Sunday, 5 September 2010

A Journey, Tony Blair - Part 3

IV

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.


V

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 Рdissembling 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 actualit̩. 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.