Inside the mind of Tony Blair

Fear seemed to be at the heart of many of the former PM's decisions, his new memoir reveals

Tony Blair's 'A Journey' is a revelatory book in many ways, offering a glimpse into the mind of a political leader during tumultuous times. Of course, it is a document designed for history, which, Blair hopes, will provide some personal context to much of the political decision-making during his time in office. But it is much more than that; it is sufficiently candid and detailed to give us some insight into the man's underlying psychology, and sometimes it is the smallest detail that can be the most interesting.

One of the principal drivers behind Tony Blair, the man and the politician, seems to be fear. It is without doubt the emotion mentioned most often in the book. Thus, Blair writes, "I didn't want to fight Gordon in a leadership contest. There was a rational explanation to this: such a fight required us to differentiate, and inevitably he would pitch to the left of me... If I am honest, there was another reason I did not want a head-to-head contest: I was scared of the unpleasantness, the possible brutality of it, the sadness, actually, of two friends becoming foes." Or, "PMQs was the most nerve-racking, discombobulating, nail-biting, bowel-moving, terror-inspiring, courage-draining experience in my prime ministerial life, without question." Or, in describing how he felt after John Smith's death: "I kept a strong grip on myself, but the anxiety showed... I would wake in the morning with the hair on the back of my head damp with sweat. What I could control when awake was overpowering in sleep." And even at the very start of the book, "On 2 May 1997, I walked into Downing Street as prime minister for the first time. I had never held office... my predominant feeling was fear."

A lot of the book is directly or indirectly about how Blair deals with his fears, how fear drove him to make certain decisions rather than others, and how he learned to mask his fear. In the case of PMQs, he says that people always commented that he looked very relaxed, but in reality, he says, "I never relaxed for a moment".

Blair became a master at masking his true emotional state, hiding his terror with that masking smile. Psychologists have spent many years distinguishing genuine smiles from masking smiles. Masking smiles are asymmetric on the face and fade abruptly as they leave the face, exposing the real emotion underneath. Gordon Brown often tried to cover his negative emotion with a masking smile, but every time the smile fell off his face you could read his true emotions of impatience and irritation clearly. Blair's great art was masking his fear and terror with a smile that seemed all too genuine.

But his mastery of body language does not stop there. He comments that he and Princess Diana "were both, in our ways, manipulative people, perceiving quickly the emotions of others and able instinctively to play with them". Throughout the book, he describes how he uses his understanding of body language to his advantage. He writes, "A great belief of mine is that when you are negotiating with someone, the first thing is to set the atmosphere at ease; signify a little glimmer of human feeling; exchange a few pleasantries; and above all start by saying something utterly uncontroversial with which disagreement is impossible. Get the other person's head nodding. It's that nod which establishes rapport, and which is an early, tiny sign that all is not lost. I might say: 'I know you feel strongly about this.' Well, of course they do; that's why there's a dispute; and there would be a nod."

This is quite clever psychology, because it actually does work and Blair has it to a T, except, it turns out, when he tried it on Breandan MacCionnaith, the leader of the Garvaghy Road Residents' Association, briefly famous during the stand-off at Drumcree. In Blair's description, MacCionnaith was "completely and totally nodless". "If I said to him, 'I know you feel strongly about this,' he would say, 'I don't feel more strongly about this than anything else'." Blair had met his match; his body-language ploys were being thrown back in his face.

Dealing with fear, masking it and its emergence as a principal driver, is one of the dominant psychological themes of the book. Because Blair has high emotional intelligence and a perceptive eye for his own non-verbal performances (it is almost as if he is his own audience much of the time, standing back and admiring his own polished performance in the way that some narcissists do), he can master the use of non-verbal signals in negotiation. Equally, it makes him strongly critical of people who lack such skills, like Gordon Brown, whom he describes as having "no instinct at the human, gut level" and "emotional intelligence, zero".

There is something else I find very telling in the book: Blair's memories of childhood. I was particularly struck by his description of an event that happened in the playground when he was about 10 years old. He says that it was in this very situation that he first learned about courage and fear. He says that he can recall "the exact moment" when he got into a fight with a bully outside the gates of the Chorister School, Durham. This event would seem to be what psychologists call "a flashbulb memory". A flashbulb memory is a vivid and detailed memory that does not fade with time, unlike all other memories. It is full of clear images etched for all time on to the brain. These are hardwired memories, designed for human survival and shaped by evolution. These are the kinds of enduring and stable memories that you might have if you had ever been in a near-fatal car accident or escaped a bomb blast in Afghanistan, for example. Blair has a flashbulb memory from childhood. He remembers all of the events, exactly where it took place and what was said in great detail. He writes: "Silly, isn't it, to recall that tiny moment of character development after all these years."

Flashbulb memories are triggered by two of the most primitive parts of the human brain, the reticular formation, which responds to surprise, and the amygdala, which responds to strong emotionality. The extraordinary thing about Tony Blair's flashbulb memory is that nothing much actually happened. So when the bully came upon the young Blair unexpectedly, "I turned on him and told him I would hit him if he didn't stop. He could tell I meant it, because I did and my eyes would have shown it – so he stopped." So in this flashbulb memory all that really happened was that the bully was stopped dead in his tracks. Nobody got badly beaten; no one was kicked and stamped upon; few punches, if any, were thrown. Blair's understanding of the situation is that it taught him something about courage, but from a psychology point of view it tells you more about the intense fear that the young Blair must have felt at that moment, plus the fact that he was surprised at his own actions in standing up to the bully. He didn't have to fight back physically, but he found a way of dealing with his own fear.

The point about flashbulb memories, of course, is that, because of the way they have been encoded by the brain, they stay vivid for ever. And it just so happens that, because they are so accessible, we rate vivid memories, and events that are easy to visualise, as more common than events that are hard to visualise. As a consequence of this, perhaps threat generally was perceived as more prevalent in Tony Blair's subsequent life – in the same way that those who have survived bad car crashes, and have the resulting flashbulb memory, view the roads as more dangerous places than those who have not had the same experiences. Perhaps, his firm response (that look), directly encoded in the brain, was from then on set as the natural associative response to any threat.

It would be fascinating to know if this bit of "character development" had not happened, and if this flashbulb memory had not been laid down, how Tony Blair would have dealt with all the other threats and bullies (he perceived) in the world along the way, and whether the world today would be a much more dangerous or a much safer place, as a consequence.

Geoffrey Beattie is Professor of Psychology at the University of Manchester

Opinions: 'A Journey' – The verdicts

"One of the most surprising aspects was the revelation that Blair was so wounded when Sir John Chilcot [during the inquiry into the Iraq war] asked him if he had any expression of regret – he said he did not. It seems that it's been eating away at him. That section of his book reveals a man of no real confidence, gnawed away by his own insecurities."

Professor Philippe Sands, human rights lawyer and author

"He's twisting in the wind of his own actions. He can never say he made a mistake [over Iraq] because the loss of life was so extreme. My experience with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa showed me that very few who carried out killings were able to accept what they'd done, because to understand what you've done is to live with it, and it's such a burden."

Gillian Slovo, novelist and daughter of Joe Slovo, leader of the South African Communist Party during apartheid

"It strikes me that a man who took us to war to get rid of a leader he didn't like was prepared to leave this country in the hands of a man he didn't think should be its leader."

Sue Smith, mother of Private Phillip Hewett who died in Iraq

"This stuff about Gordon Brown losing the election – what rubbish. The reason Labour lost is because everyone was so disgusted by Iraq. He seems totally uncontrite."

Katharine Hamnett, fashion designer

"He's honest about the unseemly way he went about attempting to take over from John Smith. At the time it almost seemed like a coup in the Labour Party, and that's what it was."

Jeremy Hardy, comedian

"I was shocked that he regrets bringing in the Freedom of Information Act, one of the few progressive measures for which he deserves to be praised."

George Monbiot, environmentalist and founder of the Arrest Blair campaign

"What he said about the Queen has such unpleasant connotations. If he learnt things about her through one-to-ones, then he should have kept that to himself. It is sacrosanct and absolutely confidential."

Dr Richard Taylor, former Independent MP

"I'm surprised he's so warm about [former American president George] Bush. Blair naively went in with America. He slipped into the pocket of Bush, which is astonishing considering they're from two different political platforms."

Lord Ramsbotham, retired general and former chief inspector of prisons

"He couldn't just rerun Hansard for his autobiography; he had to spice it up, and admitting he had a few glasses of wine at the end of the day does that."

Ann Cryer, former Labour MP

"I was most surprised about the revelations about drink. He speaks with a particular honesty on that and really little else."

Anthony Seldon, Tony Blair's biographer and master of Wellington College

"He's sorry for the loss of life caused by the war in Iraq, but he's not sorry for starting the war that led to the loss of life."

Graham Knight, father of Ben Knight who died in Afghanistan in 2006

"The most surprising thing is that it is already being remaindered for half price at WH Smith in Paddington Station. It confirms that Blair was more show than substance."

Christopher Monckton, deputy leader, Ukip

"I think it's about the self-justification of a highly disturbed individual who alters the world to fit his world-view."

Alexei Sayle, comedian and author

"Why's he talking about private matters? He's obviously got a very unhappy sex life if he has to bring back all the memories. If that's the problem, he has the money to get some therapy, but please don't tell us about it."

Tessa Sanderson, former Olympic athlete

"I don't think he will surprise anyone; what he will be remembered for is the war and it's something that he can't escape from."

Tony Benn, former Labour cabinet minister

Interviews by Andrew Johnson, Pavan Amara, Daniel Read and Rachel Shields

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