by Babak Moussavi
The long-anticipated memoir of one of Britain’s most influential Prime Ministers – not to mention the Labour Party’s most successful – perhaps unsurprisingly sold very well. But while many people flocked to the bookshops to purchase the book, others went with the intention of transferring copies to the crime section. Combine this with the fact that Tony Blair’s attempts to sign copies of A Journey were greeted by egg-throwing protesters and one can see that strong views are still held about this former statesman. While he may retain something of a Marmite effect in public opinion, no one can plausibly deny that the account of his 10 years spent in Downing Street, as well as the years building up to it, would be an interesting read.
Mr Blair’s story is well known: following his fragile pact with Gordon Brown after the death of John Smith in 1994, he became leader of the Labour Party with the express intention of modernising it into what became ‘New Labour’, before stepping down to allow Mr Brown his turn. A landslide election victory in 1997 ended 18 years of Tory rule, and was followed by two more election victories. After 10 years he agreed to step down, allowing Mr Brown to take over, but he only held on for three years, before Labour’s defeat in the 2010 elections.
As Prime Minister, Mr Blair sought to implement the reforms of public institutions – broadly speaking, through increasing competition and autonomy – with the intention of delivering higher quality services, but without resorting to ‘Old Labour’ methods of higher taxes. Mr Blair is firmly committed to encouraging individual aspiration, believing that a larger, more bureaucratic state impedes this. Because ‘Old Labour’ had not realised this, he held it to be unelectable and in need of reform.
For Mr Blair, this did not necessarily mean a shift to the right. Rather, he holds such right-left distinctions to be anachronistic. What is more important is being open, dynamic and forward-thinking, as opposed to closed, and hostile to change (which seems to be an implicit criticism of conservativism as a political philosophy). As such, he is happy to praise those on either side of the traditional political divide when they encourage openness, and criticise those who do not. Margaret Thatcher is therefore praised (surprisingly often) for her attempts to ‘liberalise’ the economy, whereas Ed Balls, and other ‘Brownites’ such as Nick Brown, the former Labour whip, are characterised as being against Mr Blair’s modernising reforms and therefore aren’t always described in the most praiseworthy terms. That isn’t to say Mr Blair is a closet Tory, as some wondered aloud after the book’s publication, but that he is an economic liberal.
It was in this area that he disagreed most strongly with his eventual rival, Mr Brown. Indeed, he declares that he may have stepped down earlier, and completely voluntarily, had he felt that Mr Brown was committed to the New Labour plan. But he doubted Mr Brown’s ability to connect with voters, with a now-famous description of his qualities: “Analytical intelligence, absolutely. Emotional intelligence, zero”. Since he came to suspect that Mr Brown would not continue the project – and since they came to be such bitterly feuding rivals – he held on for as long as decently possible, but claims he knew all along that if he were to leave and the reforms were to be halted, Labour would not win the next election.
Indeed it is his recurring view that he was right all along that reveals a notable personality trait of this former Prime Minister: his enormous self-belief. He claims his reforms were “right” and that it was “obvious” that the abandonment of New Labour explains why Labour did not win the last election, when it is surely more likely that a multitude of factors contributed to this outcome, including his successor’s personal unpopularity. He spends over 100 pages discussing Iraq, explaining why he still feels the decision to oust Saddam Hussein was correct. He places the blame for the post-invasion devastation on the destructive influences of al-Qaeda and Iran, who aimed to stoke sectarian hatred, rather than a lack of preparation by the American-led coalition. And he argues that standing by the US, and against the rest of the world, in not calling for an immediate ceasefire in the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war was right, given the need to stop Hizbullah firing rockets. In a telling sentence, Mr Blair says of his general convictions: “I might be in a minority of one, but it would a one I believed in.” As Andrew Rawnsley has put it, this is a telling example of how Mr Blair went from being a seductive politician of persuasion, to a politician of assertion. Some might describe such a state as sticking to firm principles. Others might call it delusion. It is this strong belief that what he did was right, that has led some, such as John Gray, the British political philosopher, to dub his book an “autohagiography”.
Gordon Brown was not the only ‘GB’ with whom Mr Blair held a closely scrutinised relationship; there was always the lingering accusation that he was the poodle of the conservative US President, George Bush. Strikingly though, he consistently speaks of Mr Bush’s progressive predecessor, Bill Clinton, in far more glowing terms. That said, he does not criticise Mr Bush for some of his arch-conservative views, even though he mentions their differences: “there weren’t many social issues we seemed to agree on; and on climate change, we were poles apart, as it were.” But this leads to another aspect about Mr Blair’s personality that readily comes out in the book: he seems to seriously dislike speaking badly about people. Throughout the book, he very rarely offers direct criticism and even complements those who would not seem to be his natural allies. This comes out almost comically when he struggles to make a point about Mrs Thatcher: “… in time I came to see the sentiment [of Euroscepticism] she engendered as the single worst legacy she bequeathed Britain (though on the whole she was undoubtedly a great prime minister).”
The most disappointing part of A Journey is the postscript. Some of Mr Blair’s prescriptions for the future, most notably a shift beyond left-right thinking, are useful. But here, as well as claiming that ditching the New Labour model was the reason for Labour’s failure, Mr Blair talks about the financial crisis. While it is interesting to note that he doesn’t subscribe to the more conventional view within today’s Labour party that the Keynesian approach is correct, this is not his area of expertise. He says: “‘the market’ did not fail. One part of one sector did.” But the market is a holistic entity, and if an integral feature of it, the banking sector, fails, the result, as we have witnessed, is market failure of the sort requiring massive state intervention. Indeed the concept of market failure, when operations of the free market fail to produce efficient outcomes, is something taught in any introductory Economics course. That Mr Blair shows such a shaky understanding perhaps supports the view of him as great on style, but thin on substance. This would be unfair, I feel, but this last chapter in Mr Blair’s book does not do him many favours, and is a rather disappointing conclusion to his ‘journey’.
While Mr Blair is currently not the most popular of figures, his record suggests history will judge him in a better light. While his foreign-policy may now be remembered for Iraq and Afghanistan, his successful ventures in Sierra Leone and Kosovo put an end to crimes against humanity taking place there and such actions may not have been taken by less brave leaders. Moreover, Mr Blair achieved peace in Northern Ireland – perhaps his greatest success overall. In the domestic sphere, NHS waiting-lists drastically shrank, crime levels decreased by most measures, the Human Rights Act was introduced, more investment went into education, and the minimum wage was established. Mr Blair did not leave Britain perfect, but he left it better. Meanwhile, Mr Blair’s journey in British politics may have ended, but we shouldn’t be too surprised if another memoir disguised as a book on a different theme (the tactic of his chief of staff, Jonathan Powell) comes out in a decade or so, given his continued involvement in global politics. And if that journey is anything like his travels within British politics, he will have a lot to say.