Bring back the sound bites

New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country By Tony Blair Fourth Estate, pounds 8.99
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The Independent Online
You don't get many books of speeches published. Not when you're alive, anyway. Until very recently the only publisher who would touch the collected congress and tractor factory outpourings of extant politicians was Robert Maxwell. Who can forget Pergamon Press editions of the wit and wisdom of Nicolae Ceausescu, or Les tres riches heures de Konstantin Chernenko? British leaders, however, have desisted in the main from such stunts.

But sometimes a chap just needs to get his message across, even if he's not dead. John Redwood (undead), challenging hard for the temporarily unvacant position of leader of the Conservative Party, did it in the spring. And this week it is Tony Blair's turn. His New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country is 321 pages long and composed of virtually everything that Tone has said or written anywhere in the last three years.

The reason behind the book's publication is not hard to fathom; Mr Blair has often been accused by detractors and lazy journalists of being a "sound- bite" politician. This thick volume effectively refutes any such allegation, as TB reflects at great length about tax, community, education, health, Europe, socialism (oh, yes, Kim Howells, that's in there too) and much else besides. Indeed, by the end of it one is left positively lusting after sound-bites.

And jokes. It is astonishing that a man can cover so much verbal territory so fast, without ever feeling obliged to stop, take a rest, have a giggle and then march on. Mr Blair is, after all, a chap of the Monty Python and Rowan Atkinson generation, yet the speeches and articles here read like one interminable "Thought For The Day", as delivered by a very intelligent and incredibly serious bishop. Where Neil Kinnock was famed for adding ad libs and flights of last-minute oratory to everything (including telephone orders for delivery pizzas), his successor seems to go through his own texts carefully taking anything remotely pleasurable out.

But then Mr Blair does not lay equal claim to all emotions and feelings. He probably does not have much room; for when he is not being "passionate", he is being "blunt". Sometimes he is both together. Hippos making love in a flint pit generate less blunt passion than does Mr Blair over education.

If, however, you stay the course (and make allowances for the otiose language of speeches and articles for the Daily Mail), then a big picture does emerge. And it isn't a bad one; for it is of a man who wants to do things better, who wants a more thoughtful government, an essentially liberal man (read the speech on equalising the age of consent), who thinks we could take a bit more care of each other - a crusader for the Church Technocratic, not the Church Militant.

The dust-cover says "Tony Blair has nothing to hide". It's true; take my word for it. Then you won't have to buy the book.