It is too early to judge what lasting impact Tony Blair’s long tenure as prime minister might have on British politics. His enemies already dismiss him as a light-weight pugilist more interested in spin than serious policymaking. His friends praise him as a statesman who led the United Kingdom through a difficult decade of change.
What is certain is that Tony Blair is one of those all too rare politicians ready to take a risk in pursuit of their goals. This is why his 11-year long premiership was an interesting period in British politics. And this is why his book, A Journey, makes a fascinating read.
In reading A Journey, one should not look for explosive revelations regarding major policy issues. No prime minister would spill the beans so soon after leaving office. One should not look for intimations of a personal kind either. After all, Tony Blair, his belated conversion to Catholicism notwithstanding, is no Saint Augustine.
With these caveats in mind, reading A Journey could be a rewarding exercise. In what one could describe as an impressionistic style, it provides a deep insight into contemporary British politics and one of its most talented practitioners in recent times.
Blair’s trajectory is an exceptional one. He is the first British politician to become prime minister without any previous experience of government. He is also one of only two British prime ministers to win three consecutive general elections (The other one was Margaret Thatcher). Of the nine post-war Labour Party leaders, only three, Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Blair won general elections. Both Attlee and Wilson ended up also losing a general election. Blair never did.
Historians might decide that Blair’s principal contribution was to transform Labour from a party of declining trade unions, with a Marxist hangover, into a modern European-style social democratic outfit. Blair succeeded in imposing reforms first evoked by Hugh Gaitskell in the late 1950s.
Blair also freed the party from an absurd sentimental attachment to unilateral disarmament, and renewed its unequivocal support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). After all, Labour’s great Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin had been one of NATO’s original architects.
Under Blair’s leadership, almost a century of ideological war in British politics came to an end, leading, in its place, towards a debate on the pragmatic means of managing a market economy in the best interest of the majority.
Many of Blair’s enemies claim that he was nothing but a cynical politician with no firm conviction. This is not the impression that one forms after reading A Journey.
Blair says he did what he did because he believed it was right. And there is no reason not to believe him. For example, what cynical interest might anyone have had in sending British troops to restore a democratically-elected President in Sierra Leone? And why should a British prime minister take the lead in persuading the European Union and NATO to intervene militarily in Kosovo to save its Muslim majority from being massacred by the Serbs?
A similar question could be asked about Blair’s decision, possibly the most controversial in his career, to join the 34-nation US-led coalition that liberated Iraq from almost 30 years of savage tyranny.
Blair could have easily stayed out of the Iraq war. In fact, the then US President George W Bush had told Blair that Washington would ‘understand’ London’s decision not to join the coalition. There was a precedent. In 1964, Harold Wilson, the then Labour prime minister, had declined an American invitation to join the war in Vietnam. Convinced that the Ba’athist regime was evil, Blair, however, had no qualms about helping topple Saddam Hussein.
Nostalgia for Saddam Hussein may still be strong in some circles of the chattering classes. Blair, however, has no regrets about British participation in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Blair’s refusal to give any concessions to fashionable clichés is underlined with the tribute he pays to George W Bush, the quintessential hate-figure for many self-righteous pundits across the globe. Blair praises Bush as a sincere man and a true idealist dedicated to do what he could against brutal dictators in the so-called developing countries.
Blair is surprisingly forthright in his assertion that the Islamic Republic in Iran is the principal cause of instability and terror in many countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan. He also implies that, had he remained at 10 Downing Street, he would have advocated a concerted Western policy to contain and roll back the Khomeinist regime in Tehran. He even evokes the possibility of taking military action to prevent the Khomeinists from obtaining nuclear weapons.
In the past few days, the British media has focused on the part of the book that deals with the complicated relationship between Blair and his Chancellor of the Exchequer and ultimate successor Gordon Brown. Here, there is no sign of Blair’s Christian charity. Blair claims that Brown was a control freak and plotter with ‘ zero emotional sentiment’. Since there is no independent evidence to confirm such a sobriquet, one could think that Blair is venting years of accumulated anger against a colleague and rival who often made life difficult for him.
Not a formal memoir, A Journey, could be read as a thriller superimposed upon a premier in British politics.