Thursday, November 18, 2010

Tony Blair's 'Journey'

An Analysis of Tony Blair’s period in office based on his book, A Journey, Hutchinson (price varies but big discounts usually offered)

‘I voted Labour in 1983. I didn’t really think a Labour victory was the best thing for the country and I was a Labour candidate.’ Tony Blair, A Journey.

Tony Blair has been a feature of British life for almost two decades but still manages to be highly controversial; his 3 year in the writing, 700 page memoir- A Journey- has underlined this point emphatically. The fact that it made the bestseller lists before even being published is further evidence of an enduring public fascination with the man. Personally I have met countless people who confess how they at first perceived him as the nation’s saviour after 18 years of Conservative misery, then became disillusioned after Iraq and his ‘poodling’ to Bush, but could never quite extinguish a degree of interest or even regard for this fluent and charming public figure. I am particularly taken by this, I suppose, as I occupy a similar category. How readers react to the book I guess will more than usually with an author, depend on how they view him: friend or foe, villain or hero.

Before addressing the memoir itself it has to be said that since leaving power, Blair
has not won many additional friends by appearing to have an inordinate interest in
matching the fortunes of the super-rich whose company he seems so much to enjoy.
His property portfolio now comprises: five homes including a £3.7m des res in
Connaught Square, subsequently ‘knocked through’ to absorb an adjacent mews
property, itself worth close to a million pounds; two posh London apartments for sons
Euan and Nicky and there is, of course the $5.7m country pad, once the home of that
other great actor, Sir John Gielgud.

In addition to this there is: the hugely remunerative part-time work for the likes of JP
Morgan and Zurich Financial Services and all those after dinner speeches in USA,
China and elsewhere, at £150-200,000 a pop. Tony Blair Associates has been
shown to have a structure of such byzantine complexity that it seems clear he did not
want his financial affairs to be especially transparent. Given that Cherie was brought
up in relative poverty, it could be that his tastes were to some extent influenced by a
wife who sought the security of relative riches; I tend to think, however, it was as
much his tendency as hers. Those Labour supporters, like me, who think their party
leaders should opt for modest lifestyles(one thinks wistfully of Attlee and Bevin or
even the tea-drinking Tony Benn), not a Grand Canyon’s width from those of
ordinary voters, have deplored this tendency whereby Blair became a ‘celebrity’
prime minister, aiding and abetting the ‘filthy rich’ and losing much moral authority
in so doing.

Blair sheds some light on why he entered politics and on the side of Labour. His
Political epiphany, when the bolt of lightning struck him was shortly after he met
Cherie andvisited the Commons to meet Tom Pendry MP. Waiting in the

‘Cavernous Central Lobby…’he writes, ‘I was thunderstruck. It just hit me. This was
where I wanted to be…I had a complete presentiment: here I was going to be.’

So Blair, never seen as a ‘House of Commons man’, owed his lifetime obsession to
the magic of the place. Later on a piece of Tony Benn’s leftwing oratory also inspired
him. Why Labour and not the other side, less guilty about the high life and the party
too for which his own father aspired to be an MP? One story is that two leading Tory
MPs rather thought the same and when Blair arrived in the Commons took him out to
dinner to sound him out. Their conclusion was that the answer, on this occasion was
indeed his wife, Cherie, daughter of the leftwing actor, Tony Booth. Her own
ambitions to enter the House, were reflected in her candidacy for Thanet South in1983
but thereafter, says her husband:

‘As I became more passionate, she saw herself more as a barrister’.

Blair soon made his mark in shadow roles and when John Smith tragically died in
1994, he had to decide whether to stand for the leadership or to defer to the man who
had so effectively stood in for Smith following his earlier heart attack. His reaction to
this dilemma expressed vividly why he became leader and Brown did not.:

‘The truth is I was out in front, taking risks, and this was a time for risk-takers. I
spotted that; he didn’t.’ More on Gordon later.

Blair allows an insight into his psyche when he relates a scene in Schindler’s list, a
film which moved both him and Cherie. In it, the commandant, played by Ralph
Fiennes shoots dead a camp inmate while chatting to his girlfriend. She continues
chatting as if not involved.

‘Except that she wasn’t. There were no bystanders in that situation. You participate
whether you like it or not. You take sides by inaction as much as by action. Why were
the Nazis able to do these things? Because of people like him? No, because of people
like her.’
This story, in effect a variation on Edmund Burke’s "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." helps explain his attitude towards ‘humanitarian intervention’; laid out in his Chicago speech in 1999. This was a plea to ‘bring down a despotic regime on the grounds of the nature of that regime’ and is, I think, a key to understanding this complex politician. He argued that, providing it is doable and all other expedients have been tried, it behoves peace-loving states to remove tyrants and liberate otherwise benighted peoples. His memoirs relate the examples of Kosovo, which brought down Milosevic and Sierra Leone, which helped bring down Charles Taylor, dictatorial leader of adjacent Liberia.
Both forays into military usage involved risk but both proved successful and seemed to fulfil Blair’s views on the duties of principled bystanders to evil. Blair’s account of the Iraq decision and subsequent events serve to add it to his ‘enlightened’ line on the morality of states. He tries hard, and with some success I thought, to convince us that his available intelligence on WMD was wholly convincing at the time and that the chances of it being true were too great to ignore. He also seeks to argue that, given the atrocities inflicted on Iran, the Kurds and his own people, the human costs of the war can be justified by the removal of a vile and monstrous dictator.
The impression I get from his book is that after his earlier successes, he somehow thought he had discovered the means to fulfil his ‘destiny’ to reshape the world for the better; some have described this as his ‘messianic tendency’. But Iraq, tragically, proved a case where massive risk failed to come off, producing extended tragedy instead of heroic success. He doesn’t either satisfactorily explain why he was so content to follow the lead of George Bush. That he liked and admired him is clear to see but to follow the American president’s judgement so blindly many of his supporters see as his greatest crime. I also wondered why he did not deflect some of the blame-either in his book or evidence to Chilcot- for the awfulness of Iraq onto the way in which the war was planned and implemented.
Rumsfeld’s naïve belief the job could be done with half the troops advised by his own military plus his ignoring of advice regarding the need to retain internal security in the wake of victory not to mention the requirement to rebuild the shattered country, are surely more culpable than anything Blair might have done or not done. Blair does not really address the ‘poodle’ accusation. Journalists like Andrew Rawnsley (see The End of the Party (2010, Viking) argue that, apart from urging Bush to involve the United Nations he never threatened to withhold full support of what the US went on to in Iraq.
Rafael Behr, reviewing George Bush’s Points of Decision in the Observer 14th October 2010, makes a shrewd point about these two authors of the Iraq invasion:
.” It is easy to see how he and Tony Blair got along so famously. Their memoirs, published weeks apart, corroborate each other's accounts of characters that clicked easily together. Both men have an evangelical sense of grace within that makes their choices immune from criticism because, whatever the outcome, the intention was honest. It is a brilliantly circular and impregnable defence – the test of a policy is not whether it works, but whether it is morally authentic, and the arbiter of authenticity happens also to be the author of the policy.”
Blair’s account of the domestic agenda is inextricably entangled with his relationship with Gordon Brown. Both men had evolved the idea of New Labour along with Peter Mandelson and Philip Gould but whereas some saw it as political expedience, with Blair, it seemed New Labour achieved the status of strongly held principle. It had begun with an acceptance of Thatcherite economics regarding tight control of inflation plus minimal regulation of market forces, thus advantaging the City and related financial sector. After Labour’s failure in the 1970s this was adopted as the new bedrock of the party’s economic thinking, embraced by both Blair and Brown. However, once funds were being channelled into the public sector Blair was keen to attach it, make it conditional upon thorough-going reform.
This is where the mantle of ‘New Labour’ seemed to pass on to Blair and be almost disowned by Brown. Blair wanted to introduce choice, competition, flexibility and the involvement of the private sector both to access new funding and add discipline to public sector activities. So we saw the introduction of Foundation Hospitals and Academies, both exercising greater autonomy, competition for resources and collaboration with the private sector. Universities, for their part, were to be financed via tuition fees to help them maintain high academic levels and keep up with the superior performance of fees- funded US universities.
For a variety of reasons Brown chose to oppose this direction as a ‘marketisation’ of
public services. Cynics concluded this was merely a political ploy to undermine Blair
and force him to surrender occupancy of number 10 sooner rather than later. The truth
is that his motives were so skewed by personal ambition that clear analysis is
impossible. For this reason Health minister Alan Milburn clashed violently with
Brown in pursuit of Foundation Hospitals and, according to Blair’s account eventually
stood down from government partly through frustration at Brown’s spoiling tactics
at the Treasury.

Historians are bound to identify the Blair-Brown feud as the dominating political
feature of New Labour’s decade in power. The 2005 election witnessed it reach a new
climax in terms of acrimony and bitterness. It had not always been like this. Writing
about their earlier friendship Blair describes how they were almost locked together:

‘Our minds moved fast and at that point in sync. When others were present, we felt
the pace and power diminish until, a bit like lovers desperate to get to love
making but disturbed by old friends dropping around, we would try to bustle them
out, steering them door-wards with a hearty slap on the back.’

It is clear Brown felt he was the senior partner, as indeed he was in terms of status in
the Labour Party as well as experience in the jungle of Scottish and Westminster
politics. But these were two very different men with different qualities. Blair was
naturally more optimistic and prepared to put himself on the line while Brown was
innately more cautious, less extrovert and confident; Blair felt the friendship losing
some momentum even as the 1990s began By late 1992, Blair felt they ‘took another
small yet significant step apart.’ when some rooms became available in Millbank
Tower.

‘At that time Gordon and I were both in 1 Parliament St, just opposite Westminster by
the bridge. Gordon decided to move to Millbank and wanted me to join him. Cherie
emphatically told me I shouldn’t. Rather to my surprise, Anji(Hunter, close aide and
lifelong friend) said the same. I didn’t go. It was no big deal; but it was another
indicator.’

Elsewhere in the memoir Blair calls his friend ‘maddening’ with ‘zero’ emotional
Intelligence but also praises him as:

‘Someone of immense talent, ability commitment. And in the end his contribution
was enormous.’

The chapter on ‘Domestic Reform’ is shot through with complaints of Brown’s sulky
intransigence over tuition fees- when his choreographed opposition within the party
nearly brought Blair down- Foundation hospitals and the rest.. Blair resolved to break
the impasse over when he would stand down. In November 2003 the two men met in
Prescott’s flat in Admiralty House. Blair told him ‘bluntly’ that he was prepared to go
after two terms ‘but the constant obstruction and wilful blocking of the reform
programme had to stop’. According to Blair, this was now the deal: Gordon
behaves, supports the New Labour reforms and he could step up to the leadership for
the third term with Tony’s support. Blair argues that after this ‘deal’ Gordon began to
feel an ‘entitlement’ to the succession and played down or ignored any compliance
with policy directions. Blair feels this arrangement, in retrospect, was unwise: it was
not their place to ‘apportion power like that’.

In the event when Blair’s aides soon told him Brown was not keeping his side of the
agreement, Blair decided to stand for a third term, thus ratcheting the feud up another
few notches. Blair discusses why he did not decisively sack Brown or move him to
another ministry. His reasons are understandable. First, Gordon had huge support in
the party, many of whom felt the travails of the party could be remedied should he
become leader. Second, sacking him would have riven the party and maybe caused a
civil war. Finally, Blair could not think of anyone better and felt ‘He gave the
government ballast, solidity and strength.’ Blair himself however, seems sometimes to
blame himself as if he is not quite sure it was cowardice on his behalf which allowed
Brown to dominate the agenda and frustrate his objectives.

While keen to talk up his successes and, as with Iraq to minimise some of his failures,
Blair candidly admits to some without reservation. Of these the Millennium Dome
was probably the major one; ‘In this day and age it wasn’t really a suitable project for
government and it never quite struck a note sufficiently attuned to the millennium.’
Also up there with the turkeys was the Hunting Ban: ‘I was ignorant about the sport. I
thought it a bit weird that people wanted to gallivant around hunting a fox, but having
read my Trollope I understood it to be part of our history. What I didn’t understand
but boy, I understood it later- was that it was a rather large part of our rural present.’
He admitted it had been a ‘disaster’.

Finally, there was the Freedom of Information Act. Many of his critics might allow
this was one of his progressive achievements but he would seek to disagree. He thinks
important decisions about the nation have to be made in private without the
fear that publicity will destroy frankness and truth.

‘The truth is that the FOI act is not used, for the most part, by ‘the people’. It’s used
by journalists. For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you
with a stick, ‘Hey, try this instead and handing them a mallet.’

Julian Glover’s Guardian review of the book 2nd September 2010, is mixed; he saw it
as:

‘Honest, confused, memorable, boastful, fitfully endearing, important, lazy, shallow,
rambling and intellectually correct.’

But it was also littered with genuinely revealing insights into his own actions and
Political action in general. For example, his own:

‘Tendency to think I could persuade anyone of anything provided I truly believed it
(not even experience ever quite eliminated this trait of mine).’

He is also perceptive on the place of personal attacks in politics. He explains how he:

‘Defined Major as weak; Hague better at jokes than judgement; Howard as an
opportunist; Cameron a flip-flop not knowing where he wanted to go. Expressed like
that, these attacks seem flat, rather mundane almost, and not exactly inspiring- but
that’s their appeal. Anyone of those charges if it comes to be believed, is actually
fatal.’

And again, this astute manipulator of the media had spotted something most of us had
not quite realised about it, regarding the nature of protest:

‘Let’s say a politician attends a meeting at which there are a thousand people present
and one of them shouts something. The other 999 people can be supportive or at least
reasonable in their opposition, but the lone disruptive voice is offered as
representative when the chances are it isn’t. Most people don’t make a scene, so by
definition the lone protester is atypical not typical.’

On balance I tend to see the book rather as Glover assessment above: a mixture of
contradictory, good and bad qualities. Andrew Rawnsley’s Observer review has a go
at the written style: ‘for a ‘brilliant communicator… he can be a ghastly writer’. He
then lists a sample of the clichés which abound in the book: ‘Derry was like a dog
with a bone’ Diana ‘captured the essence of an era’. ‘Lights appear at the end of
tunnels’, writes Rawnsley, ‘and wounds are rubbed with salt’.

I think this is over harsh. Blair has always striven after the common touch and this
highly personal, slightly blokish style makes the book very accessible and
authentically his book; Rawnsley is closer to the truth when he diagnoses a ‘faux
intimate style of the autobiographies of footballers or models’ The Observer
columnist does however allow that this is also a very honest book-‘this is a more
honest political memoir than most’. I was struck by the sections regarding his own
fears, his pervading, sobering fear in the wake of his landslide 1997 victory and his
palpable terror at taking PMQs:
"PMQs was the most nerve-racking, discombobulating, nail-biting, bowelmoving, terror-inspiring, courage-draining experience in my prime ministerial life, without question."
I would also agree with Rawnsley that the book is not especially well organised, the
aspect any academic first looks for in coursework student essays. I’d give Blair a B+
for aspiration- pursuing themes rather than a chronology- but only C+ for delivery as
his ‘themed’ chapters often slide lazily into chronological narratives.

Finally, I was intrigued by Dominic Lawson’s 5th September analysis in the Sunday
Times who was struck by the comment towards the end of the book: ‘Personally, I
have never felt a greater sense of frustration or indeed a greater urge to leadership’
Combine that with Blair’s comment elsewhere to a journalist that ‘I feel a
great urge to participate in my country’s political life’ and Lawson reckons ‘it adds up
to a charmingly open expression of continued ambition to return to the highest level
of domestic political power.’ The last former prime minister, arguably, to harbour
ambitions of a great return to the fray was Harold Macmillan; he never succeeded and
it would be a shame if Blair is to live out the rest of his life yearning for something
beyond his grasp, or like one of his heroes, David Lloyd George, too devalued by his
flexible relationship with the truth ever to be trusted again.

Bill Jones November 2010.

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