Tony Blair: A Journey, by Tony Blair, Hutchison RRP£25, 718 pages
Tony Blair’s memoir is part psychodrama, part treatise on the frustrations of leadership in a modern democracy. It is written in a chummy style with touches of Mills & Boon. Blair reveals, for example, how he “devoured” Cherie with animal passion on the night he decided to pursue the leadership of the Labour party in 1994. The book’s broader purpose is to preserve his legacy, settling scores, justifying the war against Iraq, and mounting a defiant plea to his party to keep faith with New Labour.
The self-portrait is curiously contradictory. Blair is ruthless but at times diffident. He is a conviction politician, especially when it comes to foreign wars; but his domestic reforms are half-baked. He is weak on execution, with the exception of the Northern Ireland settlement. His youthful premiership epitomised “Cool Britannia”, but he ended up being loathed and mistrusted. His relationship with Gordon Brown was the most important but also the most destructive during 10 years in Downing Street.
To understand Blair, one must first dissect his relationship with the Labour party. Alongside Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson, he was the driving force behind New Labour, the project to bring the party out of the electoral wilderness. He was an insurgent but he was also an imposter. As he confesses: “In order to circumvent the party, I had to construct an alliance between myself and the public.”
This alliance took many forms. Blair was a self-styled regular guy with buckets of charm. “Call me Tony,” he used to tell visitors, even when they would have preferred to call him prime minister. He was also adept at capturing the public mood. He was pitch-perfect after the death of Princess Diana. On the international stage he was a star. Tall and good-looking, he really could stand shoulder to shoulder with Clinton and Bush. In Europe, the likes of Chirac and Kohl came across as dinosaurs by comparison.
Things went awry when the personal bond between Blair and the British public began to fray. Scandals, petty and real, took their toll. But the Iraq war marked the point of no return because it was based on a false prospectus: that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Blair was, of course, in good company in assuming that the Iraqi leader did have WMD. He also presents evidence that Saddam “had not abandoned the strategy of WMD, merely made a tactical decision to put it into abeyance”. But the impression that he misled the British public into a disastrous war will not go away.
Blair was an interventionist by temperament. Some problems require “resolution”, he writes. Left unattended, they fester, like al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
During the successful military intervention in Kosovo in 1999, he gave a speech in Chicago that argued that intervention to bring down a despotic dictatorial regime could be justified on grounds of the nature of the regime, not merely the immediate threat to national interest.
The “Blair doctrine” challenged notions of national sovereignty going back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. It also dramatically lowered the barriers to the use of armed force. Kosovo and Sierra Leone appeared to vindicate the approach but Iraq and Afghanistan were adventures on a different scale. Blair does not address seriously the practical challenge of nation-building nor the need to define the new “rules of the road” implied by more widespread military interventions. He simply reasserts that the price must be paid in the battle against terrorism and radical Islam, the struggle of our generation.
Blair comes across as likable, if manipulative; capable of dissembling while wonderfully fluent; in short, a brilliant modern politician (whatever his moans about the media). He presents himself as a courageous man of destiny but questions about his judgment linger. The same applies to President Bush, whom Blair describes as “very smart”, adding: “George had immense simplicity in how he saw the world. Right or wrong, it led to decisive leadership.”
Leadership, in Blair’s estimation, comes down to “balls”. Rupert Murdoch has “balls”. Alastair Campbell, his pugnacious media adviser, has “clanking great balls”. So why did Blair not have the “balls” to sack Gordon Brown?
Early on, Blair describes how he comes to realise that he, not Brown, is the right man to lead the Labour party. It is a painful story of emancipation, well told: “This was a time for risk taking. I spotted that. He didn’t.” Blair says he is the “Cavalier” representing the aspirations of the middle class; Brown is the “Roundhead” identifying with Labour tradition.
The civil war analogy is well taken, but until 2004-05 an uneasy truce existed between the two rivals, interspersed with fierce skirmishes between their proxies. Blair denies he subcontracted economic policy to Brown in return for sullen acceptance of his premiership. He even claims, implausibly, that it was his idea to make the Bank of England independent.
Sacking Brown was impossible because he was the best man for the job and removing him would have destabilised the government, Blair writes. Neither proposition holds water unless one understands his precarious position in the Labour party. Without Brown, Blair was dangerously exposed, especially after Iraq.
Peter Mandelson, who interestingly does not loom large in this book, consistently told the prime minister that his position was stronger than he realised. But that is not the way Blair saw it.
The result was a series of compromises with Brown, the last being a deal whereby TB would step down after his second term on condition that GB supported the New Labour reform agenda. “It was an assurance that should never have been asked or given. It was not our right to apportion power like that,” he writes. “Not our right. Not wise. Not sensible politically, let alone democratically.”
In June 2007, Blair finally gave way to Brown. His exit was timed perfectly, right at the top of the market. Like Bill Clinton he is now cashing in on his 10 years in office, raising money for charitable causes while ensuring his family’s financial security. And like President Clinton, there is the same sense of a talent strangely unfulfilled.
Lionel Barber is editor of the FT