on 29 September 2016
This political autobiography of former Labour (or 'New Labour') Prime Minister Tony Blair, is an interesting and well-written book, whatever your own politics or opinion of the man. It makes a surprisingly persuasive case even for the highly controversial Iraq War.
Compared to Tom Bower’s recent hostile biography ‘Blair, The Tragedy of Power’, while Bower, who has written several books, is the professional author, Blair is actually a better writer.
Blair gives some details about his life before politics, but does not, for example, say much about his time as an employment law barrister and what he thought of the employers, employees, and Tribunals that he had to deal with, and whether it gave him much insight into business or other people’s working lives.
The book concentrates on his political career, beginning with his early efforts to persuade an often resentful Labour party to ditch some of its old socialist policies if it wanted to win elections and have the power to do anything. Blair’s predecessor as party leader, Neil Kinnock, had already begun that process. Blair considers the key difference was that Kinnock’s message sounded like “We don’t like to change but we have to, because the electorate demand it”; while his own was “We have to change, because the electorate are right”.
Blair has quite a lot to say about how ‘New Labour ‘in his time presented their message to the electorate more successfully than their Conservative rivals.
As for what he actually did with power once he achieved it, he repeatedly talks about the need for ‘reform’ and ‘modernisation’, but is vague as to what this means. I suspect that one of Blair’s limitations was that his previous career as a barrister, a profession composed of self-employed individuals with minimal support staff, develops analytical and presentational skills, but provides almost no experience of management, organisation and administration. (Years ago, I was literally asked by a barrister “What is management?”)
As Prime Minister, Blair was obstructed by his Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, who had once been Blair’s friend and ally (Brown actually thought up the slogan that became associated with Blair “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”). However, Brown spent the first 11 years of the last Labour government sulking that he was only No.2 man in the government rather than No.1, and determined that, if he could not run the country himself, he would make it difficult for Blair to do anything. Brown seemed to think it was his right to be Prime Minister. Blair reasonably comments that the premiership is something that [via the Queen] the party and country bestow, no one ought to think it theirs by right. (Sad that, when Brown finally became PM, he did not look as though he enjoyed it much and he did not last long.)
Then there is of course the Iraq War, fought on a pretext that Saddam Hussein had to be stopped because he was building weapons of mass destruction (nuclear weapons, chemical weapons e.g. poison gas etc.) , although no such weapons were actually found. Blair makes a case that while Saddam was not actually maintaining or building a stock pile of such weapons he was preparing in every way he could to start building them quickly as soon as the world’s attention was off him, so it would not have been safe to leave him in power. Possibly (as has been said of the West’s dealings with North Korea today) all available options in relation to Saddam’s Iraq were bad ones.
However, most other things I have read (e.g. Tom Bower’s ‘Blair The Tragedy of Power’ mentioned above, which is partly based on interviews with ex-very senior Whitehall and military figures) agree that whether the Iraq war was necessary or not in principle, the Blair government sent British forces, both there and in Afghanistan, to risk their lives in situations that had not been properly thought through and for which they were not adequately funded, even for their role as very junior partners to the Americans.
The lack of funding may in a sense be the fault of Gordon Brown at the Treasury, but if Blair could neither replace Brown nor make him adequately fund the armed forces for the role to which Blair’s government committed them, then Blair should not have volunteered them for those roles.
With hindsight, Blair’s enthusiasm for joining the European single currency, the Euro, might have proved disastrous. In this respect, it may be a good thing that Brown obstructed him.
At one time, when briefly considering doing postgraduate research in an aspect of modern British political history, and discussing relvant books with a University lecturer, she mentioned the memoirs of various politicians, but in almost every case then added “probably full of lies” or “full of lies, I’m sure”. If that was right, then Blair is no worse in that respect than many others and may even be better.
It is easy for us to be arm-chair Prime Ministers, draw up with hindsight a list of Blair’s greatest mistakes and imagine that we could have done it better; not necessarily, I think.
All Prime Ministers make mistakes; many hold office for years but leave few noticeable, lasting achievements behind them. So in making criticisms of Blair here, I am not saying that he was that bad a Prime Minister, as Prime Ministers go.
However, his government did not really solve the related problems of the inefficient welfare state and stretched government finances. He nearly made the mistake of locking Britain into the perpetual financial crisis that is the Euro currency, and naively sent our armed forces unprepared into two unwinnable wars.
There was also a contradiction between allowing large-scale Muslim immigration with inadequate integration even while joining in 2 wars that many Muslims perceive as “The West attacking Muslim lands!” This helped to create Muslim communities who lived in Britain but were sometimes separated from the rest of us by deep mutual suspicion, and increased risk of domestic terrorism.
Even Blair’s successful election winning strategies could only work for so long; in the long-term they left people so disillusioned that many former working class Labour voters gave up voting, or switched to UKIP.
The remainder of the Labour party has, in part in reaction to Tony Blair’s 13 years as leader, since he stepped down marched ever further to the politically correct left, possibly now foreshadowing electoral failure and internal strife comparable to the Michael Foot / Militant Tendency era, which Blair had hoped to lead the Party away from forever.
The UK public’s recent vote to leave the European Union was surely in part a reaction against a remote liberal-ish Establishment of which both Labour’s Blair and the Conservatives’ David Cameron were seen as part.
This book was written not very long after Blair left office, so says little about his and his wife Cherie’s lucrative business activities, controversially interweaved with diplomacy and charity, after leaving office.
With strange insensitivity, when Blair has made public pronouncements in recent years, e.g. on the Middle East or the European Union, he seems unable to comprehend that he is now so little trusted, especially on these topics, that his support probably harms causes more than helping them.
Possibly, over time, the public mood and judgment of history about Blair will change. However, I suspect that if people read Tony Blair’s ‘A Journey’, in 50 years’ time, the majority of readers will still say, as now, that it is sad that someone who can write so interestingly and engagingly made such a mediocre job of being Prime Minister.