Having published two books about Blair, John Morrison was interested to see if what he had written about the psychology of the former Prime Minister fitted the self-portrait to be found in The Journey.
My initial reaction to seeing Blair’s memoirs in the shop window was to walk past at high speed and look the other way. After publishing two books about him in 2001 and 2005, I thought I had managed, as the counsellors say, to ‘move on’. But then my curiosity got the better of me. Once a Blairologist, always a Blairologist, I suppose.
Salving my conscience with the thought that the royalties would not be going into the old war criminal’s well-lined wallet but to the British Legion, I handed over my £12.50 and began reading. What interested me was not so much the politics but the psychology of the man. Did his self-portrait fit with what I had written about him?
I don’t think I can include myself among those named in Blair’s dedication as those who ‘shared the journey’ with him. I spent two years of his first term watching him in action from the privileged vantage point of a lobby correspondent, then another year writing a book about his constitutional changes. Because Blair himself was bored rigid by constitutional matters and left them to others, he ended up strangely absent from the pages of Reforming Britain.
My second book, written under the impact of the invasion of Iraq, was quite different. Anthony Blair Captain of School was a satirical novel using the conventions of the traditional Edwardian school story to paint a psychological portrait. I did not send him a copy.
In the epilogue, Blair and Archer, an old school chum, are on a remote Pacific island dispensing bibles to the natives. Both have fled after run-ins with British justice. Archer mentions his ambition to write fiction, and Blair replies: ‘I might try writing a novel some day. The dear old mater always said I was good at making things up.’
Turning the pages of Tony Blair: A Journey I wanted to read not the facts but the fiction; my interest was not so much in the political nitty-gritty as in the self-mythologising of the author. Before 2003, I was a Blair agnostic rather than a believer; I never voted for him, and as I watched him at close quarters as prime minister I saw above all an actor playing a role. There was a self-deprecating sense of humour, almost a conspiratorial thespian wink to the audience in his performance.
What dawned on me later was that, like Jeffrey Archer, Blair seemed to have increasing difficulty distinguishing between fiction and reality; what drove him into the Iraq war was not so much loyalty to George Bush as an inability to go back to the dressing room, strip off the make-up and return to the real world. Like a method actor unable to shake off his role, he did not deliberately tell lies. When he made things up, he believed them utterly.
I was happy to discover that some elements of Blair’s account coincided with my own fictional version; here’s my version of that seminal moment in every boy’s story, the confrontation with the school bully:
Blair blinked as something wet landed on his face. He raised a hand to his cheek and found it covered in black. It was an ink pellet! A red mist rose before his eyes. He rose from his bench, swung around and caught his tormentor a heavy blow on the cheek.
Here’s the version in A Journey :
He had been on at me for weeks. I hated it, and dreaded going into the class where he was, and avoided going wherever he would be. Then, for some reason or no reason, out there by the school gates when he came upon me unexpectedly and started up, I turned on him and told him I would hit him if he didn’t stop. He could tell I meant it, because I did and my eyes would have shown it – so he stopped.
Blair’s account of his first moments of doubt about Gordon Brown as the next leader are also refreshingly similar to mine. In my version, it is Anthony’s Blair’s toast fag, a boy called Mandelson, who tells him he, not Brown, is going to be the next head of house.
Until now, Blair had shunned such thought, but his talk with Mandelson had opened wide a door that he had privately kept closed. He could not help wondering if the smaller boy’s prediction might be right.
When Blair is told by Brown that young Mandelson has offered to be his toast fag as well, he says nothing:
Blair felt like a ship’s captain on the bridge spotting a small dark cloud on the horizon. But his face did not move a muscle.
In Blair’s version, the moment of revelation is prompted not by Mandelson but by Nick Brown, but the emotion on display is very similar:
From that moment, I think I detached a little bit from Gordon; just a fraction, imperceptible to the eye of the observer, unaccompanied by any expression of distance, or even by any diminishing of affection. It was a detachment small in space, but definitive in consequence. The seed was shown of my future insistence that I should be leader, not him.
There is however, a significant character in my novel who fails to make much of an appearance in Blair’s memoir; although Blair says that religion was always more important to him than politics, his conversations with the Almighty are kept private. The result is a disappointment. Blair’s book is determinedly secular from start to finish, the author sticking firmly to Alastair Campbell’s advice about not ‘doing God’.
Though the prose style is an excruciating mixture of faux-demotic blokishness (‘That’s cobblers’) and the quasi-Biblical (‘seeing through a glass darkly’), the book, like the author, does have a redeeming sense of humour. I enjoyed the story about Gordon Brown being locked in a toilet with no door handle and Blair shouting at him ‘Withdraw from the contest or I’m leaving you in there.’ It reminded me of why I gave up writing a sitcom based in Downing Street; the reality would always be funnier than anything I could possibly invent. I found some gossipy insights and minor indiscretions about drinking ‘rocket fuel’ with the Queen and her enthusiasm to do the washing up after a Balmoral barbecue, and a vivid account of being jeered by the ladies of the Women’s Institute.
But I was still looking for clues to what Blair once called in a speech to a Labour conference his ‘irreducible core’. At one point in his upward ascent, he realises that acting ability isn’t quite enough; he’s also going to have to write the script of his performance:
You can’t fake body language or manufacture it. No matter how good an actor you are, in the end it’s not an act.
The ‘irreducible core’ was not political – a fact that marked Blair off from most other politicians and helped him understand the largely non-political British public, at least in the early part of his career. The shallowness of the author’s political beliefs shimmers on every page. Blair’s lack of any political compass (not the same as an absence of tactical sense) led him to look for a moral dimension.
Through Kosovo I came to the view – rightly or, some may think in the light of Iraq, wrongly – that in such an uncertain landscape, the only way of finding direction was first to ask some moral questions: should this be allowed to happen or not? Should this regime remain in power? Should these people continue to suffer injustice?
Blair Mark II emerges after 9/11 from the ashes of the crowd-pleasing Blair Mark I. Instead of worrying about being popular, he decides it’s more important to be right:
I became unhealthily focused on how others saw me, until, again over time, I refocused on how I saw myself. I realised I was public property, but the freehold was with myself. I learned not to let the opinion of others, even a prevailing one, define my view of myself and what I should or should not do.
Blair describes how he watched the attack on the Twin Towers in New York and realised ‘with total clarity’ that he was now at war, though he had no idea who with. He knew he was in a battle about the ideas and values that would shape the next century. This belief led inexorably to the decision to invade Iraq, and his determination to find ‘the right thing to do’. As he flew home from his final meeting with George Bush, he ‘knew the die was cast’:
I was aware of my isolation, my precarious grip on power, and – stomach-churning thought – my total dependence on on things going right, not wrong.
Reading this passage, I felt my fictional account in Anthony Blair Captain of School was pretty much on target. I described the school captain on his knees in the chapel seeking divine guidance before sending the cadet force on a mission to find missing rifles in the slum of Mesopotamia:
He knew his moment of destiny had come; all the tests and trials of his life at St. Stephen’s were but a preparation for the challenge ahead of him. Alea iacta est, he thought. He was crossing the Rubicon. Would he stand firm, like termpered steel in the furnace, or would his resolution crumble?
The resemblance between fact and fiction was not the product of any great literary skill or insight on my part; the coincidence was rather between the well-worn clichés of Edwardian school fiction and the Boy’s Own Paper mindset of Blair himself. ‘All I know is that I did what I thought was right.’ What went wrong wasn’t really his fault, only that of his enemies. As my fictional Blair reflected when he realised his time as captain of school was over, ‘Brown had betrayed him once again.’
I won’t be accusing Tony Blair of plagiarism, though I think my novel got the measure of the man and his delusional level of self-belief. On reflection, I think I may perhaps have been unfair in bracketing him with Jeffrey Archer. As my fictional Archer tells his Bible-toting companion on their South Sea island: ‘But at least I never got anyone killed.’