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The Center-Right Honorable Tony Blair

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Tony Blair. A Journey: My Political Life. Knopf. 720 Pages. $35.00.

Aside from George W. Bush, has any other Western political leader in modern times been so reviled and savaged by the intellectual elite, media, or his own people than Tony Blair? As the targets of novelists, satirists, and polemicists, democratically elected politicians have been portrayed in some very unflattering ways, but rarely as so callous as to orchestrate the murder of their own colleagues. So loathed is the former British prime minister that he was recently depicted, albeit in fictional form, as doing just that. In The Ghostwriter, a commercially successful 2010 film directed by Roman Polanski (based on a novel by Robert Harris), a suave, handsome ex-prime minister is not only shown to be an unctuous lapdog to the American imperium, the most frequent charge leveled at Blair. He is also alleged to be in the Americans’ pay, through the connivance of his shrewish, Lady MacBeth of a

Blair shares an important trait with his American counterpart, George W. Bush: He inspires the most zealous feelings in people. In 2005, as Blair reveals in his colloquial and enjoyable memoir, A Journey, he sat for a presentation by a pollster who had surveyed the British public’s attitudes towards their prime minister. He “had never conducted research on a person and seen such strong feelings aroused,” Blair writes, with the pollster analogizing the British people’s relationship with Blair as “like a love match or a marriage.” In the 1997 British general election, Blair won the greatest single-party majority in British history, largely due to his own persona and promise of reforms. Ten years later he left office with dismal approval ratings and nary a supporter in the media that had once fawned over him.

To comprehend the full extent of Blair’s transformative role in British politics — and why he elicits such passionate emotions — it is first necessary to understand the state of the Labor Party when he took the reins as leader in 1994. At the time, the Labor movement was still dominated by the country’s trade unions, which had historically played a fundamental, though disproportionate, part in its decision-making. Prominent leaders were still talking of the “class enemy,” advocating a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament and the eviction of American military bases from the British Isles, and clinging hard to a clause in the party constitution calling for the “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.” In 1981, a small but influential group of mps, distraught over the hard left’s domination over Labor, broke away to form the Social Democratic Party (which later merged with the Liberals to form today’s Liberal Democrats). In preparation for the 1983 general election, Labor produced a manifesto which, in the words of one rueful mp, amounted to “the longest suicide note in history.” Several years later, the party purged members of an entryist sect called the “Militant Tendency,” a “party within a party” founded by former members of the Revolutionary Communist Party.

Labor’s 1983 election defeat — as decisive a loss as its1945 win was a victory — was an edifying experience for Blair. To most neutral observers, it was pretty clear that a party that was forced to fend off a conspiracy by Marxist infiltrators, called for abject surrender in the face of mounting Soviet aggression, and supported widely unpopular industrial actions by public sector unions that threatened to paralyze the country was not fit to govern a modern democracy. Yet to Blair’s astonishment, his fellow party members almost universally informed him that the reason why Labor lost the election was because it was not left-wing enough. “Progressive parties are always in love with their own emotional impulses,” he writes. Under a long line of leaders who headed the party for nearly two decades of Conservative dominance, Labor had become “a party of protest, not of government.”

With a determined band of young allies, Blair brought a massive wrecking ball to Labor and refashioned it in his own image. One of the first things he did was to abolish Clause IV of the party’s constitution, the one committing Labor to common ownership, which he describes as nothing less than a “graven image, an idol.” Gone was the class war rhetoric; in came policies that recognized the legitimate economic aspirations of the working class without attacking the wealthier echelons of society. These moves obviously infuriated both the party’s intellectual classes and militant trade unionists, who had sentimental and practical motives to oppose anything that had the whiff of public sector reform.

A question which arises at this point of the book is why Blair ever joined the Labor Party in the first place, what with his instincts, temperament, and policy preferences falling more comfortably within the Tory paradigm. Blair did not come from a traditional Labor household; indeed, his father, a self-made lawyer, had ambitions to run for parliament as a Conservative but was foiled by a stroke. The buzzword “modernization,” which Blair uses countless times to describe his reform agenda, was essentially a campaign to make the Labor Party more conservative. Some of Blair’s left-wing critics (and not a few of his right-wing admirers) argue that he chose Labor as it provided a better vehicle for his political ambitions given the fact that it couldn’t sink any lower and had a dearth of young political talent.

The greatest revelation to come from this book is the one his enemies on the left always threw at him and which he still denies: that he is ultimately a man of the center-right. “New Labor,” despite all of Blair’s attempts to market it as anything but, is essentially a reformed, more family-friendly conservatism. On issues from education, to the provision of health care and other public services, to immigration and the recent swarm of asylum-seekers, Blair’s instinct has been to cast aside the trendy notions expounded by the intellectual left and trade unions in favor of policies that are more market-friendly and jibe with a commonsense consensus. Indeed, the entire New Labor project was to shred the party’s Old Left nostrums, while simultaneously stealing the best ideas from the Tories and making them more palatable to the general public. He introduced choice and competition into realms once marked sacrosanct by the left as preserves of the state. As to crime, Blair “hated the liberal middle-class attitudes towards it” and adopted tough policies under the slogan, “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime,” citing Rudy Giuliani as his inspiration. With regards to foreign policy, however, he frequently expresses befuddlement that the term “neoconservative” is applied to a view of interventionism which he sees, not without justification, as arising from old-fashioned left-wing notions of international solidarity and humanitarianism.

Blair admits that he had never thought deeply about foreign policy or Britain’s role in the world until after he assumed the office of prime minister. Though Blair is now remembered mostly for his international role, he admits that “if you had told me on that bright May morning as I first went blinking into Downing Street that during my time in office I would commit Britain to fight four wars, I would have been bewildered and horrified.” This is the sort of observation frequently made by, and about, American presidents, who enter office with grand domestic agendas only to face the ineluctable pull of the outside world. For Blair, his “awakening” was the Serbian campaign of ethnic cleansing against Albanian Kosovars. And without Blair’s insistence, it is unlikely that Bill Clinton would have made the decisive push for American intervention.

Blair is unapologetic about the most controversial and momentous decision he made as prime minister: to take Britain into war against Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime alongside the United States. He reminds readers that repeated inquiries into pre-war intelligence have absolved the British government of manipulating information to make the case for war. One of the most fearsome claims included in an intelligence report — that Iraq had the ability to deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes of an order to do so — was later pounced upon by war opponents and the media as a textbook case of the Blair government’s deception. But the dossier in which the (latterly-proven) false estimate was published had been authored by the Joint Intelligence Committee, not Downing Street, and was never cited by Blair in his own arguments.

Blair admits that, regarding the choice between, on the one hand, a realist foreign policy of maintaining the status quo with rogue regimes, or dealing with them forcefully, he “had become a revolutionary.” One gets the feeling that Blair, emboldened by his domestic political success (“I felt a growing inner sense of belief, almost of destiny,” he writes about his years rising through the ranks of the Labor Party) carried that confidence over to the foreign realm, where he sought to make Britain a world power that was equally comfortable maintaining both the “special relationship” with the United States and a no less productive one with the continent. At the same time, Blair is glib on the question of Europe; while rightfully attacking the more extreme anti-European sentiments of the British right, he never fully confronts the arguments that a deeper relationship with Europe might threaten his cherished alliance with America. And so the man who entered Downing Street giving nary a thought to foreign policy left admitting that he “would have loved to” overthrow Zimbabwean tyrant Robert Mugabe, yet desisted from doing so only because “it wasn’t practical.”

In the context of British politics, there is nothing particularly “conservative” about Blair’s foreign policy interventionism. There has always been a strong, antitotalitarian wing of Labor, and a significant bloc within the Conservative Party has long been isolationist and patronizing towards American power. Yet as Blair is forced to admit, his strong support for American global primacy and a robust uk-U.S. alliance finds few followers in the mainstream left today. Indeed, for all of his eloquence and passion, Blair left behind a Britain that is far more anti-American, pacifistic, and inert on the world stage than it was when he became prime minister in 1997. Maybe that was the inevitable consequence of a set of policies that were as radical as they were necessary, but it is a legacy with which Blair never seriously grapples.

In passages that will make him even more unpopular with British and American liberals, Blair frequently defends George W. Bush from charges of dangerous Manichaeism, not because it is the polite thing for an ex-statesman to do in service to a fellow former leader, but because he shares Bush’s view of the world. Blair’s clear-eyed and moralistic understanding of Islamism, and the force of arms and ideas he believes must be married to defeat it, is of the sort that’s frequently ridiculed by Britain’s chattering classes (Blair would be criticized as hyperbolic by most Labor members and intellectuals not only for comparing the threat posed by militant Islamism with that of “revolutionary Communism,” but for his casting the latter as anything we ought to have been seriously worried about in the first place). As prime minister, Blair’s closest political relationships were formed not with his fellow members of the Socialist International but European conservatives: Germany’s Angela Merkel, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, Spain’s José María Aznar, and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, all of whom he frequently praises throughout the memoir. Even former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a man more despised by European leftists than perhaps any political leader in recent times, wins praise from Blair. Bill Clinton, who emerges from this book as a godlike figure, came from the right wing of the Democratic Party and essentially governed as a moderate Republican.

In the final chapter, which addresses the major global events that have taken place since he left office, Blair confirms himself as a man of the center-right, at least on economic questions. “I profoundly disagree with the statist, so-called Keynesian response to the economic crisis,” he writes. The schadenfreude visible in left-wing quarters over the supposed collapse of capitalism must be addressed head-on with the argument that “‘the market’ did not fail.” Blair writes that “The role of government is to stabilize and then get out of the way as quickly as is economically sensible.” Setting the retirement age at 60 is an idea he finds “absurd; horrifying, in fact.” These prescriptions may sound insufficiently libertarian to the American Tea Party right, but they are outright heresies in European left-of-center politics.

Obsessive followers of the Tony Blair-Gordon Brown relationship will find much here to pore over. Brown, who served as chancellor of the exchequer throughout Blair’s decade in office, was always more of a Labor man than Blair, which is precisely why he wasn’t suited to lead the party out of the wilderness at its most desperate moment. The two men began as friendly colleagues, with a relationship that soon turned difficult (“we were like a couple who loved each other, arguing whose career should come first”), then utterly sour, with long stretches of passive aggressive (and sometimes openly aggressive) hostility. That there existed a prolonged situation in which the prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer would literally not speak to one another is one of the debilitating peculiarities of the British parliamentary political system; if Blair had sacked Brown, he would remain in parliament on the backbenches as at best an irritant, at worst an organizer of an intraparty coup. Still, keeping Brown around meant that he became a major distraction and impediment, and Blair’s hesitance to fire him over his conspiring is one his most widely acknowledged failures.

One is struck by Blair’s magnanimity; the arrows shot at Brown are an exception rather than the rule when it comes to enemies and irritants. Although the media have relished these barbs (which, in light of the men’s disputatious relationship, are remarkably mild, not to mention prescient), A Journey is not the prototypical, score-settling political memoir. Tony Benn, one of the most prominent, far-left figures in 20th century British politics, who frequently attacked Blair as a liar and war criminal, “is something of a national treasure.” To dismantle the uk’s nuclear deterrent, a move Blair obviously opposed, “would not have been stupid.” Blair’s high-minded attitude is best evinced when he deals with Clare Short, a minister for international development who quit the cabinet over the Iraq War and later went on to disparage her former boss repeatedly and mercilessly in the media. “She thought people who disagreed with her were wicked rather than wrong — a common failing of politicians — and when she turned sour, she could be very bitter indeed,” Blair writes, with hardly a trace of what must surely be his own bitterness at her betrayal. “But we should be proud of our aid record and she of her part in it.” If only those who disagreed with Blair showed him the same charity that he has shown them.

Brown, who served as chancellor of the exchequer throughout Blair’s decade in office, was always more of a Labor man than Blair, which is why he wasn’t suited to lead the party out of the wilderness.

The conventional wisdom on Blair is that he, along with aide de camp Alistair Campbell, introduced “spin” to British politics. This always seemed exaggerated; double-talk and outright lying are hardly recent phenomena in human nature, never mind political life. Yet there are several instances in this book which make one doubt Blair’s sincerity, and where his overwrought piety gets the better of him. For instance, Blair insists that it’s “the honest truth” that he “was never desperate to be prime minister or to stay as prime minister.” Such an avowal, expressed by many a politician, is better left in one’s head, no matter how sincerely he may actually think he believes it. Elsewhere, Blair denies any impropriety in the Bernie Ecclestone affair, in which a 1 million donation to the Labor Party by the head of Formula One Racing was curiously followed by the British government’s attempt to exempt the league from a ban on tobacco advertising in sports. (Ecclestone, Blair writes credulously, “had genuinely never made a linkage, not even implicitly” between his massive donation and the proposed loophole.) Blair strangely absolves Russian President (now Prime Minister) Vladimir Putin of being anything other than a ruthless kgb thug on more than one occasion, writing that he “had prosecuted the war in Chechnya with vigor and, some said, brutality.” Some said?

As to the prose, Blair sprinkles his memoir with colloquialisms and honest observations about family and political life that demonstrate the common touch he had with voters, a connection that, though short-lived, was nonetheless unprecedented in British politics. “Your average Rottweiler on speed can be a lot more amiable than a pensioner wronged,” he writes of an elderly woman at a public event holding a sign labeling Blair an unprintable name. “I like to have time and comfort in the loo,” he declares. Rupert Murdoch “had balls.” Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, a burly, former ship steward who acted as Blair’s muscle in dealing with the old Labor Party guard, had a knack for sniffing out young smart-alecks “like a pig with a truffle.” On children, Blair observers, “from about age three onwards, they get interesting and remain like that up to around twelve, when the dark mists of hell envelop them.” He writes self-deprecatingly of his initially awkward interactions with the royal family: “Had it been a dry event, had the Queen been a teetotaler or a temperance fanatic, I don’t believe I could have got through the weekend.”

Most frustrating to Blair’s detractors — on left and right — was his uncanny ability to read the British mood. Even when he knew he was swimming against the tide (as on, say, Iraq), he was cognizant of the divide between his views and those of the public, never deluding himself that he had maintained the popular support that was so apparent in the aftermath of Labor’s 1997 landslide victory. Blair persisted because he thought he was in the right, and he admits here that he was willing to lose his premiership over Iraq if his party or the electorate so decided. It was perpetually confounding that a man so loathed by so many people, and whose decision to take his country to war in Iraq soon became almost universally unpopular, could still win a massive electoral majority in 2005. Blair has his own explanation for why the voters were willing to give him and his party an unprecedented third term: “they had a keener appreciation of how tough it was to decide the issue [of Iraq] than the black-and-white predilection of the media.” Blair makes repeated mention of the strange alliance between Britain’s reactionary right-wing press (embodied by the “little England” tabloid Daily Mail), and the highbrow, left-wing outlets (the Guardian, Independent, and bbc), which united against him over his decision to take Britain to war. Yet despite their best efforts to portray him as a man who misled the country (the difference between Guardian editorials decrying Blair’s alleged mendacity and posters at antiwar protests screaming “bliar!” was a matter of articulacy, not reason), attempts by Blair’s enemies to destroy his political career were a complete failure. It says something about Blair’s instincts that the one issue where his “emotional intelligence” was completely off-base was on the matter of fox hunting, a practice about which Blair too readily assumed the politically correct prejudices and class resentments that he usually saw as misinformed.

Even when he knew he was swimming against the tide, Blair was cognizant of the divide between his views and those of the public, never deluding himself that he had maintained the popular support.

Blair’s genuine fear that Brown would not continue through with the reforms he championed persuaded him to remain in the top office for so long, a decision which served only to heighten the poison between the two men. Blair warned Brown not to abandon the policies he had implemented over the course of ten years in Downing Street, telling his successor that “there was no alternative vision” to that of New Labor, a conscious invocation of Margaret Thatcher’s catchphrase emphasizing the indispensability of liberal economic policies to a modern economy.

At its annual conference in late September, the Labor Party chose Ed Miliband — a longtime ally of Brown and a rising star on the Labor left — as its next leader. Ed defeated his older brother David, a Blairite and former foreign secretary, for the job, and did so thanks to the support of the unions, which, despite Blair’s best efforts, still maintain a disproportionate role in party affairs thanks to an outdated electoral college system. When the results came in, a trade union delegate leaned over to former Labor leader Neil Kinnock and said, “We’ve got our party back.” That may very well be the case. But the chances of the Laborites getting the country back grow slimmer the more they distance themselves from the legacy of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair.

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