Taking a shine to Tony : BOOKS : POLITICS

TONY BLAIR: The Moderniser by Jon Sopel, Michael Joseph £15.99
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The Independent Culture
IF YOU didn't know that the first biography of Tony Blair to reach the shops was by a BBC political correspondent, you could probably work it out for yourself. Whenever there is a danger that he may express a strong opinion, the BBC spirit of impartiality takes over and Sopel inserts a careful qualifying clause so that no one can accuse him of bias.

For example, a slightly unfair portrait of Gordon Brown is used to explain Blair's ousting of the shadow chancellor as the natural leader of the Labour right. After the death of John Smith, Brown's "bright shooting star [started] to burn up in the earth's atmosphere", as Sopel has it, because he had become a "rent-a-quote politician" who "overdid the gloom" when he talked to the media. Brown was also "introspective and morose", and, as his supporters left him, took to (brace yourselves for this) "regularly cancelling lunch engagements". A suitable case for care in the community? Not quite. For Sopel assures us that in private: "Gordon Brown... is excellent company with a deep, resonating laugh that displays a sense of fun."

A similar pattern emerges in his treatment of Blair. About the only criticism of the Labour leader in 285 pages is the revelation that he powders his nose so it does not shine on television, and constantly checks his appearance. Ah, but don't jump to the hasty conclusion that Blair is all style and no substance, counsels Sopel. "Blair takes the view that good presentation is the servant of serious politics. For this reason he is self- conscious to the point of vanity, but it stops short of narcissism." The biographer even watches his back when mentioning the design of the Houses of Parliament: "The magnificent architectural edifice of the Palace of Westminster - or mock Gothic horror, depending on one's viewpoint - can be an awe-inspiring place," he notes judiciously.

But, of course, Sopel does have a bias. It is impossible to write a book on contemporary politics without a point of view, and Sopel's is simple: he thinks Tony Blair is marvellous. The Labour leader is variously described as modern, radical, charming, tough, full of grit and intellectually open. He is a deft and astute politician who simultaneously strikes the voters as a decent family man.

Now there is nothing wrong with admiring Tony Blair. In my rare moments of sweet temper, I don't think he's all bad myself. However, for most of this book Sopel accepts Blair's views on everything from the trade unions to the market economy. If he made his position explicit, he would have produced a better book, one which could convince sceptics. As it is, critical discussion is firmly avoided and a surface neutrality maintained.

Take the case of Blair's most famous sound-bite: the promise that Labour would be "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime". Blair began to discuss the need to stop being afraid of talking about values after the murder of James Bulger, "which was a hammer-blow against the sleeping conscience of the country". But children who kill are criminal oddities who appear every few years. Such rarities tell us as much about long-term trends in British society as the 1987 hurricane told us about long-term trends in the weather.

Nor is there any discussion of how Labour would handle complicated law and order issues. Blair's crime policy is left unexamined, as is the intellectual case behind his desire to abolish Clause Four and loosen Labour's links with the unions. Opponents of these are damned as "unreconstructed traditionalists" and "knee-jerk liberals", and that, pretty much, is that.

The uncritical approach makes this a slight book. Unintentionally, however, it also illuminates the problems and opportunities facing Labour. The party is preparing for power, but a reader of this biography, which was based on long interviews, is left with little idea of what Tony Blair would do if he won. This is not all Sopel's fault. He notes that to date the Labour modernisers have been defined by what they are against - over-mighty trade unions, huge programmes of renationalisation, penal rates of taxation. They have not defined what they are for, and this is becoming worrying. Unless the Labour leadership starts to think more about a future in office and less about aspects of the party's history and constitution it does not like, it may find that one victory is all it gets. A confused government unprepared for the gigantic task of tackling the consequences of the long Conservative rule of Britain could mean that Blair goes down in history as Britain's Bill Clinton.

On the first page is a revealing scene. Tony Blair has been invited to Buckingham Palace to be sworn on to the Privy Council. He participates in the absurd rituals of court and watches as everyone scuttles around moving sideways or backwards so they never turn their backs on Elizabeth II. "So that's how the English upper classes keep themselves entertained," Sopel reports him saying afterwards. "It was," continues the uncritical author, "a typical Blair comment: mildly irreverent, laughing slightly at convention, but stopping well short of causing offence." If Labour comes to power, mild irreverence will not get it very far. If it wants to remove the deeply rooted structures the Conservatives have built in the past 15 years, it will have to start causing offence.

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