Sunday, 26 September 2010

The Case of the Pope, Geoffrey Robertson


The clerical sex abuse scandal is the single most serious blow that the Catholic Church has suffered in living memory.  Deep within the embrace of an institution that claimed to be the moral guide of humanity, thousands of criminals and perverts raped and molested children entrusted to their care over a period of years and decades.  The numbers of young lives blighted by men who wore the priestly stole and stood in the place of Christ each day at Mass will probably never be known.  The mind staggers at the enormity of it all.

It now seems beyond doubt that the crimes of the abusive priests themselves were suppressed and facilitated by the Church.  Whatever Catholic teaching has to say about child abuse - and Catholic strictures on any form of sexual behaviour are far from liberal - it appears that bishops and priests operated within an old-boys' culture of misplaced brotherly loyalty combined with a deep-rooted aversion to opening the Church up to scrutiny from the State.

Many Catholics have tried to defend the Church's conduct.  Mental health professionals used to believe that paedophilia was curable, so it was not unreasonable to refer abusive priests for therapy.  Transferring abusers to new assignments away from the scenes of their previous offences was a tactic that the Church shared with secular school administrators.  Closing ranks and protecting erring brethren from scrutiny was by no means a priestly speciality, as many doctors would confirm.  While these are valid points, however, none of them really gets to the heart of the matter.  The Church held itself out as a divinely appointed teacher of holiness, and judging it by a lower standard represents a tacit acknowledgement of failure.  Likewise, the claim that the proportion of paedophiles in the clergy is similar to or less than that in society at large is beside the point.  The Catholic priesthood is not supposed to be a random sample of the population.  It is meant to consist of men of high integrity who are carefully examined on admission and can expect to face swift justice if they betray their calling.

In the middle of the whole sordid mess sits the Sovereign Pontiff, Benedict XVI Ratzinger.  Richard Dawkins has called him an "enemy of humanity".  Johann Hari has identified him as the leader of an "international criminal conspiracy".  The truth is duller, and perhaps sadder.  The picture of Benedict that emerges from the evidence is that of a clever and well-meaning man who was over-promoted, became a long-serving Vatican insider, and ended up placing loyalty to the Church and its priests, and a distorted idea of mercy, above Christian justice and compassion for Catholic children.  There is no doubt that he sincerely abhors crimes against children - he just hasn't done as much as he should have done to stop them, either as Pope or as the senior Vatican official with responsibility for child abuse cases from 1981 to 2005.  He has dismissed some abusers from the Church and treated others with lenience.  He has improved the processes of canon law while failing to insist that abusers be reported to the police.  To be fair to Benedict, he is not alone in all this: his attitude seems to have been depressingly common amongst the world's bishops.

Robertson, as a leading barrister and judge, aims to examine the abuse scandal from a legal perspective.  He takes the view that clerical child abuse was not merely a moral evil but a criminal offence, an actionable civil wrong (tort), and arguably also a crime against humanity under international law.  As Pope, Benedict has 'command responsibility' for the actions of his clerics, and he should not be able to hide behind the immunities that come with statehood, since (Robertson argues) the Vatican is not really a state at all.  The Church must accept its responsibilities and cease to maintain its own private legal system alongside, or in opposition to, those of the countries in which it operates.

The book has a significant number of mistakes, and it has the appearance of having been written hastily to meet a deadline.  In just two paragraphs (133 and 134), Robertson refers to someone called "Michelle Sidona" (presumably Michele Sindona), the freemasonic "P2 lodges" (there was only one P2 lodge), and the "Bank of Ambrosiano" and "Ambrosiana bank" (he means Banco Ambrosiano).  In the same paragraphs, he reports that the 1983 Code of Canon Law lifted the ban on Catholics becoming freemasons (it didn't) and suggests that John Paul I was murdered as a result of a Vatican conspiracy (he wasn't).  In more general terms, the book is distinctly tendentious.  Its author is clearly writing as Geoffrey Robertson the virtuoso courtroom performer rather than His Honour Judge Robertson the sober international jurist.  It is not so much a forensic enquiry as a set of pleadings for the prosecution.


The Church's parallel legal system is known as canon law.  It comes equipped with a full written legal code, courts, judges, advocates, academic commentaries and appeal procedures.  In earlier centuries, it was a powerful and important system, and it arguably had a valid role to play before the coming of the modern secular state.  Today, however, it is a glaring anachronism.  In practice, its shortcomings are rarely exposed because Church courts generally deal with mundane and private matters like marriage annulments.  When faced with offences like child abuse, however, it is highly inadequate.  It is essentially unpunitive - its most severe sanction, which is rarely imposed, is laicisation, the priestly equivalent of getting fired.  It has some dangerous idiosyncracies.  The fact that paedophilia can give rise to uncontrollable impulses has the perverse result that a priest accused of child abuse can be acquitted in a canonical trial by raising the defence that he is a paedophile.  Canonical procedures can also be slow and sclerotic, even more so than those of the secular courts.

Luckily, however, police forces and judicial systems throughout the world have the expertise and resources to deal efficiently with sex offenders.  So why have churchmen been so reluctant to co-operate with the authorities?  Indeed, why has the Pope not required them to do so?  It is difficult to think of a legitimate excuse for a bishop to withhold his knowledge of a suspected child rapist from the police.  Robertson quotes Vatican insiders as complaining that it is too hard for a spiritual father to turn in his priestly sons - an unfortunate metaphor that merely draws attention to the plight of the actual sons in the situation.  Amazingly, there has been no papal pronouncement telling bishops to go to the police other than a somewhat cryptic reference in a letter to the Irish church earlier this year and another brief reference that was placed on the Vatican website (which, lest there be any doubt, is not a recognised source of canon law) at around the same time.  According to Robertson, this failure to require bishops to contact the police is not mere negligence or oversight: it is the considered outcome of a policy debate within the Vatican.

In fact, as Robertson recognises, part of the problem is that bishops often didn't even resort to canon law, preferring instead to deal with abusers on an informal basis.  This is the mundane truth behind Crimen Sollicitationis, a Vatican instruction issued to the world's bishops in 1962 (or rather, re-issued, since a near-identical instruction had been published in 1922).  This mandated that canonical proceedings against priests accused of sexual misconduct be pursued by the local bishop in conditions of the strictest secrecy.  In theory, it did not prevent the bishop (or indeed the victim) from going to the police prior to the start of the canonical process, but it hardly encouraged this.  Crimen Sollicitationis is sometimes identified as the smoking gun that proves that the Church conspired to cover up cases of child abuse.  Robertson doesn't go this far, but he does attribute some importance to it.  In actual fact, the document, which was mostly concerned with other types of sexual behaviour, seems to have lapsed into obscurity - by the time that it was repealed by John Paul II in 2001, it is said that most serving bishops had never heard of it.  When the abuse allegations began to filter out in the 1990s and 2000s, there is little indication that many bishops followed its provisions.  Robertson probably overestimates its importance.


The most problematic parts of the book deal with the sovereignty of the Pope.  It is generally believed that the Papacy - through the medium of two overlapping entities, the Holy See and the Vatican City State - enjoys the privileges of statehood and sovereignty, including legal immunity.  This arrangement is undoubtedly an anachronism.  Many Catholics, as Robertson notes, believe that it is wrong both in principle (the Church has no business acting as a political power) and in practice.  There is a good case for saying that the Papacy should relinquish its statehood in an orderly fashion through agreement with the international community - but saying that its statehood does not exist is a step too far.  A state does not cease to be a state because it is small, anomalous or even pointless.  Monaco only extends four blocks from the Mediterranean Sea and serves no very useful purpose.  The tiny sliver of the Alps known as Liechtenstein was artificially created in 1719 under considerably more cynical circumstances than Vatican City.

Those circumstances, as Robertson lip-smackingly relates, were a 1929 treaty with Mussolini.  He seems to be unaware that an earlier democratic government of Italy had offered the Pope a similar deal.  The Holy See, by contrast, has existed continuously as an international actor since the Middle Ages.  Today, the Vatican has its own territory, flag, anthem, passports, coinage, postal service, security forces, car number plates, internet domain and international football team.  (Robertson, again, seems to be unaware of some of this.)  It is dependent on Italy for its material necessities, but then so is San Marino.  Its statehood is recognised by the UN, and it maintains diplomatic relations with most of the nations of the world.  Now, all or none of this may be right in a moral sense, but it is nonetheless the established and recognised status quo.

Robertson's case, which relies on what is known as the declarative theory of statehood, is somewhat unreal and looks suspiciously like special pleading - it is not so much legal as legalistic.  Robertson himself acknowledges that experts on international law are divided on the issue.  His strongest argument is that a treaty signed by a group of American nations in 1933 provides that a state must have a permanent population (the Vatican does in a sense, albeit a very small one).  But if Robertson is seriously advocating that the Italian army should move in and re-occupy St Peter's, he is going to need stronger grounds than this.

None of this, of course, excuses Vatican inertia over clerical abusers.  Indeed, the Vatican's statehood serves to place greater obligations upon it in this regard: as Robertson notes, it has signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and is legally bound to observe its terms.  Nor does sovereign immunity provide complete protection against legal action, either before the International Criminal Court or before domestic tribunals.


The causes of the abuse scandal remain a matter of speculation.  As Robertson recognises, many abusive priests were not clinically diagnosable paedophiles.  Clerical celibacy must have had something to do with the problem, though everyone agrees that the overwhelming majority of celibate priests have never molested children (albeit figures quoted by Robertson suggest that quite a few have girlfriends or even wives).  The loneliness of the life of the parish priest may be another contributing factor: it seems that priests in parish work were considerably more likely to commit offences than priests within fraternal religious orders.

Robertson reports that the Church's first child sex abuse scandal took place in 153 AD.  The present scandal, however, is situated in a specific historical context.  The numbers of abusive priests seem to have risen considerably after the middle of the last century, and peaked about a generation ago.  This is consistent both with the evidence of Fr Gerald Fitzgerald (d.1969), who ran a religious order that dealt with 'problem' priests, and with the academic analysis of the John Jay Report in the United States, which found that cases of abuse climbed between the 1950s and the 1970s before falling back again by the 1990s, at which point the first wave of retrospective revelations began to sweep in.  It is also notable that Crimen Sollicitationis and its 1922 predecessor were principally concerned with priests who chatted up adult women during confession: they mention child abuse only in passing rather than as a widespread contemporary problem.

It appears that clerical child abuse, while certainly an ever-present danger requiring vigilance, was a problem associated with a specific moment in history.  It seems to have been limited in the old days, when the Church was fiercely traditionalist and secular society was generally conservative.  Likewise, it had diminished by the 1990s, by which time secular society was generally liberal and the Church had reformed itself in important ways.  It was the transition between the two cultures, it seems, that lifted the lid off Pandora's box.


This is an interesting, if somewhat flawed, little book.  It is not too long, and it provides interested readers with an overview of the abuse scandal and the legal issues raised by it.  It has the jurisprudential substance that one would expect from a lawyer of Robertson's stature - though, as mentioned, we are dealing here with Robertson the prosecuting counsel rather than Robertson the impartial judge.  All in all, I would be inclined to recommend it.

Additional note

In May 2011, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (referred to above) released its final report on the clerical abuse crisis in the US.

The report did not identify a single cause of clerical abuse.  Abusive priests, like sex offenders in general, were a heterogenous group.  They did not differ statistically from other priests in their psychological and personality characteristics or developmental histories, save that they were more likely to have been abused themselves.  Only a small minority (less than 5%) were clinically diagnosable paedophiles.  Most of the rest had also been sexually active with adult partners.

The report showed that incidence of abuse climbed from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s before declining sharply by the mid-1980s.  It noted that this coincided with social and cultural changes in society at large.  Abusers who were ordained in the 30s, 40s and 50s generally did not abuse before the 60s and 70s, while those ordained in the 60s and 70s began abusing more quickly.

The report also discredits a myth put about by conservative Catholics: that the paedophile problem was a gay problem.  Priests who described themselves as homosexual or who had had homosexual experiences before or during seminary were not significantly more likely to abuse children.  The fact that most victims of abuse were boys appears to have been a result of the greater availability of access that priests have historically had to boys.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Reclaiming the F Word, Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune

Reclaiming the F Word, Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune
Zed Books

Feminism was the most important and progressive social movement in post-war Britain.  Sadly, today it has become entangled in a skein of contradictory clichés.  The feminist movement is dead; feminist ideas are too dominant; feminism has achieved its aims because women are now equal; feminism has made women unhappy; today's 'feminists' are hedonistic dabblers; feminists are 'feminazis' who want to ban harmless entertainments and rename gingerbread men.  Redfern and Aune want to challenge these assumptions and make the case for a vibrant contemporary feminism.

This is not an academic book - though it isn't lacking in facts and evidence.  Rather, it is a practical, readable handbook for contemporary women (and perhaps also men) with an interest in feminism.  It concisely runs through the various issues that modern feminism is concerned with and follows up with suggestions for action and activism.  It is a sort of feminist equivalent of Jessica Williams' 50 Facts that Should Change the World.

Sexism in the workplace is confronted.  Women are often found in less remunerative part-time jobs, while they continue to be underrepresented at the highest levels.  They are 1.5 to 3 times more likely to suffer sexual harrassment at work than men, and when they get home they still end up doing more than their fair share of the housework.  The reactionary argument that fewer women are found in certain walks of life because women are not naturally drawn to traditionally male areas (management, finance, politics, engineering) is answered by the observation that women who do feel motivated to pursue such careers still find it more difficult to progress within them than men.  There is also evidence that female-dominated careers are undervalued precisely because they are seen as being feminine.  Nurses are probably more highly trained than police officers, but they have a significantly lower status (it might be added that men were actively welcomed into nursing in the hope that they would give the profession more credibility).  As to work-family balance, the authors suggest equal and non-transferable periods of maternity and paternity leave (to which they might have added statutory sabbaticals for people without children).

Attention is given to the female body in modern culture.  Images of women are getting thinner (albeit larger-breasted), but actual British women are getting heavier, by 3kg on average since 1951.  Some surveys have found that only 2% of British women are happy with their bodies, while - dear God - 97% think that size 12 is fat.  Our society and culture define ordinary women's bodies as inadequate and draw them into a struggle for perfection which is becoming increasingly impossible to win.  The authors encourage women to deface those sinister, creepy adverts on the Tube for cosmetic surgery.  I couldn't possibly comment on whether this is a good idea or not.

Sex is addressed too.  The authors challenge the old lie that men are primarily motivated by physical desire and women by their emotions - a notion which helps to mark out sexually driven women as deviant and helps to excuse men from taking responsibility for their sexual behaviour.  At the same time, they note the conflicting social pressure to become sexually active at younger ages, with the result that girls - unlike boys - tend to lose their virginity earlier than they would like.  On the sensitive subject of the sex industry, the authors honestly acknowledge the deep divide among feminists between those who would pragmatically seek to decriminalise and regulate commercial sex and those who regard it as inherently exploitative and want to stamp it out.

The most disturbing chapter deals with violence against women. Female-on-male violence does exist, of course, but the statistics show that victims are overwhelmingly women and perpetrators overwhelmingly men. In the field of sexual violence, Britain has the lowest rape conviction rate in Europe (though I suspect that such comparisons are misleading due to differences between judicial systems). A third of respondents in one poll, some of whom no doubt work for the police or have served on juries, believe that flirty, promiscuous or scantily-dressed women bear some of the blame if they are raped - an example of the tendency to shift responsibility for male sexual behaviour onto women. Then there is the lower-level harrassment of women in the street and during periods of hot weather - a phenomenon of which most men like me tend to remain largely unaware.

The authors rightly deplore the underrepresentation of women in politics.  Female candidates in Britain have to endure comments by activists about their underwear and, until quite recently, a dearth of female toilets in the Palace of Westminster.  One woman MP was confronted in a Members-only lift by a male colleague who thought she was a cleaner.  We still have proportionally fewer women MPs than such strongholds of feminism as Belarus, Ethiopia and Nepal.  There continues to be a distinctly gendered edge to media coverage (and criticism) of female politicians like Teresa May, Jacqui Smith and Harriet Harman.  In the US, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin exemplify the lingering belief that a woman in public life must be either a sour-faced bitch or a shaggable babe.

There are other interesting perspectives and insights too.  To their credit, the authors take religion and feminist ideas about religion seriously.  In popular culture, the authors take aim at such targets as sexism in music, lads' mags and supposedly ironic sexist depictions of men and women.  They also introduced me to the Bechdel test for films: a film must (1) contain two female characters who (2) talk to each other (3) about something other than a man.

Reading this book as a white bourgeois man was in some ways an odd experience.  I would be lying if I claimed I could empathise with (for example) the sections on menstruation, childbirth or sex trafficking.  This is very clearly a book written by women for women, and not just comfortable middle-class heterosexual women either.  There are occasional references directly relevant to men: the authors endorse the admirable White Ribbon campaign, and condemn anti-male sexist stereotypes in popular culture.

All in all this, this is a very useful and thought-provoking book that deserves to be read widely.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

God is not Great, Christopher Hitchens

God is not Great, Christopher Hitchens
Atlantic: £8.99
This book has become one of the leading texts of modern atheism – second only, perhaps, to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.  It is not a new publication (it first appeared in 2007), but it seems fitting to return to it on the occasion of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the land of Tyndale, Knox and Cromwell.  I’m afraid that this is not going to be a sympathetic review.  Reading this book can be regarded as an upmarket version of listening to one’s slightly tipsy brother-in-law – the one who’s got a way with words but likes the sound of his own voice a bit too much – holding forth at a dinner party about what a load of dangerous nonsense religion is, while dropping the names from time to time of books that he’s read.  The other guests maintain a slightly uncomfortable silence and hope that the dessert is going to arrive soon.
Hitchens doesn’t just stand for a generic atheism – his is very clearly a middle-class liberal English atheism (even as an American citizen, he retains a broad streak that is as English as Orwell or Greene).  It is the secularism of J.S.Mill and Bertrand Russell, a decent, cultured non-creed which seeks to exchange the parish church for the art gallery, Cramner for Shakespeare and holy communion for an agreeable lunch.  He explicitly wants the book to persuade religious readers to embrace nonbelief, but yet much of his florid prose is directed against targets outside his very specific cultural constituency, and it is far from clear who he is going to convince.
The book doesn’t seem apt to persuade the sort of educated, semi-agnostic Church of England types who would be the natural candidates to join Hitch in the Tate Modern instead of attending Sunday service.  They would probably have heard most of his arguments before anyway, and would agree with many of them.  Hitchens seems more interested in attacking the follies of past and present-day fundamentalists, biblical literalists and other assorted bigots – but I doubt that many creationists, jihadis or Hasidim have read the book and gone on to join him in his genteel Putney of the mind (or even read the book, full stop).  Conversely, the serious-minded and well-informed reader who espouses a more subtle variety of religiosity is likely to find that Hitch is not very interested in getting to grips with her kind of faith.
If Dawkins the scientist is an atheist in the nineteenth-century Darwinian tradition, Hitchens the man of letters is more of an Enlightenment chap.  The book at times has a distinctly eighteenth-century air, and it actually concludes with a call for a new Enlightenment.  The overarching narrative that underlies its polemics is one that would be immediately recognisable to Edward Gibbon, Thomas Jefferson or Thomas Paine.  Religion belongs to the childhood of the human race.  Long ago, it helped us to explain otherwise baffling and frightening phenomena, but this function has now been supplanted by the more reliable disciplines of physics and medicine.  Religious bigotry and delusion have inflicted enormous physical and mental suffering on humankind.  Fortunately, although we may never succeed in eradicating religious belief, it is no longer intellectually credible, and we have ready antidotes to hand in the forms of reason and science.
One might answer this well-worn narrative with the equally well-worn observations that the past century has been the bloodiest and most chaotic in human history and that this is largely attributable to the horrors that resulted from followers of various non-religious and anti-religious credos making use of modern scientific technology.  The Enlightenment narrative cannot easily accommodate the rise of these genocidal tyrannies, which sought by turns to stamp out traditional religion, to reduce it to a position of useful subservience, and to replace it with secular objects of belief and devotion: the state and the nation in the case of fascism and nationalism, pseudoscientific racism and the leader-cult in the case of Nazism, and a pseudoscientific and profoundly atheistic theory of historical progress in the case of Marxism.
Hitch, being a clever guy, is well aware of this critique, but his reponse is unconvincing.  He tries to link the fascist and Nazi regimes to Christianity, and to Catholicism in particular, but as historical analysis this is thoroughly inadequate (for proper treatments of this subject by historians, see Michael Burleigh’s Sacred Causes and the relevant chapters of Richard Evans’ The Third Reich in Power).  He further attempts to redefine totalitarian regimes, particularly communist ones, as merely new forms of religion – but this manoeuvre is transparently circular.  It would be more honest to conclude that it is ideology in general that is dangerous, not religion specifically – an insight that Hitch actually comes quite close to but disappointingly fails to develop.  One might add that the discourse of enlightened scientific progress challenging primitive and dangerous delusions, while no doubt tenable in Tom Paine’s day, is grimly laughable in the year 2010.  Again, Hitchens shows some awareness of this, but not enough.
Hitchens’ discussion of the intellectual objections to the existence of God is fairly competently executed and quite unoriginal.  The sections on evolution and the cosmos will contain little that is new for the well-informed reader, and anyone wanting stronger scientific fibre would be better advised to go to Richard Dawkins.  It may be noted that Hitchens shares Dawkins’ awe and wonder at the majesty of the universe, though he is perhaps a little more ready than his fellow antitheist to entertain the occasional rather dark and nihilistic thought about a world without God.
Hitchens devotes special attention to the Bible and the Qur'an.  He is predictably scathing about the Old Testament.  Of the Ten Commandments, he says that “[i]t would be harder to find an easier proof that religion is man-made”.  As a biblical critic, though, he is something less than an amateur.  He makes some reference to archaeology in the Holy Land, but beyond this he seems larely ignorant of the vast scholarship (from Jewish, Christian and secular perspectives) on the literary and historical aspects of the Hebrew Bible.  He thinks it sufficient to quote his old friend Thomas Paine on the Torah while ignoring the likes of D.N.Freedman and Jacob Milgrom.  He rather ostentatiously claims to believe that the New Testament is even worse than the Old.  He knows a little bit more about the relevant scholarship here: he has read one of Bart Ehrman’s books.  It does not reflect well on his judgement that he flirts heavily with the notion that no such person as Jesus even existed, a wholly frivolous idea that goes against the consensus even of non-religious scholars.
Hitchens is on his strongest form when he is discursing on the crimes and follies that he attributes to religion.  He has a valid point here, but, characteristically, he can’t resist over-egging the pudding to the point of indigestibility.  He chooses, for example, to see conflicts like the break-up of Yugoslavia as essentially religious wars.  Their more mundane political and social drivers are downplayed.  Serbian soldiers stuck images of the Virgin Mary on their rifles, so they must have been true believing Orthodox Christians.  Ethnic cleansing was actually “religious cleansing”.  Conversely, religious people who involve themselves in humanitarian and relief efforts are actually acting in accordance with the secular ethics of the Enlightenment.  This is another example of Hitchens' shameless circularity.  In another part of the book, he notes that "Christian" art and architecture and "Islamic" science were created in part by unbelieving individuals, but this provokes no reflection on his part as to whether those Serb soldiers might have been killing and maiming for reason of something other than devotion to the Virgin.
This is audacious stuff.  The degree of selective blindness is genuinely surprising in a journalist of Hitchens’ experience.  The extent to which he is betrayed by his prejudices is clearest in his treatment of Northern Ireland.  People in that unfortunate part of the world did not plant bombs in shopping centres because they were devoutly religious and were aggrieved that the other side was unsound on the doctrines of transubstantiation and sanctifying grace.  The Troubles were a dirty little tribal feud over who was to have political and economic power in a small corner of north-eastern Ireland.  Participants on both sides identified with their respective religions as part of a broader package of national, ethnic and cultural identities.  Some were sincerely religious, others (most explicitly on the Republican side) were sincerely irreligious.  Most seem to have imbibed in a general way their tribe’s religion as part of their cultural heritage without taking it especially seriously on a doctrinal or spiritual level.  IRA gunmen were Catholics only in the same sense as the Corleones were.
Leaving aside the horrors of warzones, Hitch is convinced in more general terms that religion does not make us better people.  But he doesn't go anywhere near the bona fide scholarship on this - instead, he contents himself with a few individual examples.  Martin Luther King was a good guy, but not because he was a Christian; Mohandas Gandhi (who, he reveals, is “sometimes known” as Mahatma) was an overrated religious reactionary.  A.J.Ayer was a better egg than Evelyn Waugh.
Hitchens' prose style is sometimes gratifyingly elegant, sometimes genuinely witty, and at other times self-indulgent and overdone.  His fluency is not in doubt, but he can be a little too rich for the blood, a bit like Stephen Fry on an off day.  He is not above the odd cheap trick, like overusing scare quotes and insisting on spelling God with a small g.  From time to time, he shows signs of a tin ear.  He describes child abuse by Catholic priests with the phrase "no child's behind left”.  Of pigs, he observes that “their tendency to random and loose gallantry is often painful to the more fastidious eye”.  Hitchens the mature stylist is sometimes less in evidence than Hitchens the pompous bore.  Not that his prose is dull, I hasten to add.  It is rarely lacking in vigour, and there are a number of intresting anecdotes, including a darkly amusing story of an episode in which he was mistaken in Sri Lanka for an incarnation of the guru Sai Baba.
Admirers of Hitchens’ work will know that he is not a man afflicted by self-doubt or false modesty.  He feels able to patronise world-class thinkers with whom he disagrees, including Thomas Aquinas and Isaac Newton.  He has a disturbing willingness to repeat with misplaced confidence old anti-Christian myths: scholastic theologians used to debate how many angels could dance on the head of a pin; the early Christians repudiated classical Greek learning (and the Arabs, thank goodness, kept it safe); the Catholic Church opposed the introduction of zero into mathematics.  There are other small errors of fact.  T.S.Eliot was an Anglican, not a Catholic.  De Valera was the prime minister of Ireland in 1945, not the president.  It would be pedantic to make a fuss about such things, though.
The book’s biggest problem is a lack of real meat.  Other popular atheist writers bring something particular, something substantive, to their work.  Richard Dawkins brings a deep knowledge of evolutionary biology.  Dan Dennett brings a specialist knowledge of philosophy, as do A.C.Grayling and Julian Baggini.  Hitch is little more than an interested amateur with an idiosyncratic literary style.  He has no particular USP beyond his anecdotal experiences of religion as a journalist.  The book is little more than a collection of sometimes elegantly expressed but generally unoriginal arguments and observations penned by someone with no very obvious qualifications for writing it.  If you want to read a serious book about atheism, this unfortunately isn't it.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

The Myth of Mars and Venus, Deborah Cameron

The Myth of Mars and Venus, Deborah Cameron
OUP: £7.99

Sexism is on the rise. Awareness of equality issues in our society has never been higher and anti-discrimination legislation has never been stronger, but since the 1990s there has been a pronounced and worrying trend running in the opposite direction. Attitudes and beliefs that would have been regarded as benighted and offensive in my childhood in the 1980s have re-entered the mainstream, in the form of what Deborah Cameron, a professor of linguistics, calls "the myth of Mars and Venus".

This has happened both through the medium of pop psychology books like John Gray's Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and through middlebrow popular science works like The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker and The Essential Difference by Simon Baron-Cohen (Sasha's much less amusing cousin). Aware that they are challenging widespread progressive beliefs, such authors often portray themselves as courageous Galileos taking on a stultifying feminist orthodoxy. In fact, they are doing little more than providing intellectual cover for half-baked prejudices that can be heard from any pub bore.

Cameron is right to draw attention to a highly important meta-analysis of research into gender differences which shows that most such differences, as measured in the academic literature, are statistically small and few are pronounced. She might also have noted that some differences revealed by research are directly contradictory to the Mars and Venus stereotypes. Other authors who have examined the scientific evidence in this area and questioned the tendentious conclusions of Pinker et al. include Natasha Walters in her important book Living Dolls and the leading geneticist Prof. Steve Jones.  Jones has criticised those who would "concentrate on dressing up vague differences between the mental wiring of men and women so that they seem real, significant and important", and highlights the enormous importance of culture: men in general tend to be more violent than women, but a woman in the crime-ridden United States has a greater chance of committing a murder than a man in low-crime Japan.

Cameron's own area of focus is the field of communication. It is said that women are keener on communication than men and more skilful at it. They use language in a way that is interpersonal, relational and co-operative rather than instrumental and competitive. This received wisdom, however, should not blind us to the fact that "beliefs on this subject are not timeless and universal". For example, in some societies (including British society in previous centuries) women are seen as having cruder and more vulgar modes of speech, while men are supposed to talk with elegance and sophistication. Marjorie Harness Goodwin's extensively documented study The Hidden Life of Girls revealed that her subjects "habitually did all the things which [the Mars and Venus myth] says girls do not do. They gave direct orders, challenged one another directly... and boasted about their athletic skills, possessions and family status."

In the context of heterosexual relationships, the myth of Mars and Venus holds that men and women typically misunderstand each other, leading to tension and conflict. Some writers have framed this supposed communication conflict as being analogous to cross-cultural communication difficulties. On this view, a woman talking to a man can expect to encounter the same sort of problems as an American trying to do business in Japan. Cameron rightly has no time for this - though she does point out that such ideas are remarkably convenient for men who don't want to understand what their partners are saying. She even makes a foray into the sensitive area of sexual violence: she suggests that much modern advice to women on this subject (just say No, directly and clearly) is based on the flawed premise that "men who persist in making unwanted sexual advances are genuinely confused, and will be happy to have their confusion dispelled by a simple, firm 'no'. It does not allow for the possibility that men who behave in this way are not so much confused about women's wishes as indifferent to them."  An emphatic rejection might simply inflame an already dangerous situation, she suggests.

Cameron also takes on the frivolous just-so stories favoured by Mars and Venus writers which seek to explain supposed gender differences on the basis that evolution favoured different forms of behaviour in Stone Age men and women. It is sometimes said, for example, that men were the strong, silent hunters while women were the garrulous gatherers - except that in modern-day traditional societies both sexes spend most of their time gathering, women do some hunting too, and in any case hunting provides ready opportunities for male bonding through speech. Other writers have claimed that particular forms of communication served to give men a competitive advantage in securing partners while women correspondingly evolved to be good listeners - but this directly contradicts the notion that men are the linguistically less skilled sex. I could go on, but it should be clear that we are well into the realms of pseudoscience here.

If the myth of Mars and Venus has no merit, why has it gained such popularity in recent years? Indeed, even if gender differences were biologically predetermined, that would not be sufficient in itself to explain the myth's hold. After all, there are inherent differences between left- and right-handed people, but "[w]e don't conceive of them as different species from different planets; we don't seem them as locked in an eternal 'battle of the hands'".

The answer lies in the fact that the myth has important psychological functions. Cameron notes that "[n]o group of men and women in history have ever been less different, or less at the mercy of their biology, than those living in western societies today".  The myth of Mars and Venus seems to be a by-product of our anxiety about, and in some cases opposition to, social and cultural changes affecting the roles and lifestyles of men and women. Moreover, much of the potential for conflict within heterosexual relationships today is a medium-term side-effect of these same structural changes, not an inevitable consequence of the way that the sexes evolved in the upper palaeolithic. The myth is not value-neutral either. It tends to imply that women rather than men should take on most of the responsibility for ensuring effective communication, while conversely the allegedly objective fact that women talk more than men is suspiciously close to the nakedly sexist value judgement that women talk too much.

In all, this is a short but excellent book, and a much-needed antidote for the nonsense that is regularly talked on this subject. To adopt words that Cameron herself uses, Men are from Earth, Women are from Earth - deal with it.

The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Penguin: £9.99

In more innocent times, before the discovery of Australia, it used to be believed that all swans in the world were white. After all, every swan in history that had been seen up to that point had conformed to this hypothesis. It was inconceivable that a black swan could exist - it ran counter to all human knowledge and experience. Then, at a stroke, this concrete certainty was conclusively and permanently demolished with the discovery of the rather ungainly black-feathered species known as Cygnus atratus.

Nassim Taleb uses the black swan as a metaphor for unpredictable events with potentially immense repercussions. At the heart of his book is the thesis that "[t]he inability to predict outliers implies the inability to predict the course of history". We are largely blind to this, however, and we are prone to serious errors of judgement as a result.  Taleb argues at some length that our intuitions, tools and strategies for assessing probabilities and predicting the course of events are ill-suited to the perilous complexities of the world in which we live.  When black swans hit, their effects can be enormous. Some of the most important discoveries in history, including penicillin and lasers, were made by accident. At the time of the Latin American sovereign debt defaults in 1982, American banks lost in a single summer the equivalent of almost the entire profits of the American banking industry since its inception.

Central to Taleb's ideas are the concepts of Mediocristan and Extremistan.  In some areas of life, variations are quite limited. Take height, for example: most adult humans are between around five and six feet tall, and variations outside these boundaries are limited. You may very occasionally see a seven foot man, but you will never see a seventy foot man. Taleb uses the term 'Mediocristan' to describe the kind of world containing limited variations of this sort. Other areas of life exhibit enormous variability. Individuals' incomes can range from a few thousand pounds (or zero) to multiple millions. The casualty rates in wars likewise differ wildly, from around a thousand in the Falklands conflict to 70 million in World War II. The problem is that modern-day humans live to a large extent in Extremistan but insist on thinking and acting as if they were in Mediocristan. For example, even experts and sophsticates are wont to use bell curve analyses in circumstances where they are utterly inappropriate, and treat human events as if their probabilities could be assessed in the same way as in a game of dice or roulette.

Taleb is acutely alive to the limitations of the human mind. We are severely prone to confirmation bias. We are inclined to the sort of reasoning that claims that OJ is innocent because we had breakfast with him the other day and he didn't kill a single person the whole time we were with him. We fail to realise that being aware of what we don't know is a safer strategy than fooling ourselves about what we do know. We forget that we often only see the successes or the survivors - we remember Casanova and his lucky étoile but rarely spare a thought for the thousands of other would-be adventurers who crashed and burned. We tend to impose order on the world where none exists. We are inclined to view historical events as inevitable when in fact they were highly contingent and unpredictable. Even the greatest cataclysms of the last century, the two world wars, came as something of a surprise to people at the time.

We encounter similar problems when we try to look into the future. We are not entitled to infer the future from the past any more than a turkey on Christmas eve is entitled to assume from past experience that his human custodians are going to continue to carefully feed and nurture him (Taleb takes this example from Bertrand Russell). Experts are as prone to this as anyone. Research shows that financial analysts are less likely to be on the mark than weather forecasters, despite being more confident about their predictions. The psychologist Philip Tetlock found that specialists in economics and other disciplines were far more likely to make errors in their predictions than they realised, and eminent academics were no more likely to get it right than bog-standard graduates or even journalists - indeed, subjects with the highest reputations tended to do worse than their supposed inferiors.

Philosophically speaking, Taleb describes himself as a "skeptical empiricist".  His worldview comes with a highly respectable pedigree: his intellectual influences range from the classical writer Sextus Empiricus to the mediaeval Arab thinker Al-Ghazali to Sir Karl Popper and Benoit Mandelbrot.  However, Taleb is no ivory tower theorist.  He worked for years on Wall Street - he still does, in fact - and it was a black swan event - the stock market crash of 1987 - that enabled him to become financially independent.

This is an enormously important book.  Taleb is now something of a minor celebrity, and his ideas have apparently influenced our own dear David Cameron.  One senses that he is mostly right, though the stark and forthright way in which he presents his arguments makes one hesitate to accept them wholesale.  It is tempting to sit on the fence and conclude that Taleb is on to something, but that he goes too far in denigrating our predictive abilities and techniques. The man himself is having none of this.  He says of his critics: "The only comment I found unacceptable was, 'You are right; we need you to remind us of the weakness of these methods, but you cannot throw the baby out with the bath water,' meaning that I needed to accept their reductive [bell curve] distribution while also accepting that large deviations could occur - they didn't realize the incompatibility of the two approaches. It was as if one could be half dead. Not one of these users of portfolio theory in twenty years of debates, explained how they could accept the [bell curve] framework as well as large deviations. Not one." This quotation also highlights another characteristic of Taleb's writing: he is a man who allows himself to carry a large measure of disdain for people who disagree with his take on the world. He has no similar reservations about the soundness of his own ideas.

The Black Swan is far from a perfect book.  It is both dogmatic and over-long. Taleb's writing style can be rather irritating, and he clearly fancies himself as a latter-day Montaigne (another of his heroes).   In both this book and his earlier work Fooled by Randomness, he comes across as a somewhat precious and mannered individual - though this reviewer can respect his idiosyncratic approach to life and his willingness to challenge "empty suits" and their straitjacketing orthodoxies.  In all, however, Taleb has written a powerful and largely convincing critique of financial analysis, historiography, attempts to predict the future, deference to experts, and human thought in general.  It is a book that I would unhesitatingly recommend to anyone.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

A Journey, Tony Blair - Part 3


One interesting question is whether the book helps to answer the difficult question of where Blair and New Labour are to be located on the political spectrum.

There is enough in here to give substance to the left-wing critique of Blair as a man of the political right. He regrets the foxhunting ban and the Freedom of Information Act, but not his attempts to marketise the health and education systems. His analysis of the economic crisis and its aftermath is fairly conservative, and he makes no bones about what he thinks about “statist, so-called Keynesian” policies to deal with it. He likes George W. Bush and thinks that he is a “true idealist” with “genuine integrity”. He got on better with the European centre-right than with the likes of the German SPD. He admired Nigel Lawson and has some liking and respect for Rupert Murdoch (who was, incidentally, outbid by Random House for the rights to the book). He describes Satan herself as “undoubtedly a great prime minister”. True, he thinks that Dick Cheney was a bit much, but you don’t get many points for being to the left of Cheney.

I have never been entirely convinced by the left-wing critique, however, and unconvinced I remain. For all the critics’ talk of Blair as a warmed-over Thatcherite, his attitude towards the Thatcher legacy is more complex than is often supposed. My quotations above are very selective – he sounds rather different when you quote him at length:

“Where Mrs Thatcher was absolutely on the side of history was in recognising that as people became more prosperous, they wanted the freedom to spend their money as they chose; any they didn’t want a big state getting in the way.... It was plain that competition drove up standards and that high taxes were a disincentive.... Where she was wrong... was in her attitude to Europe and her refusal to countenance the fact that the majority of people were always going to have to rely on public services and the power of government.... [She] went too far in thinking that everything could be reduced to individual choice.... [S]he had a view of Britain that was at one level correct and necessary – regaining our spirit of enterprise and ambition – but at another, completely failed to take account of the changing position of Britain in the world... and allowed a desire for people to stand on their own two feet to cross into a profound lack of compassion for those who were left behind. She was essentially uninterested in social capital.”

This is far from being a typical Labour assessment of Mrs Thatcher’s legacy, but it is by no means a typical right-wing assessment either. At worst, it is a kind of mushy triangulating centrism, not all that far from the sort of thing that David Cameron might have come out with when he was pretending to be a One Nation Tory before the recession.

This is consistent with Blair's overall record in government, which was a broad mixture of left and right. He allied himself with Bush Jr and joined in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. He promoted tough, even draconian, crime and security policies. His public service reform plans were unashamedly market-based. He presided over an overall rise in inequality. He distanced himself from the trade unions and privatised parts of the state that even Thatcher had left untouched. As he himself points out, however, he also did many things that Major, Hague, et al. would never even have contemplated. He introduced a minimum wage and new rights for workers. He oversaw tax rises and a modestly increased level of income redistribution. He introduced badly-needed reforms to our sclerotic constitution, including devolution and the Human Rights Act. He promoted the Civil Partnerships Act and other equality legislation. He signed a series of integrationist European treaties, and he was favourable to the idea of taking us into the Euro. In foreign policy, while he ended up in the same space as the Washington neocons, he arrived there by a different route, and his bromance with Bush was preceded by an equally warm love-in with Bill Clinton. His first war was Kosovo, a Clintonian project which Republicans heatedly criticised.

The book confirms one thing that we already knew: Blair had thoughts of bringing Labour together with the Liberal Democrats, and even of governing in coalition with them. He liked Paddy Ashdown and regarded Roy Jenkins as a mentor. The project foundered, however, partly because the Lib Dems decided to oppose parts of his domestic policy programme from the left, partly because the Iraq War drove a wedge between the parties, and partly because Charlie Kennedy was a less sympathetic partner than Ashdown had been.

On balance, one is forced, perhaps reluctantly, to accept parts of Blair’s own self-description. While by now such formulations seem facile and clichéd, it is not easy to disagree when he claims to be "not so much a politician of traditional left or right, but a moderniser". He concedes that his thinking can be conservative, particularly on economics and security, but "my heart always beats progressive, and my soul is and always will be that of a rebel” (or an overgrown sixth-former, some might say). This may be why he uses the word ‘radical’ and its derivatives as often as he does. He elsewhere says that he is “by instinct a liberal”, except on law and order, and it is evident that this does not refer only to economic neoliberalism. On the other hand, he exaggerates the extent to which the old left/right division has ceased to be applicable, and in the final analysis one can place him on the left of it only in a heavily qualified sense if at all.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of Blair’s political orientation, the question again arises: what was this man doing in the British Labour Party, let alone leading it? For a long time, it seemed that Blair’s legacy to British party politics would be an American-style system with a hardcore pro-business party, a softcore pro-business party and no real representative of the European social democratic left. Whether or not one happens to dress to the left oneself, it is difficult to see this as a healthy development – though it has been modified somewhat over the last few years. As William Waldergrave remarked in the early days of New Labour, the party political tug-of-war requires weight at both ends of the rope. The Tories suffered under the new dispensation because Blair’s dominance of the centre ground forced them too far to the right to be electable until the coming of David Cameron. The country lost out because a large slab of traditional working-class voters, already socially marginalised, came to be politically disenfranchised too. Nearly a million of them have since ended up voting for the BNP.


Finally, the personality that emerges from the book is far from being an unsympathetic one. This is not necessarily a given in an autobiography - the same could not be said, for example, of Mrs Thatcher’s memoirs. Blair's writing style is easy, intimate and sometimes witty. He writes as a flesh-and-blood human being with an inner intellectual and emotional life – albeit one of questionable depth – and not as the sinister pathological narcissist of caricature. It also speaks well of any man that he has a female best friend (Anji Hunter in his case).

On the other hand, Blair’s writing style can be vacuous and Pooterish, and sometimes has a dad-at-a-disco feel (his overuse of exclamation marks is one sign of this!). This is one reason to believe that, as the great man himself indicates in the acknowledgements, the book was largely written by him personally, though it is no doubt possible that ghost writers or editors deliberately put their talents aside in order to pastiche his style. There are other minus points too. There is an unfortunate passage which appears to give a thinly veiled description of him shagging Cherie – “I was an animal following my instinct”, and so on. He also seems somewhat thin-skinned; and one has to question the judgment of a man who appears to have been largely taken in by the likes of Silvio Berlusconi and Bertie Ahern.

Perhaps surprisingly, the book is generally believable. Even before the world had heard of Dr David Kelly and the dodgy dossier, Blair had a reputation for being somewhat slippery, if not downright dishonest. Even today, there are people who think that referring to him as 'Bliar' amounts to clever satire. He himself admits to what might be termed political white lies – dissembling on difficult policy questions, agreeing to meet colleagues and then having his diary secretary turn them down, that sort of thing. He gives the general impression, however, of writing with candour. The most troubling parts of the book are arguably those where he is patently writing with complete sincerity. Of course, lying is not the only form of dishonesty - Blair used to be a lawyer, after all - and there are no doubt cases in the book of deceit by omission or being economical with the actualité. If the book tells us the whole truth and nothing but the truth, it must be the first political autobiography in history to do so.

A Journey, Tony Blair - Part 2


What of Blair’s record in office? To a large extent this has become synonymous with the Iraq War and Blair’s fateful decision to go along with it, and it comes as no surprise that Blair is sticking to his guns on the issue. He recognises that there is a widespread belief that the war was a terrible mistake, but he attributes this in part to the rapid and unreflective way in which conventional wisdom is formed these days. “I still believe,” he writes, “that leaving Saddam in power was a bigger risk to our security than removing him”. Saddam may have turned out not to have had WMDs, but he certainly wanted to acquire them and had violated UN sanctions to that end. The dodgy dossier was written by the JIC, not Alastair Campbell, and was not sexed up. Lord Goldsmith wasn’t leant on. Blair didn’t realise that such a bloodbath would follow the invasion, but in any event life in Iraq is better now than it was under Saddam (though Iraqis themselves seem sharply divided on this question).

Blair defends what he did and suggests that he would do the same again even in the knowledge of the bloody and chaotic aftermath. It is noteworthy, however, that he stops short of saying this with absolute confidence. It seems that his self-belief – or arrogance – does know some bounds. It is interesting in this context that he mentions another instance of self-doubt in the context of the Israel-Hezbollah conflict of 2006: “[H]ad I changed, or was I just obstinate? Was it leadership, or just vanity? Having got us into Iraq, was it belief that sustained me, or just the fact I had nowhere else to go? How honest are we ever with ourselves? How hard it is to disentangle our motives from our anxieties, our convictions from our pride.” And with that deep – or perhaps rather shallow – sigh, he moves on to other matters. The questions remain rhetorical.

Blair dismisses as “fatuous” the idea that the war was all about oil. If access to oil had been the issue, he says, it would have been much simpler to cut a quiet deal with Saddam and turn a blind eye to the other aspects of his regime. Blair has a point here – this, after all, is essentially what the Americans have been doing with the Saudis since World War II. But if the ‘no blood for oil’ crowd were naive, Blair is disingenuous. The idea that access to oil had nothing to do with a decision to invade a country with the world’s second largest oil reserves stretches belief, particularly when the decision was taken by an American president and vice president who were both former oil executives and had actively been reviewing their country’s energy strategy. The war might not have been all about oil, but oil must have entered into it.

Blair wants us to know that he feels sorry for the victims of the war. “Do they really suppose I don’t care, don’t feel, don’t regret with every fibre of my being the loss of those who died?.... To be indifferent to that would be inhuman, emotionally warped.... I feel desperately sorry for them, sorry for the lives cut short, sorry for the families whose bereavement is made worse by the controversy over why their loved ones died, sorry for the utterly unfair selection that the loss should be theirs.” There are other similar passages elsewhere in the book.

One doesn’t doubt the sincerity of these sentiments, but one might perhaps doubt their depth. Even now, 7 years after the invasion, with nearly 200 British troops and 100,000 Iraqi civilians dead, one wonders if Blair really gets it, on the profoundest and most serious level. The section of the book that the above quotations come from is slightly overwritten, slightly incoherent, slightly pompous and slightly disturbing. I have never agreed with those who have portrayed Blair as some kind of sociopath: he is rightly appalled by human suffering and conscious of his responsibility for it.  But there does seem to be some perceptible limitation in his emotional depth and maturity. It is difficult to imagine Lloyd George writing in a similar way about the Great War, or Churchill about World War II, or even Thatcher about the Falklands. In the final analysis, there is something of the overgrown sixth-former about him.

One theme that does come through, however, is Blair’s desire to work out his share of the reponsibility for Iraq in a practical way, “beyond the mere expression of compassion”. This is no doubt why he accepted his current job as envoy to the Middle East and opted to donate the book’s proceeds to the Royal British Legion. This is not negligible or ignoble, and he should be given due credit for it.

A chapter of the book is devoted to the Northern Ireland peace process, though anyone wanting a full account of the inside story of this particular saga would be better advised to refer to Great Hatred, Little Room by Jonathan Powell, Blair’s former chief of staff. The chapter includes some thoughts on principles of conflict resolution, interlaced with references to Blair’s current job in the Middle East. There is another chapter on the Kosovo conflict.

Moving on to domestic policy, public service reform was the great unrealised Blairite cause. Contrary to the Conservative critique, Blair was sensitive enough to the limitations of centralised, top-down public service management. He accepted that the NHS and the education system had been underfunded in the Thatcher-Major years. Structural reforms had been “badly implemented and badly explained”, “divisive and even misguided”. But the Tories had been on to something. The march of history was towards marketisation, performance-related spending and user-centred methods of delivery. Ideas like the NHS internal market and grant-maintained schools had not been entirely wrong, and they duly resurfaced in different guises and under different names. Blair wanted to emphasise “the big difference in the public services between New Labour and Old Labour (investment without reform) and New Labour and the Thatcherite Tories (reform without investment)”.

It is difficult to disagree with Blair’s ideas in the form in which he presents them. He should be given proper credit for the desperately needed extra funding which he provided for the public services. He was also probably right to resist those who opposed his reforms on the basis of Bevanite nostalgia, provider self-interest or an unserious aversion to markets and profit. But there is another side to the story that is strikingly absent. Did foundation hospitals pave the way for a two-tier NHS? Were ordinary patients able to understand and operate the structures that were devised for them? Will private involvement in healthcare lead to privatisation by the back door? Were the implications of allowing private capital and influence into the school system via academies properly thought through? Was it right to allow academies to be run by religious fundamentalists who taught creationism? The answers in each case can be debated – but Blair doesn’t even pose the questions.

Blair insists, with some exaggeration, that his policies were “massively” redistibutive. He acknowledges the existence of a category of “undeserving rich” (he uses the term himself), but he believes that no action is required in respect of the increased imbalance of income towards the top. “Emotionally I shared the view that some of the top earnings were unjustified, but rationally I thought this was the way of the world in a globalised economy, and there was more harm than good in trying to stop it.... In a sense none of it is rational, but it’s irrational to stop it in a world in which, like it or not, certain people have transferable, global skills in high demand and short supply.” This is less an analysis than an evasion. It may be true that government cannot or should not simply try to “stop” companies from paying large remuneration packages to some of their employees. But to suggest that globalisation means that no appropriate policy response exists is at best lazy and at worst dishonest.

Aside from all this, there is the usual self-serving guff. Suggestions that Blair was excessively presidential were “complete tosh”. Criticisms of his style of 'sofa government' were "ludicrously overblown". The notion that he is dazzled by the wealthy is "ludicrously exaggerated". It is a “myth” that he is not a details man. He occasionally admits to making mistakes. He was wrong to adopt a Cameroonian “broken society” analysis in the 1990s given that the great majority of British society is well-functioning. He was wrong to have regarded the Saville inquiry as a waste of time and money. He shouldn’t have been so dead set against Ken Livingstone becoming Mayor of London. The GPs’ and consultants’ contracts under the NHS Plan were badly negotiated. He was wrong to sack Peter Mandelson the second time, and maybe the first time as well. On the big issues, however, the general theme is Je ne regrette rien. It is particularly sad that Blair believes that Labour could have been re-elected this year if it had not tacked away from his agenda – an agenda that he believes will one day be rediscovered. There is something of the Norma Desmond about all this. To be fair, Blair is somewhat self-conscious about going into if-only-they-had-listened-to-me-mode – just not self-conscious enough to refrain from doing it.


Some of the most chewed-over parts of the book have, perhaps unsurprisingly, been those dealing with Blair's relationship with Gordon Brown.

Blair describes Brown as a “strange guy”. Their partnership went back to the dark days of the 80s. "It was not simply a professional relationship, it was a friendship. Later, when things became difficult, then fraught, and finally dangerous, the wrench was all the harder because the intimacy had been so real." One might be forgiven for doubting claims of this sort in a political autobiography, but in this case they are probably sincere enough.

As we know, Brown was the original leader-in-waiting. Even before the 1992 election, Blair had floated the idea of Brown standing for the leadership. He returned to the idea after Labour's defeat, and the origins of the split between the two men apparently date from this period. According to Blair, it was now that it began to dawn on him that Brown was running a self-interested cabal, “more like a cult than a kirk”. In 1994, Brown stood aside and Blair was raised to the leadership. Blair provides some detail of the surrounding events, but notably omits any mention of the legendary Granita deal.

For the next few years, the two men coexisted in a broadly successful way. But it was apparent by the latter part of Blair’s first term that Brown and his circle were not buying his public service reforms. A turning point came when Brown and his lieutenant Ed Balls proved less than enthusiastic about increasing student tuition fees. According to Blair, the Tory line about Brown being a ‘roadblock to reform’ was more than just partisan froth: Brown genuinely did slow down the Blairite public service reforms, even if he did not derail them. At a famous meeting in John Prescott’s apartment in 2003, Blair agreed to hand over to Brown before the 2005 election provided that Brown wholeheartedly embraced the New Labour programme. By his own account, Blair went back on the deal because it was evident that Brown was intent on following his own agenda. Brown appears to have seen things differently. Either way, Blair now regrets having made such a deal at all.

Blair initially planned to try to hang on beyond mid-2007 in the face of Brown’s continuing recalcitrance (or, as Blair puts it, his “shrieking and barking”). But it was not to be.  Brown took over without a leadership contest and squandered his chances of winning a fourth term by extinguishing the New Labour flame.

Contrary to some popular belief, Blair insists that he retained a large degree of control over economic policy until near the end of his tenure. It is striking, however, that macroeconomic issues are rarely discussed in the book. There are no extended discussions of fiscal or monetary policy. Did Blair even understand these areas, or understand them well enough to keep control of a man who had a PhD in economics? One suspects that Brown had more of a free rein than Blair is letting on.

Click here for Part 3

A Journey, Tony Blair - Part 1

A Journey, Tony Blair
Hutchinson, London: £25.00

Not many people will think differently of Tony Blair after reading this book, even assuming that they make it through all 691 pages. This is partly because, after 3 years in opposition, 10 years in office and 3 further years of retirement, attitudes towards the man are so deeply ingrained that few minds must be open to a genuine reappraisal of him.

It is also partly because there is only limited new information in the book. The general outlines of the Blair years are so familiar that it could hardly be otherwise. Blair didn’t get on with Brown. He liked city academies. He thinks that Saddam Hussein was a bad man. There are, however, some interesting sidelights, including the odd interesting titbit or piece of political gossip. John Smith liked a drink. So did Blair himself, on a much smaller scale. Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson had actual fights. Blair got heatedly physical with Charlie Falconer on millennium night over the Dome. It is implied – but not stated explicitly – that Blair prayed nightly while in office (though generally little is said about his religious faith). There are interesting accounts of encounters with the royal family.

The book is slightly unconventional in format. While the chapters follow a broadly chronological framework, they are arranged thematically. They were apparently written out of order too. This strategy is generally successful, and mostly serves to prevent the book from flagging towards the end.

Blair's political journey began with his father. Leo Blair was a working class boy made good who became a Tory because that was what you did when you climbed the social ladder. Blair attaches great importance to aspiration, and not least to the aspirations of people on the lower rungs of the ladder. Affluent dinner-party socialists celebrated and romanticised the working classes, but Blair noticed that most actual working-class people tended to want to cease to be working-class and to become comfortably bourgeois like him. They were not egalitarians but meritocrats. Blair wanted to break the link between aspiration, upward mobility and right-wing politics: "You can be successful and care; ambitious and compassionate; a meritocrat and a progressive".

As a political aim, this is fairly unobjectionable, if a little banal, but it does raise a question that is central to Blair's political career. How did someone of this outlook end up joining – and remaining in – the Labour Party in the 1970s and 1980s? Blair's principles would surely more naturally have led him into the Liberals, the Social Democrats, or conceivably the Heathite wing of the Conservative Party. What was it that lay behind Blair's party affiliation, and led him to resist (for example) the temptation to defect to the SDP? Was it political calculation of some sort, or an early example of a stubborn refusal to be deterred by something as mundane as political reality?

It hardly seems necessary to emphasise that Blair was never tribally Labour. As mentioned, his father was a Conservative. He was barely involved in student politics at Oxford: he was not a member of the Labour Club and his political influences were left-leaning but not party political. As a young barrister, he was a somewhat inactive Labour member, though he did write occasional articles for the New Statesman ("at that time a serious weekly magazine").

Blair's career as a Labour politician essentially began in his late 20s, in the period prior to the 1983 election. It can't be claimed that he started out as an orthodox Labourite before later discovering his modernising vocation. He does say that he had "ideas on nationalisation and defence that would have astounded and drawn derision from the Tony Blair of 1994". But even in this period he had formed the view that Labour was headed in the wrong direction, its coalition of working-class trade unionists and Islington lefties being too narrowly based to win elections. He first successfully stood for Parliament in 1983, but he thought that the country would be better off if the party lost. He was entertainingly savaged by Dennis Skinner at a post-election meeting when he suggested that the party was in need of reform.

The ensuing phase of Kinnockite modernisation took the party in broadly the direction that he wanted, but it did not go far enough. What was needed, Blair believed, was not a tactical watering-down of socialism to appease the electorate, but rather a willing recognition that the electorate was right and a reorientation of the party around that recognition. The party must not merely come to terms with the social changes that threatened to make it obsolete: it must embrace them.

Blair's hour came, of course, after Labour's surprise defeat in 1992. Neil Kinnock was replaced as leader by John Smith, another cautious moderniser. Blair had something like a premonition of John Smith's early death and his accession to the leadership, both of which events came to pass in mid-1994. When he was eventually raised to the premiership in 1997 in an atmosphere of hysterical exuberance, Blair already knew that one day the political tide would turn against him just as it had turned so brutally against John Major.

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