A reading of this memoir, which is almost exclusively about the unprecedented length of time—a full decade—over which a Labour prime minister held continuous office, does not really license either viewpoint. Measured by the base standard of his immediate predecessors as Labour prime minister, James Callaghan and Harold Wilson, Tony Blair was a man of almost inordinate attachment to principle. When compared to those who led the party to repeated defeat at the hands of Margaret Thatcher—the old-style leftists Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock—he was a man who crossed the road only to get to the middle of it. But despite his genius for public relations and political manipulation, the record still shows a consistent attachment to at least two important precepts: hostility to totalitarianism and a strong belief that Britain has both an Atlantic and a European future.
The second point may seem an obvious one, but for most of the postwar period, Britain was governed by leaders who felt anchored in one or the other allegiance. The post-1945 Labour government stood or fell by its alliance with Washington on military and economic matters. Winston Churchill’s second term in office was marked by his refusal to join the embryonic European Common Market, while his successor ruined relations with Eisenhower in order to invade Egypt in concert with France and Israel. Harold Wilson’s government overbalanced in the opposite direction and lost all credibility by supporting President Johnson in Vietnam, to be replaced by a Tory administration that was wholly focused on joining Europe on almost any terms. Mrs. Thatcher’s long affair with Ronald Reagan was conducted in such a way as to heap maximum contempt on her hated rival Helmut Kohl, and she ended her career trying to maintain the partition of Germany and to insulate Britain from further contamination by the mainland. This constant lack of synchronicity was largely independent of party, but it meant that Blair was the first leader who felt equally at home with American culture (he had been a singer in an Oxford rock band called the Ugly Rumours, not discussed in this book) and with holidays in Tuscany or Provence. This alone made him a more natural representative, not only of the Boomer generation of which he was a part, but of the British business community.
It was Thatcher herself who said that her greatest achievement was to have changed the politics of the Labour Party, and this uncomfortable truth was one that Blair was swift and early to grasp. And not only grasp, but take to heart: he was the first senior member of the party to feel that it had to undergo a makeover, or rebranding, not for reasons of “image” alone, but as a matter of integrity. And because he believed it himself, he made it convincing to others. There is a difference between this and mere grudging tactical adjustment, and the electorate was able to scent it. The haplessness and corruption of some in John Major's regime, and the influence of Clinton’s “Third Way” rhetoric, did the rest. In a mildly hilarious set of initial recollections, Blair describes how he confronted a party rank and file that still half believed it was possible that the voters had rejected Labour because they wanted more socialism rather than less. No compromise with the electorate was the clever taunt with which he disarmed them. Unfortunately, these passages are rather clotted with annoying “man of the people” anecdotes and expressions designed to showcase a sort of easy populism. His rival Gordon Brown is locked in the lavatory; Alastair Campbell is described as having “clanking great balls”; a popular illusion is dismissed with the equally vulgar British expression cobblers. In a further wince-making section, about the early and fortuitous crisis that catalyzed his first term, Princess Diana is droolingly conscripted as follows:
In temperament and time, in the mood she engendered and which we represented, there was a perfect fit. Whatever New Labour had in part, she had in whole.
This is the language of “icons” and “celebs,” but however rebarbative it may be, it allows Blair to showcase his easy mastery of the demotic. One may squirm at the annexation of Diana’s death by his coinage of the vapid term the people’s princess, but there is no denying that in that extraordinary month of mass obsequy, Blair became the first Labour politician ever to influence the British monarchy rather than be overawed by it. In doing so, he also very probably did the monarchy an enormous favor. By effectively telling the Queen what to do, he almost accidentally put an end to centuries of deference and, along with his abolition of the hereditary principle in the House of Lords and his lofty treatment of the House of Commons (canceling, for instance, one of the two regular weekly sessions of Prime Minister's Question Time), moved Britain toward a more presidential style of government.