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October 13, 2010

An extraordinary book by an extraordinary man: A Journey - Tony Blair

Posted by Richard D. North

A Journey
by Tony Blair
Pp. 624. London: Hutchinson, 2010
Hardback, £25

We knew Tony Blair's autobiography would be weird, but it's weirder than we dreamed. Many questions arise just looking at his portrait on the cover: that youthful, mint-eyed, greyed person: has he had a date with destiny or Photoshop, or both?

Is this a frank book?
And then we open the book. Will it remind us of the one we can imagine Robert Harris's ghost producing? (Naturally, we looked to Robert Harris's review for some insights on that one, and didn't really get them.) Will Blair reveal himself in his own write? The answer to that one is a heavily qualified yes. As Mary Anne Seighart said on TV, Blair admits in the book to being manipulative, so how does one know the book isn't?

One might add that the book is littered with phrases like, "if I am being frank", and "to be honest", so that one knows one is in the presence of someone whose claim to be "a pretty straight kind of guy" has layers of truthfulness. Still, whilst one can never prove that it is, this work feels unguarded, if only as to the author's sense of himself. That doesn't mean that he has told us everything, or sees things straight. We know he is still marketing himself and that he has loyalties to many people who are still in play.

The master of narratives
Above all we know that whilst Tony Blair is a post modern master at operating narratives, it follows that narratives may operate him even beyond his own ability to discern them. He seems to know even this. From Paul Johnson's review of Roy Hattersley's life of Lloyd George I learned that Keynes said of the Welshman:

He is rooted in nothing; he is void and without content; he lives and feeds on his immediate surroundings; he is an instrument and a player at the same time, which plays on the company and is played on them too; he is a prism which collects light and distorts it and is most brilliant if the light comes from many quarters at once; a vampire and a medium in one.
Something of the Blairite about him then?

It was always important to see Tony Blair as someone who was in the middle of magic. His book lets us know that he wanted to be and thought he was transformative. If he could imagine it, he could make it so. Reality was bendy in his hands. That's the post modern for you. This book testifies that he did indeed feel a bit as people like Matthew Parris and Peter Oborne (and I) thought he felt. Of course, that leaves hanging (as does the comparison with Lloyd George) whether and when Tony Blair started believing in something of his own.

The oddest question, and amongst the most pressing, was this: When Blair reports his inner thought processes (past and present), will they turn out to be interesting? The answer is (see above) that we can never be sure we've got them, but also that if this book is a real account of how he saw things, then he stood no serious chance of being a great Prime Minister. He could set a tone, and he did, and that matters. He could start and join wars, and he did, and that matters.

But in terms of domestic policy, he had no idea about how to set about achieving change. Indeed, since he admits that one of his few guiding principles was a vague dislike of the Establishment, he stood no chance of being within a stone's throw of being much like a British Prime Minister. The result was that he could spend money and undo and redo and rebrand earlier tentative Tory reforms of the Welfare State, and that's about it. (Oh, and devolution, for good and ill, and "reform" of the House of Lords, and the hunting ban and ASBOs. I sourly discount peace in Northern Ireland as something which came in its own good time.)

Blair on government
My book, Mr Blair's Messiah Politics, attempted to show how much damage Blairism had done to politics (its tone and substance) and the government of the country. A Journey comes very close to admitting that my kind of analysis was right. What's more it does so by implying that what was needed from Blair, and what he grew into during his premiership, was more leadership and less populism. The point here surely is that Tony Blair went from one rather dangerous position to another. He went from being the winning smile to being the lonely visionary. Representative democracy got dented if not crushed throughout the Journey.

He was of course wonderfully personable. In person, he was manly as well. He was protean. Anthony Seldon's review of A Journey insists that he was brave and I am inclined to agree. He also had remarkable karma: whether that was toughness, or Teflon indifference, or mad self-belief, no-one can really say.

The reviewers….
The reviews of A Journey are as interesting as the book itself. I do not subscribe to the widely-reported view that it is an easy read: it is wildly over-long for its insight-count. I am well passed being willing to take an interest in exactly who said what to whom, even in the run-up to Blair's wars. Most reviewers do some of that but also pick up much of what matters more. For your convenience, I have filleted some of them, and cite them below.

The untutored genius
But for my money the reviewers seem to miss or underplay the greatest failings in Mr Blair's work. In his account everything that matters about his overall thinking or his detailed policy-making came almost as a revelation to his mind probably (though he doesn't say it) because he is just a wonderfully tuned being. He distinguishes between rhetorical skill and intellect and implies (this is the important bit) that there was a good deal of the latter around him and even (he doesn't quite say it) in him.

There is barely any recognition that his precious "progressiveness" was hammered out in Third Way thinking (which gets barely a nod) and which itself was a revved-up reworking of familiar themes. It is fascinating, by the way, that one of the few books he celebrates as formative was Harold Macmillan's The Middle Way, but its message is barely mentioned. He mentions books by John Macmurray, again without a real indication as to their contents.

It is widely said that a left-ish priest, Peter Thomson, had a big influence on Blair at Oxford. This is acknowledged in the book, and there's a longish quotation from Blair's eulogy at Thomson's funeral, but again, no sense of the lines of argument the men explored. Nor, of course, is there any sense that social activism (rather than socialism) and religion had been Oxford bedfellows since the nineteenth century. (As I learnt preparing my book, Mr Cameron's Makeover Politics.)

The role of other people was at most to be the echo-chamber within which or the anvil against which his thought was refined and articulated. More trivially, he tells us that (late in the process) he had the thought that the International Olympic Committee wanted to hear about the candidate-cities’'aspirations for the Olympic ideal. Seb Coe and others agreed, and the rest is history. But the thought is presumed to have popped into Tony's head as a result of his all round savviness. One can say the same for his thinking in any other area, for instance education or health.

And what of boring old government?
Tony Blair is rather inclined to play down his reliance on sofa government, but there are precious few references to Civil Servants in the book and they are not often obliging. Ditto, his own ministers, though the odd character is good because he or she "gets" it. The only people who get space, billing or good reviews are "my people", or "my team". Even they, as noted by several reviewers, are sidelined: they can never really share the lonely mantle of authority with him. Parliament barely gets a look in.

Tony Blair wasted his vast political capital. Along with plenty of others, he could foresee, imagine and desire big changes in the relationship between The State and The People, but he could not engineer them. Mr Blair thinks that was because he did not become a fully fledged Leader early enough. But I would prefer to stress - again - that early and late in his Premiership he had two different versions of the same failure which both sprang from his politics being too personal. They were too Messianic. Being frightened of the machinery of British government he couldn't reform it or use it. Still, he turned out to be the warrior I for one welcomed, and that means his gifts - even his Machiavellian abuse of democracy - weren't wasted. This extraordinary man very nearly says so in this extraordinary book.

Richard D. North is the author of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and its 2007 digital update Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: A story of inspired government, 1997-2007.

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