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The robot's focus.

A Journey: My Political Life

by Tony Blair

New York: Alfred A. Knopf

700 pp., $35.00

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

BY THE TIME TONY BLAIR stood down as prime minister to give his rival Gordon Brown the opportunity to lose office ignominiously, he had become as unpopular on the left as he had always been on the right. A Journey is his attempt to explain himself, not so much to what he calls, alternately, "the Daily Mail/Guardian alliance" and "the demonic rabble tearing at my limbs," but to those millions who so fecklessly voted him into office three times in succession. It is accordingly written in a chirpy, "accessible" manner emblematic of Blair's governments, which hid ambition behind cheesy informality.

The author deploys a battery of weapons of mass distraction. The text is festooned with cliches--on the first page we meet "times gone by," "Olympian heights," and "mere mortals." Then there is bragging: "I had long ago discovered the irst lesson of political courage--to think anew."

"I counted, was a big player." There is false humility, when confessed foibles become virtues: "There was a naivety about my belief that merely by adopting an approach based on reason and the abstinence from ideological dogma, hard problems can be solved."

"I am very, even excessively, loyal to friends ... "

"[M]y greatest weakness: I am normal ... "

There are failed aphorisms: "Balance is an alien concept in today's world."

There are vignettes of things that never were: "the nation still shuddering at the loss of [Labour leader] John Smith."

There is doe-eyed indignation: "The right get after you, from the off, with a vigour, venom and vitriol that has you reeling. You're appalled by it, ofended by it, but most of all surprised by it." (The left, of course, never resorts to such tactics.)

There are nostalgic appeals to former good times: "the matrimonial home in which I and the nation had lived happily together ... "

"[T]he British people, whom I genuinely adored, and with whom the political relationship ... was on occasions almost like a love affair."

Blair is fond of romantic allusions, even in relation to Gordon Brown:

Our minds moved fast and at that point in sync. When others were present, we felt the pace and power diminish, until, a bit like lovers desperate to get to lovemaking but disturbed by old friends dropping round, we would try to bustle them out.

As for Rupert Murdoch, "There were two points of connection: he was an outsider and he had balls," while Alistair Campbell "had clanking great balls." There is even a sub-Barbara Cartland account of "sexing up" his wife: "That night she cradled me in her arms ... On that night of 12 May 1994, I needed that love Cherie gave me, selfishly. I devoured it to give me strength. I was an animal following my instinct."

There are unbelievable assertions: "I am not a great one for the Establishment. It's probably at heart why I'm in the Labour Party."

"I don't seek agreement. I seek merely an understanding."

He even says of Hillary Clinton, "As ever it was good to see her," an extraordinary statement that exhibits a chronic want either of veracity or of taste.

And there are acres of things readers do not need to be told: "I don't suffer from jet lag. For me, if the sun is shining, it's day; if it's dark, it's night. I also take a melatonin pill. Pop one of those and you get six hours' sleep wherever you are."

"We [he and an advisor] had known each other since the age of sixteen when I had tried climbing inside her sleeping bag at a party in the north of Scotland (without success)!"

"I like to have time and comfort in the loo."

Such torrid imagery seems misplaced in a memoir by a former prime minister. In fact, as Blair says of one of his speeches, they "go down like a cup of sick."

Yet we should perhaps not be distracted by literary shortcomings. As Coleridge said of Gibbon, "His style is detestable, but it is not the worst thing about him."

A Journey is also a settling of scores. Blair claims, "By and large, I never felt resentment during my time in office." Apparently, he is making up for it now. He says of Brown, with whom he is no longer in sexy sync, "Political calculation, yes. Political feelings, no. Analytical intelligence, absolutely. Emotional intelligence, zero."

The author bears a huge grudge about not being given credit for the economic good times, and about the feuding between Nos. 10 and 11 Downing Street, during which Brown's allies were "perpetually dissing me." When Brown lost the election, Blair probably comforted himself by reflecting, as he does on another politician, "Some are made for office, some aren't."

Other targets are Clare Short, the international-development secretary whose "attitude did hamper the civilian efforts" in Iraq, the fuel protestors who sought to bring down the government in 2000, and the Women's Institute, whose members slow-clapped him at their 2000 conference. The Princess Royal is also in the firing line. When Mrs. Blair suggested to Princess Anne that she call her Cherie, Anne sensibly responded, "Actually, I prefer Mrs. Blair." Blair's reaction is full of clenched-teeth arriviste anger, imperfectly masked: "At one level, it is stunningly rude and discordant in our democratic age. At another, it shows an admirable determination not to be concordant with our democratic age but to tell that to clear off."

Blair insists, "I am not by nature a whiner," yet his book contains repeated petulant outbursts about the right and the "poisonous" media. He forgets that the Murdoch papers supported him strongly from 1994 until immediately before his exit, and that the broadcast media were always, as they remain, generally pro-Labour (excepting the argument with the BBC over the WMD "dodgy dossier").

Before 1997, and even well into New Labour's incumbency, many prominent Conservatives (including Margaret Thatcher) were gulled into believing that Blair was a potential Tory. This impression was based almost completely on his removal of Clause 4 of the Labour Party constitution (advocating common ownership of the means of production) and his unthreatening, middle-class demeanor. Yet Blair's radicalism was always plain. Today, he is more open about his views than he was when co-opting useful Conservatives.

He speaks of his "boundless, at times rather manic, lust for modernization." When meeting Danny Cohn-Bendit, "I told him I used to listen to his speeches in the old days." He boasts that the period 1997-2007 was "massively" redistributive, while his government was "hurling money" at various groups. On the day he was appointed prime minister, he recalls "straining at the leash of the convention, tradition and ceremony that delayed the doing." This straining against custom marks all his endeavors.

The chief landmarks of Blair's administrations include independence for the Bank of England, Scottish and Welsh devolution, the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, the establishment of a minimum wage, the Civil Partnerships Act, subscription to the European Social Chapter, and the enactment of the European Convention on Human Rights in the law of the United Kingdom.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 is Blair's main (arguably his only) achievement, but it is a major one. He deserves much credit for the assiduity and ingenuity with which he pursued this thankless policy. Even if large-scale violence resumes, nothing can take away the fact that many lives have been saved thanks to Blair's "creative ambiguity," and without making any fundamental alterations to the Union. His account of the negotiations is compulsive, and it includes wry anecdotes, such as the "awful meeting" with Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble at a late stage of the negotiations. A Unionist obscurantist, noting that the draft agreement contained provisions protecting Irish Gaelic, demanded comparable protection for the Scots-Irish dialect Ullans: "Bertie did not take the same relaxed view of the importance of Ullans that I did, suggesting that maybe David would like to speak some of the 'fecking thing' to hear what it sounded like."

Of all his legislation, the only laws he regrets are those on fox hunting (he regrets the huge waste of time and resources on such a side issue) and the Freedom of Information Act. ("I quake at the imbecility of it.") The one he should regret most, but omits to take responsibility for, is the Human Rights Act of 1998, which incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into U.K. law. He notes in frustration that the European Convention stymied planned moves against fraudulent asylum seekers and suspected terrorists, without acknowledging that it owed its domestic authority to one Tony Blair. On the basis of A Journey, one might think Blair skeptical on immigration:
   [I]mmigration, unless properly
   controlled, can cause genuine
   tensions, put a strain on limited
   resources and provide a sense
   ... that the [host] community
   has lost control of its own future
   ... There were certain categories
   of immigrant flows, from certain
   often highly troubled parts of the
   world, who imported their own
   internal issues.


Elsewhere, "[W]hat mattered to me was crime and immigration ... I was worried about immigration both in itself and because I thought, unless tackled, it had the capacity to undermine good race relations." If his worry was so great, why did he permit the population of the United Kingdom to increase from 58.3 million in 1997 to 61.4 million by 2008?

Of course, Blair will be remembered mostly for his "ethical" armed interventions, while the barb of "Bliar" clearly still smarts. Tony Blair's armed adventures started with Kosovo, where "I was extraordinarily forward in advocating a military solution." He feels he "arguably saved the Balkans" (to which a cynic might add "for Islam"). Another dry run was in Sierra Leone. After reminding us that Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front had the unpleasant habit of removing the arms of those who dared to vote, he relates--with inadvertent humor--how British action against the RUF led to "comprehensive disarmament."

His account of the road to Iraq is engrossing, and here he is convincing on many points of detail. His generous instinct to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with America after September 11 was surely sound, and most in Britain supported the joint action in Afghanistan, where there was such a clear connection between the terrorists and the Taliban. He disposes easily of the fatuous arguments that Iraq was "all about oil" or that it was carried out "against international law," and of the ridiculous conspiracies surrounding the suicide of David Kelly. There are apparently candid remembrances of tireless shuttle diplomacy, and even the mistakes about WMD and the planning for the aftermath.

But Blair never shifts from his view that military action was justified, even given the lack of hard evidence regarding any link between Iraq and Al Qaeda, and the fact that Saddam was not a direct threat to the United Kingdom or the United States, while posing no more of a WMD threat to these two countries than Iran, Libya, or North Korea. It sufficed that Saddam menaced regional stability, he might give WMD material to terrorists, and it would be better for Iraqis if he were ousted. Blair also argues that, these days, the public "witness injustice and expect their government to help correct it," but does not explain why one million members of that same public came to London to protest the war in 2003.

He is anguished by the always predictable fallout, admitting "the consequences of caring can be painful" (although clearly rather less so for him than for the British soldiers he sent to the Middle East). He suggests, not implausibly, that as many people would have died had Saddam remained in power as have been killed as a result of Saddam's removal--to which the answer is maybe, but the deaths would have been an Iraqi problem rather than a global one, and there would still be a strongman in the country to suppress Al Qaeda. Blair is sure that, some day, a democratic and nonthreatening Iraq will be created, yet elsewhere he acknowledges that, although many regional leaders are open to modernity, "their societies would not be." In Muslim countries, free elections boost Islamist parties.

He knows that Islam poses specific dangers, with extremists "few in number, but their sympathizers reach far further along the spectrum than we think." There is a larger group "who condemn the terrorists, but in a curious and dangerous way buy into bits of their world view." Then there is the probable majority "who condemn the terrorists," but "even this group have not confidently found their way to articulating a thoroughly reformed and modernizing view of Islam."

Blair claims Islamism is an aberration, "of a different order from anything the world had faced before"--which reveals merely that he has never studied Islam's colorful history. Even now, he sounds shocked by the 2005 bombings in London: "How could this be done, and in London, the embodiment of a multicultural city?"

In his Postscript, Blair writes ominously that "I have never felt a greater sense of frustration or indeed a greater urge to leadership."

Now sidelined from active politics, he nonetheless offers advice to anyone who has battled through the preceding 654 pages. The central confrontation now is not between left and right, he says, but between "open" and "closed" societies. He of course prefers "open" ones and seeks a Soros-approved sort of Europe with free trade, nominal borders, liberal attitudes, and common security, immigration, and energy policies--in other words, the default setting for all mainstream European political parties. This tedious, tatterdemalion philosophy is exactly what one would expect from a man so utterly lacking in imagination.

The subtitle "My Political Life" suggests that we will not get much autobiographical insight from the book, and indeed this proves to be the case. Blair includes details of his family life and a few early anecdotes, but no revelations. Even when he mentions Peter Thomson, the Australian priest who was "the most influential person in my life," we learn nothing new about this Strine Svengali. The author delights in referring to his twitching conscience, but we never find out when or how this delicate flower germinated. We cannot help but feel (as Disraeli felt of Gladstone) that Blair "made his conscience not his guide but his accomplice."

Blair avers that "emotional commitment comes naturally to me," but his chief commitment appears to be to his career. His outstanding personal characteristic is an almost robotically relentless focus. This may be a failure of communication (unlikely), or perhaps he has successfully striven to conceal his real nature. Possibly, he really is as superficial as he appears. As he says, "It has never been entirely clear whether the journey I have taken is one of triumph of the person over the politics, or the politics over the person."

Blair is rightly concerned that "[I]n today's politics ... we are in serious danger of creating a situation where 'normal' people feel inclined to walk away, leaving the manically ambitious and the weird in their stead."

But on the evidence of A Journey, this has already happened.

Derek Turner is the editor of The Quarterly Review.
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Author:Turner, Derek
Publication:Chronicles
Date:Jun 1, 2011
Words:2544
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