It is, of course, far too soon to have any kind of a adequate appraisal of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, but Philip Stephens does a decent enough job at a preliminary evaluation in his new biography. While this is a straightforward, sober narrative, with relatively few Bob Woodward-esque "you-are-in-the-room-as-history-is-being-made" moments, nonetheless it is a lucid, if not always graceful, account of an interesting and complicated politician.
Britain's Labour Party had been out of power for almost two decades when Tony Blair climbed what Benjamin Disraeli once called "the greasy pole" to power. Helped along the way by the sudden death of Labour leader John Smith (whose passing inspires a characteristically purple passage: "The shock of his death was palpable, rippling out from the hushed corridors of Westminster into the nation's living rooms"), Blair became the youngest Prime Minister the nation had seen in more than a century. Taking his cue from Bill Clinton, Blair tried to divest his party of its old leftist baggage (to give just one example, up until the early 90s, according to Hillary Clinton, Labour members addressed each other while speaking at Party Congresses as "Comrades") while keeping what he felt to be the most important of the reforms that Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had made in the 1980s. It was a delicate balancing act, made somewhat simpler by the morass the ruling Conservative Party fell into after they ganged up on and deposed Thatcher in 1990, and it ended with Blair winning a smashing victory in 1997, and, more importantly, a second victory in a general election in 2001, enabling him to remain in office longer than any Labour Prime Minister in British history.
It makes for an interesting story, and Stephens tells it well, if you don't mind some godawful prose ("By the time Tony Blair traveled to Camp David in early September the drumbeat of war had become a discordant din"), and the occasional factual inaccuracy (he refers to Alistair Campbell as "a reformed alcoholic" on page 70 and a "recovered alcoholic" on page 91 when he is neither, since there's no such thing as either a reformed or a recovered alcoholic - there are only recovering alcoholics and dry drunks, like George W. Bush).
The most glaring inaccuracy in the book, oddly enough, comes with his description of the events of September 11th. "The images of the first passenger jet ramming into the twin towers brought horror and puzzlement," Stephens writes. "When the second hit, everything stopped." This is, as anyone who remembers the events of that morning knows, nonsense. There were no images of the first plane ramming into the twin towers on television: not that day, anyway. Only a French documentary crew caught that ghastly image on camera, and it wasn't shown on television for months.
But that whopping mistake aside, his analysis of Blair seems right on the money, and he shows that Blair understands that, as the French give themselves the delusion of continuing to be a world power by opposing whatever the United States does, the British can only delude themselves that they are still players on the world scene by signing on to whatever the United States wants. This, among other reasons, helps to explain why a man who was so chummy with Bill Clinton could turn around and be equally as intimate with George W. Bush. About Bush, however, Blair has an insight that Americans would do well to take into consideration: "Don't listen to the words," Blair once said of the current occupant of the White House. "Watch what he does." That's sound advice, and I hope people listen to it.
So I can cautiously recommend this book. It's slim and awkwardly written, but for what it is, a very tentative account of a statesman whose story is far from over, it's worth a look. Better books about Blair will certainly be written in the future, but until then this one will have to do.