As Anthony Seldon Himself admits, this is not a conventional biography. It's certainly not a womb-to-tomb chronological record, nor is it one of those ubiquitous hagiographies written by a friendly journalist or party hack. Rather it is a critical and analytical study in political communication, although Seldon himself seems scarcely aware of this.
He has presented us with 700 pages of text organised into 40 chapters. They deal with twenty episodes and 20 people who are important in Blair's life. If you think it odd for a text to run to exactly 700 pages, then you may think it odder that all the episode chapters are assigned odd numbers and are presented chronologically. Those chapters ending in seven present Blair at his boldest. Clearly the number seven is important to Seldon and so are multiples of ten, for he presents the political backbone of his book in Chapters 10, 20, 30 and 40.
The reader will quickly forget this obsessive-compulsive concern with numbers because within a few pages he will be completely involved in an extraordinarily dense but very clear poltical narrative fleshed out with incisive analysis. We watch a bright boy acquire an Oxford education, become a barrister, marry another barrister and, comparatively late in life, become interested in politics.
It is at this point that an interesting "life" becomes an absorbing account of how politics is communicated in a complex democratic society. As we are introduced to such influentials in Blair's life as Neil Kinnock, Philip Gould, Peter Mandelson, Derry Irvine, Roy Jenkins and Alastair Campbell, we are treated to impressively detailed accounts of their interaction with Blair, the political system and with each other. In the episode chapters we are treated to an even greater density of detail as we get the inside stories of such issues as Clause IV, the death of Diana, the Euro decision and Kosovo. In all cases we get detached, detailed and balanced accounts of the roles of the political actors and their interaction with the institutions of British democracy.
How is it possible to be so detailed, so knowing, in accounts of events that are so recent, many of them events shaped in secret interactions, indeed in the interactions of a small group of politicians who gathered privately in the prime minister's office (his "den-ocracy")? The answer should warm the heart of any journalist: 90 per cent of the material was gathered in 600 interviews conducted in all political "camps" and in many countries. Many of the interviewees have obviously "spilled their guts" to Seldon and his three researchers. He himself has woven the material together for the most part seamlessly, although more raggedly in his chapter on recent events.
The unconventional structure mostly works well, except for one major misjudgment. As you read the early chapters you slowly become aware that the key figure in Blair's political life is Gordon Brown. His economic acumen sustains Blair but his jealousy and rivalry both undermines and constrains the prime minister. The portrait of Brown, however, is banished to the last chapter. About one-third of the way through the text I realised I had to know much more about him than had been revealed, so I turned to Chapter 40 and read the Brown profile. Much of the narrative then fell into place or took on new meaning. In the next edition Brown must be relocated to around about Chapter 10.
Anthony Seldon clearly sees his role as being to reveal the many aspects of a multi-faceted personality: Who are the people who have most influenced Blair? What have been the main turning points in the prime minister's life? What are his motivations? How has power changed him? And so on.
But in doing so Seldon produces a superb study in the processes of political communication, even though he seems scarcely aware of the conceptual bases of those processes. There is certainly no political science theory underpinning his account, although there is plenty of incisive commonsense critical analysis of both people and events.
The one major omission from what is the conventional political commnunication framework is the influence of pressure groups on Blair and his government. The unions and one or two other groups get a mention but surely in such a complex and sophisticated political system as Britain's the prime minister must be the focus daily of a wide variety of pressure groups. Certainly most of his key influentials would be.
I found this book utterly absorbing - once I started reading it I couldn't keep away from it. Rarely do we get such a balanced, detailed account of the processes of a government while the government is still in power. There will be more to come, of course, as the insiders' diaries and personal accounts are published, but meanwhile we have far more than we could reasonably expect. Why is it so difficult to find reviews of such an outstanding book?