The late comedian Bob Monkhouse said, “If you can fake the sincerity the rest is easy”. As a mantra, it is as true of Tony Blair’s interminable memoir as is it of his political career.
But in his book A Journey, just as in office, it turns out fake sincerity just isn’t quite enough.
He writes with the appropriate humility, “There is only one person who can write an account of what it is like to be the human being at the centre of that history… and that is me.”
Press response to the memoir has mostly been trivial. And there is plenty to be trivial about in the book.
Gordon Brown once got locked in a bathroom and had to phone Blair to let him out. Blair was “driven to drink”.
Princess Diana and he were both “manipulators”. In the midst of the Northern Ireland peace process, Blair lied, “stretched the truth past breaking point”—and so on and so on. And we have learned Blair can write excruciatingly bad prose about his sex life.
There is more of the celeb book here than in most political memoirs. Blair is a “public services guy”, others are “stand up guys” and the possession of “balls” is the most frequent compliment, used only slightly less often than the epidemic of exclamation marks.
The thing is packed with royal anecdotes, clearly designed for the US market. Blair describes one visit with the royal family as “surreal and utterly freaky,” but the Queen’s behaviour as “very queenly”.
Princess Diana was for Blair “the essence of an era” and the embodiment of all that New Labour wished to convey about itself. That the height of his vision for Labour was that it could aspire to be as at one with a princess as the people is telling.
But there is something serious here too. A Journey is a convoluted, self-congratulatory rant about the wonders of Blair and Blairism that argues his tactics were the only ones to win.
Blair’s brief for his “ground‑breaking” New Labour platform reads now, as it did then, like a marketing plan: it’s all about middle-class “aspiration”, “focusing on the developing tastes of consumers”, and “modernisation”.
“Don’t let the mask slip,” he advises fellow politicians. “I began to think there was never a moment when I could be completely candid and exposed.” And for 700 pages that is almost true.
Blair writes of being inspired by a Tony Benn speech early on. Not with the content, which he utterly disagreed with, but by the success of the delivery. Spin is all. “Look like a prime minister,” he reminds himself on election night in 1997.
And driving that spin was his and Brown’s project—New Labour.
Blair’s hostility to the labour movement is only matched by his admiration for Margaret Thatcher and the SDP—the right wing group that split from the Labour Party in the 1980s and ended up in the Lib Dems.
Thatcher is never mentioned without praise. But the depth of admiration for the SDP is probably more informative. The glee with which he recalls moving the Labour Party to be “electable”—or far to the right—is unnerving.
The book will reinforce the view of those who think Blair was not Labour but some sort of Tory. Yet Blair’s project was not to make a new Tory party, but to turn the Labour Party into an equivalent of the Democrats in the US. His third way guff about not left or right but open or closed now sounds remarkably old fashioned, but is clearly traceable to those origins.
In the end Blair comes out in favour of Tory austerity. New Labour was an attempt to make Labour a party in the interest of the bosses, and it is worth remembering how, in the main, the Labour Party happily followed.
On the unions he writes, “We ended as we began in mutual incomprehension. They couldn’t understand why I was doing what I was doing; and I couldn’t understand why people couldn’t see the way of the future…
“But if you look back on the history of Labour governments, they were a lot less trouble to me than they were to Attlee, Wilson or Callaghan. Mind you they had a lot less power by then.”
That is more an indictment of them than him.
The book is an intervention to argue on the general rightness of all things Blair and in defence of rampant neoliberalism. He insists that as the Labour Party lost its modernisation mantra, it inevitably would lose the election. Labour leadership contender David Miliband is praised whenever the opportunity arises.
The account of his battle with Gordon Brown is often beyond credulity. It is both malign and spiteful. But it is also utter rubbish. The row, according to Blair, was because Brown wasn’t New Labour enough.
As the government stumbled from crisis to crisis, the degeneration of Brown and Blair’s relationship was real.
But the reality is that Blair and Brown carried big business into the public sector in ways the Thatcherites never dreamed of. And they have led more destructive imperialist wars.
That is what underlay the chaos at the heart of government. As the New Labour project unravelled, so did the centre of the party.
Brown and Blair are equally culpable for New Labour. It’s just that Blair didn’t want to change tack at all. Brown wanted to change a bit.
Blair is unrepentant. The privatisations and the wars, the anti-immigration legislation, the attacks on civil liberties were all part of “new politics”.
Blair’s only regrets, apparently, are banning fox hunting and introducing the Freedom of Information Act.
The colonial smugness of his account of the peace process in Northern Ireland comes with a ten-point guide to solving ethnic conflict for the trainee peace maker—ignoring how the deal institutionalised sectarianism.
He writes of the day the deal was finally done, “That day for the first time there was protest not about Northern Ireland, but Iraq. When I saw it I felt that Northern Ireland had just rejoined the rest of the world.”
There had of course been protests in Northern Ireland before over Iraq. But he is right that the world was against him over the war. It is here that the mask does slip.
In the lengthy and tedious passages on Iraq, the tone changes. Daytime television homeliness disappears and is replaced with a defence of neoconservative zealotry. “I have often reflected as to whether I was wrong,” he writes. “I ask you to reflect as to whether I may have been right.”
On his refusal to apologise for the loss of life in the war at the Chilcot Inquiry, Blair argues: “The ensuing headlines of ‘Blair apologises for war’ would have done an injustice to those who supported it, and appeased those who didn’t.”
There’s much more, and it is unedifying. A self-serving rehash of all the arguments for the war in Iraq goes on for 140 pages—and it is here that some insight into his real thought emerges.
Blair admits he hitched himself to a US White House where he says vice-president Dick Cheney, “would have worked through the whole lot, Iraq, Syria, Iran, dealing with all their surrogates… He thought the world had to be made anew… by force and with urgency.”
Blair adds, “Of course, the attitude terrified and repelled people. But it will be obvious from what I have written that I did not think it was as fantastical as conventional wisdom opined.”
George Bush, he says, has “genuine integrity and as much political courage as any leader I ever met”. So it goes on.
By the final chapter, which sees Blair sum up his world view, his rhetoric has expanded to the biblical.
He writes on the West, “I believe we should be projecting strength and determination abroad, not weakness or uncertainty. We have become too apologetic, too feeble, too inhibited, too imbued with doubt and too lacking in mission.”
For all the neocon babble, the book’s argument on the war essentially comes down to “they started it”.
“What is the nature of the threat?” Blair asks. “It does not derive from something we have done; there was no sense in which the West sought a confrontation.” He then goes on to insist on preparations for war with Iran.
His character emerges as a profoundly dangerous, simplistic man, who has done incredible damage to the world and whose regret is that he can do no more.
There is an unusual combination of whining and smug martyrdom—“In February 2003 a million people marched in London against the war,” he writes. “There had never been a larger demonstration reminding me of my isolation and the responsibility of the decision I was about to take.”
He moans that the Lib Dems “basically plastered areas with leaflets of me and George Bush with words that the Socialist Workers would have been proud of.”
And he writes of the G8 summit in Scotland, “As we drove to Gleneagles we could hear the shouts of the anti-globalisation protesters who were against us meeting, who were against the G8, who were against the whole system. My thoughts about them were not charitable… I felt about them roughly what they felt about me.”
He doesn’t know the half of it.