The years since the end of the cold war divide into two very different ages. The first, the 1990s, was dominated by the rise of free markets and free trade across the globe. The second, since 9/11, has been defined by terrorism, counterterrorism, war and Islamic radicalism. Bill Clinton is the symbol of the first decade and George W Bush of the second. Tony Blair is the only major political figure to span both eras, beginning his political life in the corridors of Davos and ending it in the mud flats of Basra. He tells both tales in his engrossing memoir, A Journey, but they never fuse into one larger story.
The first half of the book is mostly about the rise of New Labour, the so-called “third way”, which Blair attributes largely to his leadership, not without justification. He explains his conversion from the hard-left democratic socialism of the old Labour Party in a way that rings true. He was not one of those kids obsessed by political arguments. His ideas were shaped not by Philosophy, Politics and Economics tutorials at Oxford but rather by something much simpler. “I was middle class,” he writes, “and my politics were in many ways middle class.”
This is a larger statement of principle than it might seem. The Labour Party was founded to protect the working class, the huge mass of people who worked at factories when Britain was a great industrial power. “In a sense they wanted to celebrate the working class,” Blair writes of Old Labour, “not make them middle class — but middle class was precisely what your average worker wanted himself or his kids to be.” This insight was at the root of Blair’s rethinking of left-wing politics.
Blair presents his version of the third way not as an ideology, but as the common-sense view of a middle class “guy” who comes at things from outside the hothouse of party politics. When describing how he helped Gordon Brown — his partner in reforming the Labour Party — he says he provided Brown with “a normal person’s view of politics.” “The single hardest thing for a practicing politician to understand,” Blair writes, “is that most people, most of the time, don’t give politics a first thought all day long.” Their days are spent “worrying about the kids, the parents, the mortgage, the boss, their friends, their weight, their health, sex and rock ‘n’ roll.”
From Brown, Blair got mentoring about the Labour Party, the ins and outs of its organisation and its culture. Press reports of the book have made it sound as if Blair is nasty about Brown, but that is not true. He is complimentary, to the end, about Brown’s intelligence, drive and dedication. He expresses concerns about Brown’s willingness to take risks and his commitment to New Labour ideas, but mostly he describes their eventual clash as inevitable. They both felt they deserved the premiership, and Blair got it.
Blair never really identified with Labour’s long and romantic past. There is not a single Labourite prime minister he seems to admire. The British political figures he speaks well of are David Lloyd George, the last Liberal Party prime minister; the economist John Maynard Keynes, who was in his time a centrist figure; and Roy Jenkins, a Labour politician who left the party because it had moved too far left. He mentions Margaret Thatcher with care, knowing that she is an object of loathing for many on the British left, but he clearly believes that her market-based reforms were necessary and productive.
The political figure he most closely identifies with in the book, and for whom he has undiluted praise, is Bill Clinton. “He was the most formidable politician I had ever encountered,” Blair writes. “And yet his very expertise and extraordinary capacity at the business of politics obscured the fact that he was also a brilliant thinker.” He sees Clinton’s approach as “a genuine, coherent and actually successful attempt to redefine progressive politics: to liberate it from outdated ideology; to apply its values anew in a new world.”
When speaking about the challenges of his first term in office, Blair writes honestly and openly. The style is not the elegant Oxbridge prose that might have been expected of a former prime minister but one filled with Americanisms. It is breezy, informal and candid enough to keep the reader thoroughly engaged.
Then comes 9/11, and Blair’s world turns upside down. He writes that he immediately saw the terrorist attacks as part of a much broader struggle. “It was war. It had to be fought and won. … All this came to me … with total clarity … and stays still, in the same way, as clear now as it was then.” Everyman has turned into Winston Churchill.
Regarding the war on terror, the book assumes a very different character. It is marked by grand statements, sweeping generalisations, constant evocations of destiny and national character, and long quotations from government reports and Blair’s speeches. All that was gray becomes black and white. There are hints of this personality earlier in the book. One day as Blair is worrying about his New Labour agenda, he finds himself browsing in the library of the prime minister’s official country house, Chequers. He then compares his problems with civil service reform to Churchill’s battle against fascism. It is what his closest aid, Jonathan Powell, describes as his “messiah complex.”
After 9/11, the messiah is unleashed. The enemy, as he sees it, is Islamic extremism, a deep-rooted and worldwide cancer requiring a massive, sustained, generational onslaught from the West. Blair is admirably frank and tough-minded, but at heart, his is a millenarian view that resists any nuance or complexity.
Blair describes Dick Cheney as wanting to work “through the whole lot, Iraq, Syria, Iran, dealing with all their surrogates in the course of it.” Blair endorses this view. “It is one struggle,” he declares flatly. The problem with this perspective is that it ignores politics, national interest, history and specificity, shoving a set of widely disparate phenomena into one grand narrative. So two secular dictatorships and a Shiite theocracy are lumped with Al Qaeda, a Sunni fundamentalist movement that actually despises all those regimes.
One smaller example: Blair reveals that in his dealings with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister and then president, he was “sympathetic” to the fact that Putin’s war in Chechnya was being fought against “a vicious secessionist movement with Islamic extremism at its core.” But as a student of history, Blair surely knows that the Chechens were forced into the Russian Empire in the mid-19th century after decades of fierce resistance and have been desperately trying to free themselves ever since, on purely nationalist grounds. Over the last two decades, the Russian Army has killed 100,000 Chechen civilians, 10 percent of the population, and transformed more than a quarter of the republic into a wasteland. So yes, today there is Islamic extremism in Chechnya, but to describe the situation as Blair does misses something crucial.
On Iraq, Blair simply will not yield any ground to common-sense observation, as if any chink would be fatal to his position. He insists that were it not for Iran and Al Qaeda, the twin forces of darkness working to undermine it, Iraq would have stabilised quickly and the invasion would have been a great success. Throughout his discussion of the war on terror, Blair embraces any tortured logic to support his essential view that the war “is one struggle.” Al Qaeda entered Iraq after the invasion, so that proves that invading Iraq and fighting Al Qaeda were really one common struggle. And that is why he seems in recent public comments to be in favour of a preventive war against Iran.
It’s a pity that Blair has tried to turn himself into a messiah. The world has much need of him as a politician. The fact is that Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were the two most successful political figures in the post-cold-war world because they understood the essential truth of economic policy in our times, which is centrist pragmatism. The left can govern only if it shows that it is ceaselessly determined to reform the public sector, be a good steward of the people’s money and understand the needs of the middle class. Blair’s brief discussion of the financial crisis showcases yet again his political intelligence.
In a strange sense, Blair on terrorism recalls nothing so much as the Labour Party ideologues he used to make fun of as they loudly declaimed about the nationalisation of industry, unilateral disarmament and workers’ communes. They were obsessed by an ideology, contemptuous of complicating facts on the ground, fed up with a public that didn’t see the light and supremely convinced that history, ultimately, would vindicate them. What do you know. Tony Blair has turned out to be Old Labour after all. — NYT Syndication Services
Published in The Express Tribune, October 17th, 2010.