Tony Blair A Journey
There is little to be learned from Tony Blairâ€™s memoir, A Journeyâ€¦and yet, and yetâ€¦. It is important. Not because it ranks as one of the great political memoirs. It is lite, as youâ€™d expect, a smooth edit, with some of the quality of easy listening. Its allure is its difference from a political memoir written for the politically engaged. Its title is misleading, a journey implies contemplation, development, change. Blair didnâ€™t mature, he degenerated.
It should have been entitled â€˜My Wayâ€™.
Heâ€™s written it for a Des Oâ€™ Connor audience as much as for addicts of political diaries. And thatâ€™s fine.
If it was an economic decision to by-pass serialisation and go for direct sales, it was also surely a political decision â€“ there is no kiss and tell worth spending money on, not even his portrait of his passionate bonding with Gordon Brown, his partner in the creation of New Labour.
His narrative differs from most political chronicles is in its emotionalism, his candour about the excitement he felt in this platonic amour, the alchemy of men making history.
But his is apparently unaware of how the apparent emotional intelligence is utterly macho â€“ it isnâ€™t unusual for men talk about each other like this; emotional literacy isnâ€™t about being thrilled by the company of other men and showing it.
What he reveals is his admiration for cojones, â€˜clanking big onesâ€™. His public persona â€“ charming, easy â€“ and attachment to his wife was misinterpreted as being interested in women and therefore alluring to women. The book marginalises women, however, just as they were sidelined in the birth of the project. He shows how he needs women, likes them and relies on them, but you donâ€™t sense that admires them. The frisson is reserved for men.
Discussing with Alistair Campbell his assault on party rule Clause IV in 1994 â€“ the marque of his leadership â€“ he says Campbell loved the â€˜brassinessâ€™ of it. And he discovers â€˜something I hadnâ€™t been 100 per cent sure of – he had clanking great balls.â€™
It is men who excite Blair, dangerous men: Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson. He likens one to an oak battering ram and the other to a stealthy rapier.
Clearly, he thinks this is cool. But it is coarse. The celebrated â€˜ballsinessâ€™ of Blairâ€™s boys had dire consequences for the New Labour project. As Prof. Joni Lovenduski, the political scientist, argued: if Parliament was masculinist New Labourâ€™s culture was overly so.
Blairâ€™s blindness extends to the text as history and as polemic: it is bereft of context and a sense of the necessary otherness of others. He offers vignettes of his comrades that are sometimes acute, sometimes quite sweet, but everyone is only a supporting actor, he scarcely acknowledges anyone elseâ€™s priorities or ideas. It is as if they only bulwarked a mission designed by him.
On page 90 he spins his political creed, I use the word advisedly, because it is more faith and â€˜common senseâ€™ than analysis.
The essential problem of labour in the post war period, he says, was that it had lost touch with its basic purpose â€“ â€˜at heart, the individualâ€™.
A powerful state, trade unions, what he calls â€˜social actionâ€™ â€“ presumably in contrast to political action – collective bargaining, all were â€˜a means to an end: to help the individual gain opportunityâ€™, to overcome limitations, imposed by poverty and circumstance.
The purpose was â€˜all about opportunity not in general but in particularâ€™.
Blair traduces the post-war Labour project: Labourism was always interested in opportunity in general – hence its great reforms, the welfare state, public housing, comprehensive education.
Blair refracts all of this as merely â€˜individual opportunityâ€™. For him that is ultimately realised through discourses of choice and consumption, not through the good society, an egalitarian, democratic, just and sustainable society.
â€˜The problem for progressive parties was that by the 1960s the first generation of those helped in such a way had been liberated.â€™ Thus on the ladder of opportunity they didnâ€™t want more state help, â€˜They wanted more choice, freedom to earn more money and spend itâ€¦â€™ and they started to resent the freeloadersâ€¦â€™
So thatâ€™s the â€˜60s is it?
Above all, he says, they wanted a relationship to the state as partners or citizens, not clients. Yes, and those aspirations during the â€˜60s animated new social movements, NGOs, radical professionalsâ€™ alliances with clients, movements that he precisely ignores, and indeed for which New Labour felt fear and loathing.
He is left inevitably with the private sector as the model of modernity and dynamism and – through consumerism – of democracy.
New Labour was also authoritarian and abject: its lack of rapport with the troubles of the poorest and least protected was expressed in a shift from social justice to criminal justice. (He acknowledges Brownâ€™s gift of the mantra â€˜tough on crime tough on the causes of crimeâ€™); its relationship to the City was fearful, supplicant, it gave capital the freedom of manoeuvre that it wanted and staunched the opportunities for dissent and resistance and thus for progressive politics.
Blairâ€™s prospectus echoes – more perhaps than he intended – Thatcherâ€™s hapless notion that there is â€˜no such thing as society, only individuals and families.â€™
Which helps to explain why, despite New Labourâ€™s creditable focus on investment in health and education, and most creative of all Sure Start, it never had a strategic and radical approach to planning, the cities, equality, energy, environment, and to children. It had no excuse â€“ these great themes had hosts of champions knocking on the closed doors of Parliament before 1997.
Prosperity by the 1960s was not the end of history; it exposed new and old crises and contradictions â€“ sexism, racism, colonialism, and environmental wreckage. The great liberation movements introduced a new vocabulary of emancipation and ecology – indispensable for renewal of the social democratic project: how to achieve an egalitarian society that is dynamic, democratic, modern, flexible, welcoming, sustainable.
Theyâ€™re just not on his agenda. And a kind of babble fills his ideological vacuum. There is no theory of exploitation, of power, of democracy.
Life and Death
Princess Diana infatuated him, he even ventures that Diana was somehow the zeitgeist â€“ rather forgetting that she actually was a neglected aristocratic girl who, in the context of her global betrayal by a future king, improvised her way into a modern-ish persona. â€˜Whatever New Labour had in part Diana had in whole,â€™ says Blair. Eh?
His one insight into the Royal Family is offered about the Queenâ€™s disposition towards William and Harry after their motherâ€™s death. She did her duty; she sought to protect them, but â€˜first and foremost as princes.â€™
Reading this book as a republican I have to confess that, though, that although Iâ€™m up for any amount of scandal, intrigue and critique, there is something tasteless about Blairâ€™s royal vignettes. He is a royalist, but canâ€™t resist smug chatter that shows he was there, that he knows better.
The Agreement that was signed in Belfast 1998 should stand and one of the great achievements of the Labour government. The prize might have been John Majorâ€™s. But his government was enfeebled not only by Majorâ€™s dependence on the Unionists for his parliamentary survival, but also by the Toriesâ€™ historic compromise with loyalism. Had Peter Brooke endured as secretary of state â€“ in my opinion the most creative Tory during the armed conflict – and had Major been secure, the Conservatives might have redeemed their treasonable history in Northern Ireland.
New Labour was well-prepared: Blairâ€™s Secretary of State Mo Mowlam knew the territory well and whether or not its parochial Established like her – and enough of it did â€“ she electrified the people. She was unlike any other British politician before or after. She treated Northern Irelandâ€™s citizens as normal people entitled to her curiosity and respect. And she was on talking terms with the politicians closest to the armed militias. Unsurprisingly, Blair doesnâ€™t have the grace to acknowledge this. It takes 20 pages on the peace talks before he accords his Secretary of State a place.
Then he makes an important concession.
During the final days of talks, when Blair felt stumped by a long document of Sinn Fein amendments and challenges, Mo Mowlam made a proposal. Sheâ€™d been consigned to the tea trolley while and he and Ahern shouldered the hands of history. But she took the document, swiftly digested it, worked out what was important to Sinn Fein and the IRA, said, Neogiate! They negotiated. â€˜It seemed very odd to me but it worked.â€™ This is an astounding comment from a man whose reputation as a peace dealer was made in Northern Ireland.
He admits that she took â€˜an extraordinarily forward position on the prisonersâ€™ – clearly in any armed conflict the prisoners are decisive and symbolic. Mowlam offered a release date. Talks resumed.
The deal caused ructions among his comrades. Alistair Campbell thought it was â€˜barkingâ€™ mad. But without the prisoners there would be no deal; without the armed adversaries, there would be no deal. This was a great lessons on treaty-making: all the players were present, including representatives of the demonised armed combatants. Deals wonâ€™t work without them.
Still, in a drama with some many actors, Blair canâ€™t control his vanity. He wonders, â€˜Why on earth did I think it could be settled?â€™ Perhaps, he might have answered, because so many had already done so much. No. The answer comes: it was his own mission. His aide Jonathon Powell dubbed it, â€˜my messiah complexâ€™.
Inevitably, we learn nothing new about the war. Blairâ€™s text has been combed by editors and lawyers. So, heâ€™s saying nothing. And yet we can discern and admission that confirms what everyone already knows: by Camp David 2002 he had made up his mind.
As for the war itself and the awful aftermath, he blames International Development Secretary Clare Short, his only surviving critic in his disempowered Cabinet, for the post-invasion mess. And he blames the mass march against the war for just making him feel more isolated. Thatâ€™s all heâ€™s got to say.
It didnâ€™t make him think.
This tells us so much about Blairâ€™s Ã©lan and his decline. Blair is candid about his extraordinary prescience, the sense that he can achieve something beyond the ordinary. He says witnessed his own metamorphosis, â€˜I felt on fire, with a passion and a sense of missionâ€™.
These words call to mind an eloquent moment in the diary of Barbara Castle, the Red Queen of old Labour â€“ and an early moderniser. Observing Margaret Thatcher after her election as leader of the Conservatives, she notes that metamorphosis: Margaret was radiant, potent, Margaret was falling in love â€˜falling in love with herself.â€™
Blairâ€™s love affair led him not to triumph but hubris and shame.