A Journey, by Tony Blair; Hutchinson, 2010, 624 pages, $59.95.
Tony Blair comes close to achieving a remarkable feat in his memoirs. By the close of A Journey it is almost possible to feel sorry for a man who at the age of forty-three became the youngest prime minister of Britain since 1812 before going on to win an unprecedented three consecutive elections for his party. Sorry for the man—self-avowed socialist, naturally—who is today a senior adviser at investment bank JP Morgan, advises the Swiss insurance firm Zurich Financial Services, retains a consulting role with the luxury goods firm LVMH, and charges between £100,000 and £200,000 for a ninety-minute speech. What, exactly, is there for us to pity about Phoney Tony?
At one point in A Journey Blair recalls his first euphoric months as prime minister and remembers thinking how good it would be to retire “just past fifty, still popular, still a friendly face in a friendly country”. Fate took a different turn. By 2007 Gordon Brown had tried everything to shift Blair from office bar backing a removalist van up Downing Street to the front entrance of Number 10. Blair did finally go in June that year and yet his enforced exit involved more than falling victim to his nemesis.
Though he was still at the peak of his not inconsiderable powers back in 2007, few mourned Tony Blair’s leave-taking. Not even with a monumental election defeat behind them are Labour supporters nostalgic for Blair, which goes some of the way to explaining Ed Miliband’s recent Labour leadership victory over his more Blairite older brother. These days the New Labour brand is about as fashionable as the last Oasis album.
The sticking point for much of the Left is the Iraq War. The ex-Prime Minister makes a solid legal case in A Journey for the overthrow of the Baathist regime in Baghdad but I doubt if many on his side of the political fence are going to take it seriously. When Blair announced he was handing over his £4.6 million advance for his memoirs to a charity that cares for injured soldiers he was variously described by these naysayers as “insincere and creepy” and somebody who “never fails to turn my stomach”. The BBC, for instance, was quick to go public with a response from the father of a British soldier killed in Iraq, who helpfully described Blair’s gesture as “blood money”. Blair, according to the Left, is a liar and a warmonger and that is the end of the matter.
Britain’s foreign policy between 1997 and 2007 is one reason why some conservative-leaning commentators are more sanguine about Blair’s premiership. Certainly there are a number of foreign policy initiatives that belong in the positive column, including British intervention in Sierra Leone and Kosovo. Moreover, Blair and his negotiating team deserve credit for the doggedness with which they pursued a power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland, even if the IRA had virtually surrendered before official negotiations commenced and Blair was naive (or deliberately obtuse) about the overlap between the IRA and Sinn Fein. Helping America take down the Taliban government and then destroy Saddam Hussein and his psychotic sons are also pluses, although why the Maliki government and US marines had to recapture Basra after the British made a hash of things remains an awkward question. Was some version of political correctness to blame?
The Left’s keenness to renounce Tony Blair does not make it incumbent upon everybody else to own him. There are, nevertheless, a number of admirable qualities about Blair that deserve to be acknowledged, not the least being his civility towards political opponents. In A Journey he admits that during the 1980s—when the Conservatives ruled Britain—Tory speakers in parliament often “made a lot of sense”. There are numerous other examples of a generosity of spirit towards his opponents, a quality that sometimes eludes both British Labour and Australian Labor politicians.
Another commendable characteristic possessed by Tony Blair is his brilliance as a polemicist. He has all the boldness of a barrister, which is exactly what he was before becoming the Member for Sedgefield in June 1983. Accordingly, a lot of what he argues in A Journey—especially if you do not dig too deeply or know any better—is either plausible or very nearly plausible. There are obvious exceptions, the most humorous being his explanation for why Bill Clinton had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky: “I was also convinced that his behaviour arose in part from his inordinate interest in and curiosity about people.” Not even the most gullible of jurors is going to swallow that.
The downside of all this Blairish charm and articulacy, not to mention the “philosophy” of a Third Way, is that it was exploited by a slick political operation to convince small-c conservative Britons to vote for a left-of-centre organisation that was—and remains—something other than conservative. In A Journey Tony Blair declares himself to have a “manic lust for modernisation”. These are hardly the sentiments of a modern-day Lord Salisbury.
The siren call to conservatives commenced in 1995 with the much-heralded removal of Clause IV from the constitution of the British Labour Party. A future Blair Labour government would not seek to nationalise the means of production. In retrospect it is hard to see what all the fuss was about. The two previous Labour prime ministers, Harold Wilson (1964–70 and 1974–76) and James Callaghan (1976–79), gave little indication of wanting to nationalise the means of production. They found other ways to express their hankering for change, which included underpinning the so-called Permissive Society with reams of “ground-breaking” legislation.
The only ones truly affected by the striking out of Clause IV were Militant, a Trotskyist sect that had infiltrated the British Labour Party in the 1980s and early 1990s, and the hapless Conservative Party. Labour, now re-badged as New Labour, could at last put some distance between itself and the 1978–79 Winter of Discontent.
This time around, with Tony Blair at the helm, Labour would not only be responsible and judicious like the Tories but also more compassionate, Thatcherism with a human face. In 1997 there were enough small-c conservatives in the United Kingdom persuaded by this narrative for Blair to win in a landslide. A decade later, with New Labour apparatchiks advising him every step of the way, Kevin Rudd—steady and reliable like John Howard but nicer—performed the same feat in Australia.
In A Journey Tony Blair rejects the accusation that he and “the master”, Bill Clinton, are nothing more than polished and slippery performers. His summing up of Clinton is doubtless how he himself would like to be seen: “His superb intellect was often hidden by his manner, but he had incredible analytical ability, was genuinely interested in policy debate—possibly, occasionally, too much so—and constantly on the look out for new ideas.” If we substitute cleverness for superb intellect we probably have a not entirely inaccurate assessment of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and, yes, even Kevin Rudd.
The temptation is to dismiss these characters as opportunistic lightweights, as vain, superficial men masquerading as statesmen. Of course they are vain and superficial. Anyone unconvinced of this only has to read at the end of A Journey a summary of the seven “Pathways to the Future” speeches Blair delivered in the last nine months of his tenure. The banality is unsettling: “The purpose of the [third] speech was threefold: to explain why science was important; why we had doubled investment in it under the very able guidance of David Sainsbury; and why we should not let its critics undermine its ability to break new ground.”
There is no point accusing such a man of being phoney because like all brilliant salesmen he believes in his product, at least at the time of sale. Here was a clever progressive thinker imbued with all the political correctness of his time, “constantly on the look out for new ideas”. So what did Blair sell all those small-c conservatives who, along with more traditional Labour voters, ensured his victory at three consecutive elections?
One of his first big ideas was education reform, or “education, education and education” as the catchcry went in 1996. In A Journey Blair claims the 1997 election of New Labour resulted in increased spending for education and thus state education improved on his watch. If only it were as simple as that. The bottom line for a conservative should be that as many children as possible, whatever their social circumstances, receive a rigorous and traditional liberal education so long as they are willing and able to attempt it. In 1965 Anthony Crossland and the Labour Party betrayed their own working-class base when they drove a stake through the heart of grammar school education.
In hindsight, Tony Blair the progressive was never destined to reassemble what his political predecessors had, in the name of equality, so mindlessly destroyed. Primary school teachers, especially, revile Blair for the enervating reforms forced upon them by an education bureaucracy that has no appreciation of what real teaching involves. Likewise, a grim comprehensive school suddenly handed a great deal of cash in order to become an academy specialising in (say) hockey does not constitute a grammar school. Tellingly, New Labour under Blair scrapped rewards for good literacy in senior school examinations, while the latest White Paper on Education (2010) accurately reports that far too many school leavers in Britain are incapable of composing a sentence, spelling difficult words or writing a coherent letter or e-mail.
The emergence of progressive and faddish ideas about education might have predated Tony Blair, but his “manic lust for modernisation” made him a natural ally of whatever new idea was in the air. Kevin Rudd’s laptop giveaway, Julia Gillard’s “Building the Education Revolution” and John Brumby’s “Education for Life” could all be described as Blairish. They are potentially vote-winning strategies which do absolutely nothing to address the fact that it often costs somewhere between $5000 and $20,000 a year in Australia to obtain a traditional liberal education or at least something approximating it. What happens if you are poor?
How Labour and the ALP get away with selling themselves as the parties of social justice I am not entirely sure, but clearly it is central to their understanding (or misunderstanding) of themselves. The consequence is that every politically correct destination, sensible or ridiculous, becomes a journey that is unstoppable. No government in the history of Britain passed more legislation dealing with immigration than New Labour, and yet besides placating some of their conservative-minded supporters anxious that matters were getting out of hand, and undercutting the Tories at the 2005 election, what did all that legislation achieve? My guess is it will be the same story here. Julia Gillard might have rejected Kevin Rudd’s notion of Big Australia before the 2010 federal election, but another term or two of being governed by those who are driven by political correctness and Big Australia will be one more journey that is unstoppable.
The biggest howler in the book, bigger than Blair’s rationalisation of Bill Clinton’s sexual proclivities, is the inference that the current Conservative–Liberal coalition in Britain somehow represents a continuation of New Labour’s Third Way. Tell that to the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, desperately trying to walk Britain back from the brink. Osborne is the fall guy who has to deal with the after-effects of thirteen years of Labour largesse.
In A Journey Blair disingenuously blames Gordon Brown’s stay at Number 10 for Britain’s current debt in the wake of the global financial crisis, but the surfeit of half a million public servants did not accrue over the last three years. The “vision thing” does not come cheaply, and Tony Blair was a visionary politician. Take, as just one example, his final National Health Service “new idea”, the National Programme for IT (NPfIT). The original costing came in at £2.3 billion, but by the time the Conservative–Liberal government nixed it in September 2010 the price tag was a staggering £20 billion to £30 billion and climbing fast. If only our own looming technological folly, the Rudd–Gillard $43 billion National Broadband Network, could be so fortuitously averted.
There is a passage in A Journey in which Tony Blair, still a relatively young man but no longer Prime Minister or even the Member for Sedgefield, makes a private visit to parliament. His attachment to the place is beautifully evoked and there really is a sense that Blair would trade all the wealth he has amassed since “retiring” to be back in the heat of political battle. Whatever life holds for him in the future, his journey—the only journey that really counts—is over.
The dream has soured for the man who once upon a time was as popular as Princess Diana. At this moment in his book it seems a little churlish not to feel sorry for him. But maybe our sympathy is better spent on the nation he misruled for ten long years.
Daryl McCann reviewed Moral Combat by
Michael Burleigh in the November issue.