzled by the ideology of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and of the neo-conservatives in America. His first booksigning, in Dublin, encapsulated the divide. On one side of the street people queued patiently for hours to buy the memoirs and have the author sign it. On the other was a noisy demonstration, the protestors armed with eggs and shoes to throw at Blair.

A Journey presents a portrait of Blair very different to either of these two images. It reveals a man driven not so much by ideology as by a lack of it, a man enthused by a passion to change the world but who can articulate only in the vaguest way what such change means. ‘I was and remain first and foremost not so much a politician of left or right’, he observes in the Introduction, ‘but a moderniser’. But what is it to be a modernizer? And which politician doesn’t want to appear modern?

Clement Attlee, Britain’s first postwar Labour Prime Minister who laid the foundations for the welfare state and nationalized swathes of industry, and Margaret Thatcher, who took a sledgehammer to Attlee's state and tried to push market forces into every area of life, both saw themselves as modernizers. For both Attlee and Thatcher, ‘modernizer’ was a shorthand to describe their very different ideological beliefs. For Blair, however, modernizing appears to be an end in itself, a description of a lack of ideological beliefs.

Blair celebrated the changes that Margaret Thatcher wrought to Britain, but was uncomfortable with her ideology. Hence his stance in 1983. ‘Change without ideology’ became his mantra – and that of New Labour. Deprived of an ideological anchor, however, change can often be arbitrary, even reactionary.

Blair may see himself as modern and ‘progressive’ – another favoured but vacuous self-description that constantly crops up in A Journey - but he also remains attached to the most feudal aspects of British life. He supports the monarchy, failed to abolish the unelected House of Lords and helped expand Britain's system of faith schools. He even describes the incurably medieval Prince Charles, the champion of anti-modernism in everything from architecture to science, as ‘at one level quite New Labour’, a sentiment more revealing of New Labour than of Prince Charles.

Blair’s modernizing heroine was another royal, Princess Diana, whose attempts to ‘transform’ the monarchy, he imagines, mirrored his own battles with the Labour Party. Although ‘not at all party political’, Diana ‘had a complete sense of what we were trying to achieve and why’, he gushes, adding that ‘Whatever New Labour had in part she had in whole’. It never seems to occur to him that a ‘modern monarchy’ is about as meaningful as Prince Charles' scientific knowledge.

In the absence of a coherent political ideology, emotion, or what Blair calls ‘instinct’, fills the void. Here too, he likens himself to Diana. ‘We were’, he writes, ‘both in our ways manipulative people, perceiving quickly the emotions of others and able instinctively to play with them’, all in the cause, of course, of the greater good.

By contrast, Blair draws a devastating portrait of Gordon Brown, his one-time friend and confidant, long-time chancellor and eventual successor. The relationship between the two broke down in rancour and bitterness. Blair’s verdict is brutal. Brown was a ‘strange guy’ who did not understand how to connect with people: ‘Political calculation yes. Political feelings, no. Analytical intelligence, absolutely. Emotional intelligence, zero.’

This contrast between the emotional uptightness of Brown and the demonstrative candour of Diana is expressive of a cultural shift in Britain. A nation once famous for its stiff upper lip has become over the past decade a society in which the private is increasingly played out in public. Blair’s memoirs themselves embody this shift. Written in an irritatingly colloquial style (‘blimey, get a life’, ‘blah, blah, blah’, etc) that I assume Blair imagines is how one connects with the public, he tells us not just about his inner thoughts and feelings, but also his personal foibles, often in wincingly minute details, including his animal passion in bed and the indispensible fact that ‘I like to have time and comfort in the loo’.

What Blair confuses is candour and superficiality. For all the supposed openness of A Journey, we come away understanding precious little about his own political or philosophical journey. He insists more than once ‘religion comes before politics’. Why? What does it mean? What are its consequences? And how does Blair understand God? He never tells us. After leaving Downing Street Blair set up the Faith Foundation to create ‘peaceful coexistence in an age of globalization’. What about the foundations of his own faith? Silence. Religion, faith, Christianity and God do not even appear in the Index. The Guardian once described Blair as ‘a man without a shadow’. The memoirs seem to paint a picture of a shadow without a man.

Not only is his candour skin-deep, but the emotionalism that he imagines helps politicians connect with the public serves in fact often to disconnect the two by closing down political debate and making it far less political. Take, for instance, the controversy over Iraq. For all his other accomplishments and failures, it is the 2003 invasion of Iraq for which Blair is most likely to be remembered. Given that, as he himself acknowledges, even his closest friends found his actions ‘hard to comprehend’, Blair sets out not to persuade people that he was right to invade, simply that he might not have been wrong.

There is little new in his argument. He denies that the decision to invade had been taken the previous year, rejects the claim that the intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was ‘sexed up’, and dismisses the idea that anyone could have foreseen the chaos and carnage that followed the invasion - none of which stands up to too much scrutiny.

What is most striking is the emotional character of the Iraq chapters. Almost every page drips with ‘anger’ and ‘anguish’ and ‘tears’, not just at the suffering caused by the war but also at the criticisms levelled him. Blair is particularly irate at being asked by the official Chilcot Inquiry as to whether he had ‘any regrets’ about the invasion. Had he said ‘yes’, it would have been seen as an apology for the war. Had he said ‘no’, he would have been damned as uncaring. It was, as Blair angrily observes, a question not about the reasons for war but about Blair’s good faith, a means not of illuminating the facts, but of trapping the messenger.

Blair, however, plays the same game. His response to critics of the war is in effect to ask, ‘So, didn’t you want to get rid of Saddam?’, impugning their integrity and ignoring the fact that the real debate is not about whether Saddam should have been toppled, but how and by whom.  This is the Dianification of the Iraq debate - both sides seeking emotionally to manipulate the audience rather than to engage in a frank political debate. Blair and many of his critics both want to play out the post-Iraq drama on the stage of emotion and integrity rather of politics and facts.

As the response to A Journey reveals, the world seems divided between Blair lovers and Blair haters. I am neither. I opposed most of his policies, both domestically and internationally. But the transformation of Blair into a superhero or a pantomime villain is, like Blairism itself, an expression of our politically retarded times.