Tony Blair’s memoir makes for a weighty book, but his odd self-portrait is far less substantial as an account of 11 years in power. Stuart Weir assesses a career lost by a risk too far.
A Journey, Tony Blair, Hutchison £25 (widely available at half price)
Tony Blair has been my constant companion over the past few days. It has been a heavy and unpleasant experience, the weight of the 718-page volume almost gave me back-ache. The colloquial style of Blair’s memoir has apparently attracted praise. I found it irritating, especially his habit of firing off a declamatory “Simple as that.” sentence in conclusion of statements or arguments that are anything but. I doubt if anyone would praise the disorderly and disjointed narrative.
I volunteered to review Blair’s memoir for two reasons: I wanted first to judge the extent of his interest in and commitment to democracy and the democratic reforms that are a distinctive part of the New Labour legacy, and the place that human rights and social justice occupied in the “journey”; and to disentangle the actual man from the spin, media images and coverage and the “war criminal” stereotype.
This is a surprisingly superficial book. The arch-moderniser proves to have held conservative and tribal views on democracy and democratic reform. It clearly was John Smith’s earlier commitments that set the course of reform for his governments. Devolution? “Historic”, but “I was never a passionate devolutionist.” He saw electoral reform purely from a partisan position, a “defeatist” shift for Labour used to electoral defeat, and “not so much wrong as absurd”. No mention at all of commissioning Roy Jenkins to find a compromise solution between single party majoritarianism and proportionality in parliamentary elections, nor of Jenkins’s recommendations. Repetition here too of his conventional opposition to an elected upper chamber, a reform which he blocked consistently while in office.
He returns several times to rubbish Freedom of Information, one of New Labour’s two landmark reforms – for him a progressive cause (“at least to some”) which, like fox hunting, was “the cause of inordinate political convulsion, and for what purpose, God only knows.” We introduced it with care, he says, but without foreseeing the “full enormity of the blunder”, which he does not bother to explain, except perhaps to observe that it made him and his government vulnerable to the media. Simple as that, I suppose.
The second landmark, the Human Rights Act, gets a passing mention only, but its effects and the protection of human rights and due process come in for several drubbings. “I understand the traditional view: prove guilt conventionally, according to the normal judicial processes”, he writes. “Sorry, but with these people [me: terrorists and the gangs, drug-dealers, people traffickers, etc, of the sophisticated crime world] it doesn’t work. If you want to beat them, you need draconian powers that can be wielded administratively and with instant effect. Hence the antisocial behaviour laws, DNA database, ‘proceeds of crime’ legislation, anti-terror laws and so on.” Simple as that.
He is contemptuous of the European Court on Human Rights, and its “absolutist attitude to the prospect of returning someone to an unsafe community”; of the UN refugees convention with its context “firmly that of 1930s Germany”; and of a criminal justice system “impervious to any reform beyond the further entrenching of rights for offenders”.
By time of the London bombings, Tony says, “the iron had entered my soul on the issue of liberty versus anti-terror laws”. He excoriates Lord Hoffman for describing the anti-terrorisms laws as a greater threat to the country than the terrorists; “I couldn’t credit how a sensible person could say anything quite so grossly stupid”. He remains convinced that he was right and the judiciary were wrong over the detention without charge of “terrorist suspects” and right over detaining people for up to 90 days, acknowledging a “fundamental disagreement between myself [my italics] and the judiciary”, a problem legally, “but born of a real-life security conundrum”. He does not acknowledge the “real-life” consequences for the people who are detained and their families or that detention without charge is more than a mere legal problem.
As for social justice, he says that he and Brown had set New Labour’s compass in 1994: “growth the key; investment not cuts; redistribute, but carefully and not touching income tax; keep the middle class onside, but where growth and some redistribution allowed, focus on the poorest; then, in time, you could balance tax cuts and spending”. By 2007, his own credo is narrower: liberal economic policies, market reforms in welfare and public services, engagement and intervention abroad, and in Europe fundamental reform of the “European social model”. Redistribution has fallen off the back of the lorry, and is absent throughout the book; clearly it was Brown who kept it on board in government.
Blair says, “As will be apparent from this memoir, I am basically an optimistic and upbeat person.” This is not the Blair who emerges from this book. The memoir is a very odd self-portrait of a remarkably self-confident, driven man who is at great pains to establish that he is a regular sort of guy, a man’s man, an animal in bed, at ease with companions like Campbell who has “great clanking balls” and other figures, such as the “enigma” Rupert Murdoch who also turns out to have balls.
He portrays himself as a bold and imaginative leader way ahead of conventional thinking (not very hard in the Labour Party). At first, he rejoices in the difference. He describes the transition to power in 1997 in Boy’s Own terms, comparing his team to an “assault unit, scaling the walls of the citadel” to sit in “the ruler’s palace in charge of all we surveyed.” In power, “we thought the unthinkable; did the undoable”. But as the memoir proceeds, in fits and starts, our hero confides in us his growing frustration over the conventional instincts of his party (Labour’s intellectuals “didn’t get aspiration”), the trade unions (“irretrievably old-fashioned”) and the civil service (reckoning “in increments, not leaps and bounds”), all of whom are slow or reluctant (or both) to recognise the rightness of his bold modernising ambitions and his perception of a clumsy public sphere dominated by its own vested interests. They were cautious; he was a risk-taker as we know to our cost.
There is no question that the early Blair, so to speak, was an exceptional politician, articulate, charming, guileful and able to connect. The Good Friday agreement was an outstanding achievement. But was he unconventional? He likes to think that in New Labour he had created a third way politics. But his creation did not possess a coherent political substance or philosophy. New Labour was a re-branding exercise, it becomes clear, fashioned from an acute sense of how and why old Labour had lost touch not only with voters but also a largely right-wing media. It was above all a cautious and conventional endeavour, careful to disguise Brown’s redistributive instincts.
Blair imposed rules on the party: no deviation from “the essential pro-business, pro-aspiration line”; no return to “the old union laws”; no renationalisation of utilities; no income tax rise; no taxing private schools; no unilateralism; no abolition of grammar schools. The agenda he constructed for New Labour was “geared by the aspirations of the up-and-coming”, popular fears of crime and anger over anti-social behaviour. He never set out to challenge the terms of public debate and colluded with media and popular perceptions of his party and the unpopularity of the trade unions.
He was not being disingenuous. He was, as he says, middle class and he shared in the broad range of middle class attitudes and prejudices. He didn’t like the trade unions. He didn’t like the culture of his party, not unreasonably, in many respects. His philosophy is a more sophisticated version of the life view of the Michael Caines of this world. “Labour’s intellectuals didn’t get aspiration; they were right in saying social conditions determined success in life – but only in part. So did hard work, character, determination, grit, get-up-and-go.” This from the man who was in power when social mobility ground to a halt. Blair hardly needed coaching from Philip Gould on what the Daily Mail editorials were saying; apart from his genuine tolerance on social issues, he could himself have written leaders or op-ed articles for the newspaper. Indeed, I suggest that much of his ability to connect arose from a basic class conventionality, and his respect for the terms of conventional public debate.
His account of the decision in his last term to renew Trident is a case in point. Of Trident he says, its “utility in a post-Cold War world is less in terms of deterrence, and non-existent in terms of military use” – and it was “frankly inconceivable we would use our nuclear deterrent alone, without the US”. Ah but, in the end, as he said to Brown after discussing what they should do, “imagine standing up in the House of Commons and saying, I’ve decided to scrap it. We’re not going to say that, are we? In this instance, caution, costly as it was, won the day.”
But Tony was also compelled, as he says at one point, by an “inner sense of belief, almost of destiny”. Here lies the impulse behind the original title for the memoir, The Journey. Jonathan Powell talked of his “Messiah complex” – “I think jokingly”, Tony says. But I think not and Tony is clearly intrigued by the idea. He sees himself as a solitary thinker and his speech to Labour Party conference after the vicious 9/11 outrages as “visionary”.
In domestic affairs, he seizes on reform of the public services with a missionary zeal, convinced that only market forces would give a more educated public choices; the language of defending services from this naive conviction was “just obscurantist propaganda designed to dress up a vested interest in the garb of the public interest”. His A-Team – Charles Clarke, Alan Milburn and David Blunkett - had honed their skills, he notes sourly, “in umpteen interactions with recalcitrant union leaders, bolshie MPs, lefty activists and assorted intellectuals whose main contribution was to explain why nothing should change in the name of being real radicals”. The issues were reduced to two poles: “pro-reform” or “anti-reform”. Simple as that.
But it is of course in the war against Al Qaida that his visionary imagination and risk-taking propensity combined fatally with an exaggerated belief in his ability to “drill down” to the core of an issue. Within 40 minutes of the first 9/11 attack, he saw with total clarity:
It was not America alone who was the target, but all of us who shared the same values. We had to stand together. We had to understand the scale of the challenge and rise to meet it. We could not give up until it was done. Unchecked and unchallenged, this could threaten our way of life to its fundamentals. There was no other course; no other option; no alternative path. It was war. It had to be fought and won. But it was a war unlike any other. This was not a battle for territory, not a battle between states; it was a battle for and about the ideas and values that would shape the twenty-first century.
This war then had to be fought on the high ground – our values against theirs, not as you may have supposed, from the bombers, missiles and drones that have taken on Tony’s (and George’s, and Barack’s) war from a dreadful high ground. However, Bush was a great supporter of the Iraqi people, on whom he was ready to unleash “shock and awe”; and as Blair confided to the House of Commons, “The air campaign has been precisely targeted”. Even in advance of the Afghan war, he had also resolved that Saddam must be removed. It was “highly doubtful” that giving Hans Blix and the inspection team more time “would have yielded anything other than the (wrong) conclusion that because Saddam had no active WMD programme, therefore he was not a threat.”
Astonishingly, he still believes in “nation building” as well as the need “to fight on if necessary in a long, protracted and bloody battle”. But, we must “be prepared not just to rebuild a nation that has failed, but to do so in the face of an enemy doing as much wrong as it can to prevent us from doing what is right”. Astonishingly, too, he believes that he can transfer the mix of persistence, deviousness and charm that won the Good Friday Agreement to the markedly different terrain of the Palestinian-Israeli struggle. “The occupation of Palestinian land may be an injustice,” he says, “depending on your viewpoint, but this is a region with plenty of injustices.”
You may think that the use of utterly disproportionate force by Israel in the invasion of the Lebanon qualified as an “injustice”, but according to Blair, only “at one level”. This is the bigger picture: the Israeli onslaught was merely a “temporary fight” in the wider struggle between “the strains of religious extremism in Islam and the rest of us”. A rest of us which in Tony’s inclusive way embraces not only the two wars “we” started, but also Cheney’s aggressive imperialism, Israel’s brutality, Guantamano (“understandable” but badly presented), and . . . I give up.
In his final years in power, Tony says he decided to govern as he saw fit, to surprise people, but he had clearly become sour and desperate. He tried, he says, to wear “a kind of psychological armour” and achieve a “kind of weightlessness that allowed me, somehow, to float above the demonic rabble tearing at my limbs”. “I am not by nature a whiner; but inside I was starting to whine”. This is how his memoir ends: with a defiant whine.
The Conservatives are already goading Labour over 13 “wasted years”. This is obviously an inaccurate gibe. But when you think of the huge advantages that Blair and his colleagues enjoyed – overmighty power at the centre, a buoyant economy, parliamentary supremacy, a weak and divided opposition – you may well wonder why they did not achieve much more. It is not a question Blair even contemplates.