I don’t ofter read political memoirs – Tony Blair’s book A Journey being only the second one I have read if you include Nelson Mandela’s A Long Walk to Freedom, which, given Mandela’s extraordinary life is not the run of the mill political memoir. Blair’s time in office coincided with the bulk of my twenties, which I think is when you really start to see and understand the world and work out who you are. There were also several huge world events that he had to lead through, such as 9/11, the death of Princess Diana, the London Tube bombings and of course the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so it was clearly a challenging time for leadership and that is why I wanted to read the book.
In no particular order, here are my thoughts.
1. Overall, it is an interesting read giving his inside perspective on the events as he saw them and what it was like to lead through them. I found particularly interesting the chapters on the Northern Ireland peace deal, Diana’s death and the week in which there was the G8, the 7/7 London bombings, and the successful Olympic Bid announcement. There are plenty of little asides which lighten the mood. For example, the day after Diana’s funeral Tony and his family went up to Balmoral to spend a weekend with the Queen and Royal Family – something that all prime ministers do on the first weekend in September. Blair describes the scene on Sunday afternoon when Prince Phillip always hosts a barbecue. That is, he cooks – there are no servants that day – and afterwards the Queen goes around collecting the dirty plates and puts on her rubber gloves to do the washing up.
The Royals cook, and serve the guests. They do the washing up. you think I’m joking , but I’m not. They put the gloves on and stick their hands in the sink. You sit there having eaten, the Queen asks if you’ve finished, she stacks the plates up and goes off to the sink.
There are a number of similar small amusing incidents scattered though the book including another story about Jacques Chirac being ribbed by the Japanese PM about some comments he made about English food during a dinner with the Queen at the G8 in 2005.
2. Blair describes his significant relationships with other members of the government throughout the book. For most people he spends a few paragraphs, maybe a page or two describing their strengths and weaknesses and what he liked and disliked about working with them. For Gordon Brown it is different. This relationship winds its way throughout and plays out like a tragic love story. Two young proteges, both elected to the Commons in the same year (in the wake of a disastrous election for the Labour party in 1983), first find a common bond. As they get work their way up the party, they are still good friends. When the leadership becomes available after John Smith’s death, the cracks start to show and by the end there is all out war with neither party really able to hear or listen to the other. As I said this story unfolds from almost the first page to the last and is a sad indication of how good friends can drift apart over small disagreements. (Of course, Blair writes it up as if it is always Gordon who doesn’t understand, but that is another point!)
3. Blair was the leader of the Labour Party for 13 years, and for ten of those, Prime Minister. It is obvious that he regards leadership as setting the direction and bringing the party with him. To be sure, leaders need to lead, to set the direction and give a sense of purpose, otherwise they end up being little more than managers. However, throughout the book Blair always speaks about his direction as being way out in front of the party with most struggling to understand, and he is always trying to persuade others to catch up with him and take his point of view. This happens on an international scale as well as national, and it only really bit back at him during and after the Iraq war. Unfortunately this gives him a slightly self-justifying tone, almost always believing that his position is the right one even up to the projection that if Gordon had stuck with the New Labour project he would have won the 2010 election. On this he may be right, but it did get a bit tiresome after 600 pages.
A quote from the chapter entitled ‘Departure’ about the handing over of power to Gordon Brown and the New Labour project:
It’s really hard to say all this, and I have thought long and hard about it. There’s nothing worse than ‘oh if he had listened to me’ rubbish, and so, after trying valiantly not to fall into self-justifying mode – a bane of political memoirs, I fear – it’s a pity I have. yet I look at those policy papers now – the work on social exclusion, on the use of social security budgets, on structural financial savings, on tax reform, on the next phases of crime, health and education reform – and I do think how different it would have been if we had done it.
4. Of course, the think that will define Blair’s premiership is the Iraq war. It was clear at the time (to me at least) that even if no one else agreed with him, he sincerely believed that going to war was the right thing to do. I’m not going to rehash all the arguments here, but just say that Blair devotes three or four chapters to the build up, combat, and aftermath of the Iraq war. I think he realises that most people reading still aren’t going to agree with him so he takes the tone – I know you’re not going to agree but these are the reasons I went and even had we known there were no WMD’s before the war it still would have been the right thing to do on a moral level. In this sense what he said was not a lot different (but a lot more detailed) than what Bush said in his recent interview promoting his memoirs.
To be honest, three or four chapters of this self-justification of Iraq, although interesting, was just too much. After these chapters I had to put the book down for a few days and read something lighter instead and I was relieved to pick up the book again and find the next chapter contained less self-justification, although of course it was still there, about the crazy week which included the G8, the Olympic bid announcement, and of course the London Tube bombings.
It’s an interesting read, not one I feel I need to read again, but one that makes sense of the man and what he was trying to do with his party and the country.