I am in South Africa for the next three weeks, to give the TB Davie Memorial Lecture, and hopefully to do a bit more besides. While I am away, I will be raiding the archives for articles – mainly book reviews – not published before on Pandaemonium. This first ‘From the archives’ review is of Tony Blair’s memoirs, My Journey, memoirs that, in the context of the current Labour leadership contest, have renewed currency. The review was first published in he Norwegian paper Bergens Tidende in September 2010.
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, for the last ten years as Prime Minster, until he resigned as both MP and PM in 2007.
For the Labour Party, it was a disastrous election. Torn by internal faction fighting, the party slumped to its worst defeat in the postwar years – 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 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 A Journey, Tony Blair’s memoirs, has inevitably created a global media furore and reignited the debate about Tony Blair and his legacy. For some, Blair is a man of great moral courage who in the face of great hostility, made the Labour Party electable, 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. His first booksigning, in Dublin, encapsulated the divide. On one side of the street people queued patiently for hours to buy the book and have the author sign it. On the other was a noisy demonstration that pelted him with eggs and shoes.
The 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 does it mean 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 and nationalized swathes of industry, and Margaret Thatcher, who took a sledgehammer to the welfare state and tried to push market forces into every area of life, both saw themselves as modernizers. For them, ‘modernizer’ was a shorthand to describe their deep-set ideological beliefs. For Blair, however, modernizing appears to be an end in itself, a description of a lack of ideological beliefs – just as it is for the current Conservative prime minister David Cameron.
Blair celebrated the changes that Margaret Thatcher wrought to Britain, but was uncomfortable with her ideology. Hence his stance in 1983. ‘Change without ideology’ was his mantra – and that of New Labour. But deprived of an ideological anchor, 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 is a monarchist, failed to abolish the House of Lords, Britain’s unelected second chamber, and expanded the 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’. That tells us far more about New Labour than it does about Prince Charles.
Blair’s modernizing heroine was Princess Diana, whose attempts to ‘modernize’ 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 a concept as a ‘democratic tyranny’.
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 clunky colloquial style (‘blimey, get a life’, ‘blah, blah, blah’, etc) that I assume that Blair takes to be 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 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’ in the way he deals with the world. Why? What does it mean to put religion before politics? What are its consequences? And how does he understand God? He never tells us. After leaving Downing Street he 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 he espouses all too often helps close down debate, rather than open it up. 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 even his ‘closest friends’, found his actions ‘hard to comprehend’, Blair sets out to persuade people not that he was right to invade Iraq, 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 previous year, rejects the claim that the intelligence on 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 much scrutiny.
What is most striking is the emotional character of the Iraq chapters. 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 Chilcott Inquiry into the Iraq war 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. 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.
As the response to The 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.
The portrait of Tony Blair is by Jonathan Yeo.