Almost Noble

Tony Blair’s memoir reveals him to be neither a cynic nor an innocent, but a man of some principle.

When I went to interview Tony Blair, the newly elected leader of the opposition in the House of Commons, in 1994, I wanted to ask him about his membership in the Christian Socialist Movement, a very traditionalist affiliate of the British Labour Party. I had, I told him, by now read all his speeches since he had become leader, and could find no trace of any such commitment in his rhetoric. With the very disarming open-faced grin that so many people would later come to dislike, he replied that this was because he couldn’t stand the sort of politician who exploited religion for electoral purposes. His administration would become partly defined by a terse response from his highly unsentimental media chief, Alastair Campbell, to a faith-based question: “We don’t do God.” Toward the end of his time as prime minister, Blair had increasing resort to moral suasion and hints about faith as a means of defending some of his less popular positions. And he had barely retired from official politics when he was received into the Roman Catholic Church and set up a foundation in his own name with a vaguely ecumenical global agenda.

To his many enemies, this trajectory was still another proof of his protean and opportunistic nature. I remember the many nicknames with which, successively, such opponents tried and failed to saddle him. First there was “Bambi,” a derisive and belittling reference to the facial expression noted above. Then there was “Tony Blur,” an attempt to net him in the all-things-to-all-men trap that awaits poll-driven public figures. Bliar was the much harsher placard flourished by those who were convinced that he had deceived Britain into a disastrous participation in the Iraq War. “Bush’s poodle” was another favorite, though by then, as you can see, the early effort to present him as naive had been deposed by the view that he was a calcified cynic.

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.

Another matter that had psychologically hobbled past Labour governments was that of military intervention. Neither one on easy terms with the chiefs of staff or very confident with the legacy of empire (or, for that matter, very courageous), men like Wilson and Callaghan had abdicated the use of force when faced with a revolt of white settlers in Rhodesia or the Turkish aggression against Cyprus—both important British responsibilities—and tried to split the difference on the interminable question of Ireland. In practice, this really did mean playing an undistinguished second fiddle to the United States. It probably was Clinton’s initial diplomacy in the Irish case that enabled Blair to consummate the Good Friday Agreement that effectively disarmed the IRA, though his own part-Irish heritage and his willingness to acknowledge historic British mistakes were useful as well. But in several other important instances, his strong dislike of moral neutrality led him to deploy British force on its own, and to try to persuade the international community that the evil of dictatorship had not ended with the Cold War.

The Tories had been all but pro-Milošević during the Balkan horrors—a cause of shame that Blair did much to redeem by pressing a hard line on the attempted Serbian cleansing of Kosovo. The record plainly shows that he was more determined than Washington on this occasion, while expressing the imperative for a badly compromised Europe to face the responsibility for its neglected Adriatic front. Before the fall of Milošević, furthermore, he went to Chicago in April 1999 to deliver a significant speech, in which he stressed that internal affairs were not a disguise under which despots should be allowed to conduct genocide or rearmament. He specifically mentioned the outstanding case of Saddam Hussein. (At this point, George W. Bush was a somewhat isolationist governor of Texas.)

In a disappointingly short chapter, Blair also tells the almost forgotten story of his decision to use unilateral British force in the case of Sierra Leone. This West African country, originally established as a haven for free slaves, was by the year 2000 being overrun by a criminal mercenary force sponsored by the insane Liberian dictator Charles Taylor. Its funds came from the blood-diamond racket, and its tactics were those of child-soldier enslavement and hand-lopping. A vestigial UN force had done about as much to stop this as UN forces customarily do. After a direct appeal from Sierra Leone’s president, Blair decided to commit troops, who very swiftly dispersed the mercenaries and arrested their ghastly leader, Foday Sankoh. It is not too much to say that another Rwanda had been averted. Blair might have been forgiven for claiming more credit in this instance than he actually does.

The Kosovo and Sierra Leone episodes, and the Chicago statement, do form a necessary prelude to the chapters that dominate the central part of the book, and that concern Afghanistan and Iraq. Here, Blair throws off his jokiness and folksiness and makes the stand-or-fall case for his legacy. The relevant pages are best read in concert with the book Thirty Days: Tony Blair and the Test of History. This important account was written by Peter Stothard, who as editor of The Times of London was the man who arranged the summit between Blair and Rupert Murdoch and thus initiated the media coup that Blair’s “Old Labour” critics most despised: his endorsement by the most loathed press tycoon of them all. In the all-consuming crisis of 2003, Blair’s capacity as a political persuader and salesman, and his standing as a statesman, were both put to the most-exacting tests. Stothard’s careful conclusion, after a month spent standing next to Blair and his advisers during the preparation for and start of the war in Iraq, was that whether they were right or wrong, they did believe sincerely in what they alleged against Saddam Hussein.

The harsh discourse of confrontation, with its strong overtones of “right” versus “wrong”—Stothard notes the growth of Blair’s half-embarrassed religiosity as the days became more fraught—was the exact opposite of the “Cool Britannia” of cultural hedonism and incremental reform that Blairism had promised the British. Blair writes now that, had he known how long and arduous the Afghanistan and Iraq commitments would turn out to be, he would have been incredulous. In 2006, he informs us drily, he was engaged in discussions with the parties in Northern Ireland when his chief of the general staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, gave an interview to a tabloid paper saying that British forces were more of a hindrance than a help in Iraq and should be transferred to the more hopeful scene of Afghanistan. The two IRA leaders present at the summit, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, thereupon informed Blair that they would never have tolerated such insubordination in their own ranks. At this point, treated lightly by his generals and teased by Irish republicans, he must have realized how much of a gulf separated him from the Churchillian figure he would have liked to cut.

Blair’s pedantic restatement of the legal case against Saddam Hussein, and of the thesaurus of unenforced UN resolutions, now reads, if anything, more strongly than it did at the time. But he would have preferred to be making the moral argument (which is by no means invalidated by having not been put). In the end, he made the lethal mistake of letting his tactical and public-relations instinct overrule his grander and braver one, and petitioned for a second UN resolution authorizing war, for no larger reason than that it would allow him to win over his own party. This was his last concession to Old Labour, which did this time have the electorate on its side. And it proved calamitous, because it involved producing all the half-true claims about Saddam’s “imminent threat” that later discredited the whole enterprise. When compared with the simultaneous contortions of Gerhard Schroeder and Jacques Chirac and Vladimir Putin, Blair’s attitude seems almost noble and was actuated by an authentic concern about preventing a Euro-American schism. But Bush and Rumsfeld did not appreciate the sacrifice, and Blair’s political enemies sensed the fatal flaw of vanity, and so the closing chapters of the book are consumed with the paltry rivalry with Gordon Brown, the consequences of whose long-indulged reptilian ambition recently humiliated the Labour Party at the polls.

In closing, Blair contents himself with musings about low-carbon initiatives, the “peace process” in the Middle East, the challenges of globalization, and similar bromides. Looking back on his decision to resign when he was—if he does say so himself—“at the height of [his] powers,” he notes ruefully but unironically, “My constituency in the media had evaporated.” It is an oddly telling phrase, as if nobody had ever whispered to him that this is what happens to people who look upon the media as their “constituency” in the first place.

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