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4.0 out of 5 stars A Jumble More Than A Journey, 27 Dec 2012
This review is from: A Journey (Hardcover)
One of the interesting features of political memoirs and autobiographies is how they tend to reflect the public personality of their subject: Thatcher's 'The Downing Street Years' is punchy and trenchant and supported by a cold, sovereign certainty; by contrast, John Major's eponymous tome is apologetic, careful, thoughtful and melodic, and surprisingly well-written; Clinton's 'My Life' is stylistically eclectic and inclusive, variously generous, liverish and expansive, and always self-absorbed; Jimmy Carter's 'Keeping Faith' is faux-parabolic, earnest and unintentionally hilarious; Willy Brandt's 'People and Politics' is defensive and cagey; Jim Callaghan's 'Time and Chance' is technocratic in tone and with an air of machine competence; and at the extreme end of the scale, Hitler's 'Mein Kampf' amounts to a screaming, oratorical prose dictated while in gaol, but with some gems of thought and insight.

'My Journey' is not a bad memoir, but it cannot rank among the best. It's really a jumble more than a journey. Blair's vitae, thoughts and reflections have been assembled thematically, but you come away with the impression of an unstructured, inchoate mission, a government that was concerned more with what people thought about it than with actually getting anything done. That's not to say the Blair Ministries were without 'achievement' - a considerable amount was done, but it was a confused and ad hoc agenda without an underlying transformative narrative. Thatcher set out to save Britain. Major set out not to be Thatcher but also to implement a calmer, gentler type of Conservatism. What did Blair set out to do? This book doesn't really tell us. Blair claims that he was going to undo the 'injustices' of the Tory years, but in reality Blair was a continuation of Thatcher-Major, a managerial politician who would follow whichever way the wind blows. The mission was to be in power. Power itself gave the opportunity for certain revolutionary Left elements at the top of the Labour Party to implement a radical social agenda, but to what extent Blair himself was cognisant of this is unclear. Blair is well-spoken, articulate, but I doubt he really had much of a sense of direction or any rigorous understanding of policy issues. I think he attained the leadership of the Labour Party because he was the ideal 'front man'.

That said, I think it is also fair to say that the Iraq War (indeed, the whole aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy) was the point when Blair really came into his own. It is quite possible that had 9/11 not occurred, he would have been remembered as a fairly undistinguished Prime Minister. As it is, the so-called War On Terror gave his premiership a dramatic narrative. In this book, Blair justifies his actions ably and, rightly, points out that the campaign among some of his political opponents to label him a 'liar' is deeply counter-productive and corrosive of our democracy. Either a mistake was made with the intelligence on WMD or it was not. There is no proof of malfeasance and Blair himself admits the intelligence was wrong. What he perhaps does not tackle so well here is the possibility that there might have been a sound basis for not launching the invasion at all, indeed for a more reconciliatory policy toward Iraq.

I am not certain Blair actually wrote this book himself, but if he did, then my conclusion is that he is not a specially good writer, but he conveys his ideas clearly and competently, although the prose is at times a little too companionable for my liking. Whatever, the real Blair is captured here well: the archetypical mainstream politician, crowd-pleaser and holonomic party manager; a politician who was turbid and hazy in his vision - almost to the point of somnambulism - and always slightly vague and non-committal in his practical politics: in short, all the attributes of the politically rootless. Blair concerns himself obsessively with what people think of him. Even the Iraq War, seemingly an abnegation of Blairism in that it was a principled stand in defiance of public opinion, actually had broad public support in opinion polls: the mainstream opposition, if it ever existed, came later, by which time it was too late.

Despite the critical issues, I still rate this book highly not because it is a great autobiography (it isn't), but because what is written here is Blair through and through. You always have to give credit when the subject puts his stamp on a memoir because it allows the astute reader to come away with a good understanding of the man, and I think that is possible here.
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