Sunday, 5 September 2010

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.

Click here for Part 2