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Blair’s very, very long Journey

This review of Blair’s Autobiography was published by the Quarterly Review (www.quarterly-review.org )in 2011

ROBERT HENDERSON endures the self-justificatory and selective memoirs of one of the worst PMs of modern times

Blair takes 691 pages to say what could have been fitted comfortably into 200. It is little more than an exercise in the author’s vanity. The other problem with A Journey is Blair’s ineptitude as a writer which extends not merely to tortured syntax, purple prose, the presentation of banality as profundity, a mania for short sentences and an addiction to cliché, but to a relationship with correct punctuation which does not extend much beyond the use of the full stop.

When it comes to their autobiographical offerings, Barack Obama and Tony Blair have much in common. Both massage their past shamelessly. Both are superficial in their approach to politics. Both unwittingly tell you things about themselves that directly contradict the persona they are carefully attempting to construct.

Blair also copies Obama in one highly suspect trait: he provides acres of dialogue. This is distinctly odd because, apart from a mention of an “intermittently” kept diary in 1983-5 (p60), there is no indication that Blair has kept any contemporaneous record of his life.

This supposed conversation in the House of Commons lobby between Blair and Peter Mandelson shortly after the death of the Labour leader John Smith in 1994 will give the flavour. Blair is pressing Mandelson to support him rather than Gordon Brown for the vacant leadership:

“[Mandelson] ‘Now, let’s not run away with all this. Gordon is still the front-runner, still the person with the claim.’

As ever with Peter in a situation like this, you could never be quite sure what he was saying; but I was sure what I wanted to say.

‘Peter’, I said, ‘you know I love you, but this is mine. I am sure of it. And you must help me to do it.’

‘I wouldn’t be too sure about that,’ he said. For once, there was no playfulness; and for a moment we stood, looking at each other by the green leather-topped table at the north side of the Aye Lobby.

‘Peter,’ I said, putting a hand on each shoulder, ‘don’t cross me over this. This is mine. I know it and I will take it.’

‘You can’t be certain of that,’ he replied.

‘I understand.’ I spoke gently this time, the friendship fully back in my voice. ‘But just remember what I said.’

Someone entered the lobby. As if by telepathy, we moved apart and went in different directions.” (pp62/3)

Apart from the extreme improbability of anyone accurately remembering a conversation from 16 years before, there is the oddity of a relationship between two men in their forties rendered in a manner disconcertingly reminiscent of a Mills & Boon novel by a man now aged 57. Note also Blair’s willingness to threaten someone he claims as a close friend.

The man also has a curious lack of dignity. He does not seem to understand that it is unseemly for a former prime minister to write something like this:

“On that night of 12 May 1994, I needed that love that Cherie gave me, selfishly. I devoured it to give me strength. I was an animal following my instinct… “ (p65)

Blair frequently builds up his character as being one thing, then forgets the script and sabotages his intention. For example, he constantly attempts to represent himself as being in politics not from any vulgar ambition but because he wishes to serve the country. Suddenly this pops up:

“I was almost forty. I had been in Opposition for a decade. The thought of another five years of merely incremental steps towards change in the party that was so obviously needed, filled me with dismay. If the steps were too incremental, we might fail again and I would be fifty before even getting sight of government; and what was the point of politics if not to win power, govern and put into practice the policies you believe in?” (p51)

So, it was vulgar ambition after all.

Blair may not “do God” very much in A Journey, although he assures us before he ends that “I have always been more interested in religion than politics” (p690), but he certainly wants us to think that he was in some mysterious way called to be the saviour of his country. Here he is visiting the Commons for the first time before he was an MP:

“I walked into the cavernous Central Lobby where the public meet their MPs, and I stopped. I was thunderstruck. It just hit me. This was where I wanted to be. It was very odd. Odd because so unlike me, and odd because in later times I was never known as a ‘House Commons man’. But there and then, I had a complete presentiment: here I was going to be. This was my destiny. This was my political home. I was going to do whatever it took to enter it.” (p34)

Blair’s fraught relationship with Gordon Brown threads its way through the book with Blair’s character assessment of Brown – “ Political calculation, yes. Political feelings, no. Analytical intelligence, absolutely. Emotional intelligence, zero.” (p616) – bleakly summarising the state of relations between them at the end.

Blair several times addresses the question of why he did not sack Brown. He attempts to explain this by saying Brown was a brilliant chancellor, but capsizes this line on p494 with “By then [2003], even more so than in 2001, removing Gordon would have brought the entire building tumbling down around our ears. He had massive support in the party and had backing among powerful people in the media.”

So there you have it. He did not sack Brown for the crudest of political reasons, to keep himself in power.

Tellingly, having described Brown as a great chancellor and a brilliant intellect throughout the book, Blair is silent on Brown’s failure to foresee the financial disaster we are currently enjoying. Instead he employs one of his favourite scapegoats, the incompetent expert:

“The failure was one of understanding. We didn’t spot it. You can argue we should have, but we didn’t. Furthermore, and this is vital for where we go now on regulation, it wasn’t that we were powerless to prevent it even if we had seen it coming; it wasn’t a failure of regulation in the sense that we lacked the power to intervene. Had regulators said to the leaders that a huge crisis was about to break, we wouldn’t have said: There’s nothing we can do about it until we get more regulation through  We would have acted. But they didn’t say that.” (pp666/7)

Yet the greatest political hate object of Tony Blair is not Gordon Brown but the Labour Party. Tony Benn’s views amounted to a “virus” (p45) and old Labour was “more like a cult than a party” (p89) before Blair appeared on a white progressive horse to turn it into New Labour. How did he do this? By ignoring the party:

“In order to circumvent the party, what I had done was construct an alliance between myself and the public.”

Blair is also consistently snide about his immediate predecessors as leader, always decrying them not only for their politics but their personal failings, for example, John Smith was “a stupendous toper” (p37).  Unsurprisingly in the light of this attitude, Blair toyed with the idea of bringing Lib Dem MPs into his cabinet because

“I was closer in political outlook to some of them than to parts of the old left of my own party [and] …Re-uniting the two wings of progressive social democracy appealed to my sense of history.” (pp118/119)

There are a few genuinely startling things in the book. Take this anecdote about the Sinn Féin leaders:

“In October 2006, while I was at St Andrews for the Northern Ireland negotiation with Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin, General Sir Richard Dannatt, the new Chief of General Staff, gave an interview to the Daily Mail essentially saying that we had reached the end in Iraq, we were as much a risk to security as keeping it and we should transfer our attention to Afghanistan where, in effect, we had a better chance. As you can imagine, I wasn’t best pleased, my humour not improved by Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams telling me the IRA would never have had one of their generals behaving like that.” (p470)

“One of their generals”? Sinn Féin has always claimed to be separate from the Provisional IRA. Improbable as this may seem to most people, this line was always supported by British governments from John Major onwards. Yet here we have Blair claiming that the two most influential public faces of Sinn Féin casually admitted that they directly controlled the Provos.

Those who still believe that the police enforce the law without political interference will have their illusions shattered by passages such as this on the fuel duty protests which briefly panicked Blair’s government in 2000:

“I looked at the police officer. ‘Tell me what you are going to do to stop the protests.’

‘Stop the protests?’ he said, his eyes narrowing slightly. ‘You mean you want us to prevent them taking place?’

‘Yes,’ I said, very calm. ‘And I want you the oil companies to instruct your drivers to cross the picket lines, and if they don’t, for reasons anything other than fear of violence to their person, I want you to sack them. And I would like the army to come in and if necessary drive your tankers, and if they meet with any violence from protesters, I want you the police to deal with them very firmly, and if not, to let the army take care of them. They’re very good at it.” (p295).

Then there is Blair’s appetite for gratuitous war-mongering which is surely greater than any other British PM. His utter recklessness is shown when he tries unsuccessfully to persuade Bill Clinton to commit 150,000 men to a land invasion of Kosovo  with half coming from Europe despite the fact that he admits he “had no clear reason to believe Europe would contribute any troops other than UK ones…” (p239).

Despite the mess left by the Kosovo adventure, Blair learns nothing:

“I’m afraid, however, that Kosovo had not diminished my appetite for such intervention where I thought it essential to resolve a problem that needed resolution, and where a strong moral case could be made.”(p246).

Though he does not realise it, Blair is carrying on the old imperial idea of bringing civilisation to the benighted natives, believing

“We thought the ultimate triumph of our way of life was inevitable.”(p665).

Blair is remarkably dishonest in his omissions. Take immigration:

“The truth is that immigration, unless properly controlled, can cause genuine tensions, put a strain on limited resources and provide a sense in the areas into which migrants come in large numbers that the community has lost control of its own future. In our case this concern was the numbers involved. It was not inspired by racism. And it was widespread. What’s more, there were certain categories of it from certain often highly troubled parts of the world, with their own internal issues, from those troubled parts of the towns and villages in Britain. Unsurprisingly, this caused real anxiety.” (p524)

A reader unfamiliar with Blair’s premiership might imagine from those words that he made strenuous efforts to control the influx. The reality is that he presided over the greatest surge in immigration into Britain ever seen. Yet Blair does not acknowledge this and fails to mention the single biggest encouragement to immigration during his time in No 10 – the failure to put restrictions on the movement of people from the new EU entrants such as Poland, which resulted in at least half a million migrants in a very short time. All Blair does is complain about asylum seekers.

The lasting impression left by the book is not of a career politician but of an adolescent living out his fantasies and satisfying his exhibitionist urges. When these inevitably lead to disaster,  like adolescents everywhere he refuses to take responsibility and drifts ever further into a fantasy world in which he is never wrong merely misunderstood. That such a child was the most powerful man in Britain for ten years is a truly frightening thought.

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