A Journey by Tony Blair – A Book Review

Just before Tony Blair’s autobiography was about to go to print it was decided that ‘The Journey’ sounded too definitive and that it should be revised to ‘A Journey’. It is a change that seems appropriate and suggests that it could potentially have a sequel. But in many British households Blair has become synonymous with ‘B-liar’ or worse and they would baulk at the idea of his return to public office. Nonetheless, if sales figures are anything to go by, Blair still commands attention, loved or loathed.

‘A Journey’ is a book that criss-crosses the events that made up his premiership from the Good Friday agreement, Kosovo and Iraq to super casinos, top-up-fees and Foot and Mouth.  Blair says that in writing the book, he dealt with the most sensitive issues first, such as Iraq, 9/11 and his tempestuous relationship with Gordon Brown (known in the UK as the TB-GB’s) and worked his way outwards.

But does it say anything new about his politics or the man? Does the politician who famously stated he is “a pretty straight kind of guy” actually be straight with his readership? Some of the most fascinating passages in the book relate to shortly before the 1997 landslide election victory as a closely-knit team collaborated and conspired to win the hearts and minds of a nation.  It is here that the reader recalls the Tony Blair of yore who was in his element rubbing shoulders with rock stars like Noel Gallagher or as a guest oozing charm on a breakfast television sofa. He successfully conjures up the complexity of his relationship with Brown in the early days as “like a couple who loved each other, arguing whose career should come first” and speaks about feeling a sense of destiny.

One of the more amusing sections recounts the months leading up to the Millennium celebrations, which were held at the Dome in Greenwich. He gives a frank assessment of what turned out to be a litany of errors and tells of a episode in which he pictures the Queen entangled with a trapeze artist. It is definitely a more light-hearted Blair but also one who is not afraid to admit that he was learning on the job (Prime Minister was his first and only role in government). He speaks of how much more forgiving the public can be when times are good. It is here that you glimpse the extent 9/11 changed the psyche in the West and of Blair too.

The barrage of coverage on the Iraq war has to some extent obscured this period of grace for the government and the British people, which also coincided with an economic boom. The atmosphere is a far cry from today’s more sober leadership under David Cameron, who has tried to recalibrate Britain’s position in the world post credit crunch and readily admits that the UK is America’s junior partner.

It was indeed under the longest serving Conservative government in living history that the young Blair was able to cut his political teeth. Whilst the book is thin on the ground when it comes to his schooling and university years, it does go into some detail about his seven years working as a barrister and how it helped frame his political thinking. He describes how he thrived on industrial and commercial law and got on well with the risk-takers. He also says that this experience gave him the analytical powers that he believed some career politicians were sorely lacking and confirmed that some of the best talent could be drawn from the business world. Until the advent of New Labour, the left and business had been very awkward bedfellows.

Blair goes to some lengths to explain his repositioning of the Labour party to align it with the middle classes and business leaders. He entered politics at a time in which left and right was the political currency and the book offers a compelling argument for discarding these notions of politics in favour of what is right or wrong – not that he is able to provide a credible answer as to how this criteria should be judged. He classes himself in the same category as other left-wing Liberals such as Chuter Ede and Roy Jenkins, but is outspoken in his criticism of traditional Labour beliefs, which he describes as being more about equality of income than equality of opportunity.  He describes these ideologies as being remote and alien to the aspirations of working class people who, he says, desire nothing more than to be middle class.

Indeed, a whole section of the book is dedicated to a very middle class icon – Princess Diana. He describes her as a “radical combination of royalty and normality” and “a “wildness in her emotions (…) that could spell danger”. At times, his description even borders on the mildly erotic: “I really liked her and, of course, was a big sucker for a beautiful princess as the next man.” But perhaps more importantly he says he even sees some of himself in Diana.“We were both in our ways manipulative people, perceiving quickly the emotions of others and able instinctively to play with them,” he writes. Shortly after her death, Blair’s approval rating shot up to 93 per cent which could either demonstrate an uncanny opportunism or a supreme ability to tap into the zeitgeist — or as is most probably the case, a mixture of both. The book is also revealing of his relationship with the Establishment and his interesting self-assessment of how he might be viewed by the Royal family: “ People like me were a bit nouveau riche, a bit confusing and therefore suspect.”

It must not be forgotten that Tony Blair or rather Anthony Charles Lynton Blair was once quite the enigma. Until then, it seemed that people like Blair had not entered into politics and in many ways he appeared more like a high-end estate agent than a politician (at one point he does speak about his love of interior design). He has always been reluctant to speak about his family life and not much more is offered here. What is clear is that he has gone to some lengths to appear as one of the people as is confirmed in the book, which is almost chatty in tone and littered with football analogies.

Of course, the largest section is dedicated to Iraq, although it offers little that is new to the debate. Reams of data are given on the minutiae of the UN resolutions, some of which are printed out in full. It feels as if it is more for the record than anything else. Perhaps the more interesting sections are those describing his thought process that ultimately led him to believe in moral intervention. He poignantly evokes the Rwanda genocide and his disappointment at how the international community looked the other way as hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered.

Interestingly, he compares his vision of moral intervention in Kosovo and Sierra Leone to the real politick of former Russian President Vladimir Putin, who he said favored a hard-headed, interest-based approach to foreign intervention. His relationship with other world leaders is also very telling of his politics. Consistently he seems to side with leaders on the right of the spectrum; in Spain, he talks about being charmed by the conservative leader Jose Maria Aznar, whilst Zapatero is barely given a mention. Angela Merkel steals the limelight from Gehard Schroeder in Germany. The same applies to France; he is gushing in his praise of Nicolas Sarkozy, who he describes as combining “passion, élan and also that touch of arrogance which in some small way defines France.” Meanwhile, left-wing Lionel Jospin is described as looking too much like a “professor.” Even in Britain, he speaks more fondly about Margaret Thatcher than he ever does about Gordon Brown, who you get the impression he is still trying to stage-manage.

It is often the pre-Iraq war writing that is most interesting and revealing. The political skill of his inner-circle is thrown into sharpest relief in the horse-trading that resulted in the Good Friday agreement. It is a thrilling read and shows the Blair government at its best.

But those who expect it to paint a picture as vivid as Obama’s “Dreams of my Father” or even Bill Clinton’s autobiography will probably be disappointed. Although Blair called it a love letter to the people of Britain, he is relatively tight-lipped when it comes to affairs of the heart and it is only in a French translation that the reader is told that he fell in love with a French girl during a gap year in France. There is also little about his relationship with his wife. Another glaring omission is his failure to talk about his much-publicised conversion to Catholicism, considering that at one point he declares that he has always been more interested in religion than politics. His concession that he relied on drink as a crutch feels too much like fodder for the tabloids.

Blair’s journey does offer a unique insight and a fervency that is still present several years after leaving office. But those looking for an apology or an admission of failure in Iraq will once again be left feeling cheated.

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