Turning the page on Blair: What new light do Tony Blair's memoirs throw on his time in power?
From first to last, he was a politician who divided opinion. Here, three writers offer their perspectives on a man of many parts
Thursday 02 September 2010
The politician by Peter Mandelson
I greet Tony Blair's book with a large amount of relief. When I published The Third Man in July some people, including a few close to him, said that I was too revelatory or gossipy, almost self-indulgent. Now it appears my sin was to say what I did prematurely.
Reporting of Blair's book, initially, is bound to focus on the Blair-Brown relationship. This was indeed "difficult", as Blair states, and it put a brake on the full extent of the public-service reforms Blair desired. It blunted the Government's achievements, but did not remove them.
Our legacy, among other things, is a real improvement in measured public-service delivery and the creation of a performance culture in the public sector – notably in the health service but also in schools – that hopefully the Coalition Government will build on, rather than destroy through mindless and swingeing spending cuts.
It is easy for outsiders including me – only one step removed from their relationship – to argue that Blair should have grasped the nettle and moved Brown from the Treasury after the first term. In The Third Man, I argue that Blair could and should have done this. Blair could have become master of his own government; and Brown, through this shock therapy, could have come to his senses and realised that he was destroying his own future, as well as some of Blair's legacy, by carrying on in his opposition to the Prime Minister.
But, when it came to it, Blair thought that his government would be weakened by shuffling Brown to the Foreign Office – both by losing a talented chancellor and through the risk of destabilising the Cabinet by further disgruntling Brown. The truth, too, is that Blair never felt he had sufficient strength in the party to take on Brown. He was, after all, an "outsider" to Labour.
This seems a rather incredible thing to say in the light of the enormous electoral success he brought to Labour, unparalleled in the party's history. Yet Blair – and this was a key to his success – was always seen by the public as "not entirely Labour". Perhaps this is difficult for others in the party, including some sympathetic media commentators, to come to terms with. But in a political era in which ideological purity is discounted, and automatic party loyalty has faded among voters, it is vital for a political leader to be seen as somewhat above party politics, capable of transcending them to play a national role.
This goes to the heart of what I believe is the lesson of Blair's memoir. We lost in 2010 not because after 13 years in office change was inevitable, but because we appeared to voters to have lost our way in the final years of government.
We lost not because we were New Labour, as most of the current leadership contenders say, but because we were insufficiently so. When left to his own judgement, Blair gave a consistent sense of New Labour reform and direction, and that he was a leader for all the country, including those in professions and the more affluent, and that he was a practical conviction politician rather than a theorist tied to Labour's past.
It is pure folly for today's leadership contenders not to learn from him, and it is why I argue that to try and create a pre-New Labour future for the party will simply end in electoral defeat.
Lord Mandelson was the MP for Hartlepool from 1992 to 2004 and served in a number of Cabinet positions under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown
The man by Mary Ann Sieghart
There have been plenty of accounts... of the history of my 10 years as Prime Minister," writes Tony Blair. "There is only one person who can write an account of what it is like to be the human being at the centre of that history, and that's me." So what sort of human being emerges from the 700-odd pages of this book?
The most striking facet is his candour. I have read many a prime ministerial memoir and none of the other authors has been as self-deprecating, as willing to admit mistakes and to tell jokes against themselves. The Blair memoir is full of phrases such as, "only a complete ingénu or total clot – i.e. me..." and "I did lack courage". You can hardly imagine Margaret Thatcher writing that.
Blair spares himself little. In describing his feelings about wanting to stand down before his third election, he writes: "I had a nagging doubt that part of it was just cowardice; part of it was wanting to be free of the burden, of the pain it brings, of the sometimes near-intolerable weight of responsibility. Did I want to go for unselfish reasons, or for reasons that were in fact utterly selfish?" And he has no qualms about telling stories against himself.There is a hilarious account of the technophobic Prime Minister meeting Bill Gates: "I got all my terminology muddled up and, to the horror of David Miliband and the young "beautiful people" in the office, asked Bill how his mainframe was or something like that – a question that produced consternation mixed with giggling from the staff, and a curious gulping sound from Bill."
The account of Millennium night had me laughing out loud, particularly his growing dread that one of the trapeze artists, who had no safety nets, would crash to the ground and flatten the Queen. A close second is the story of John Prescott storming into the Cabinet room shouting, "Where's fooking Menzies?" and going on his hands and knees to search under the Cabinet table, convinced that Ming Campbell had been spirited in as part of an underhand attempt to realign the Left.
The book will infuriate Blair's critics, not least because of his insistence, still, that he was right about Iraq. To those who distrust him it will provide ammunition, for he acknowledges his own slipperiness. In the Northern Ireland negotiations, he admits to "stretching the truth, I fear, on occasions past breaking point", a technique he then describes as part of being "nimble, flexible and innovative". Hmm... And he declares that "politicians are obliged from time to time to conceal the full truth, to bend it and even distort it, where the interests of the bigger strategic goal demand it be done".
But his political insights and analysis are as acute as ever. In the miasma of irrational hate that surrounds Blair, it is easily forgotten what a clever politician he was. He is also brimming with emotional intelligence – what a contrast to his successor – and paints delicious pen portraits of many of the people he comes across.
Mostly, though, what comes across is his charm. It is precisely his self-awareness, his willingness to admit his faults, that is endearing in a modern politician. Of Princess Diana, he writes, "We were both in our ways manipulative people, perceiving quickly the emotions of others and able instinctively to play with them." And on convincing Gordon Brown not to stand against him in 1994: "I consciously exerted every last impulse of charm and affection, not just persuading but wooing."
Of course, admitting that you are manipulative is, in its own way, manipulative. Readers will either find it refreshing or ghastly. And whether they choose to allow themselves to be charmed by the candour or repelled by it will surely depend on how they felt about Blair the man in the first place.
The war leader by John Kampfner
To understand Tony Blair and Iraq, you should cast your mind back not to the events of 9/11 but to an occasion that hit the headlines for barely one day. In May 1999, the then Prime Minister travelled to the German city of Aachen, where the Charlemagne award for European statesmanship was bestowed on him.
It is easy to forget the respect in which he was held. Prior to Iraq, Blair's use of military power for "humanitarian ends" met strong support around the world – from Operation Desert Fox to Sierra Leone, which helped remove a vicious regime, to Kosovo, which (for all the errors) helped to dislodge Slobodan Milosevic. Even the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was deemed necessary by most.
The appearance of success bred a hubris to which Blair succumbed. It underlay his decision to join George W Bush in their Manichean misadventure in 2003. Neither Prime Minister nor President believed anyone credible would stand in their way against Saddam; they expected a hero's welcome. As a result, their preparations for the occupation were woeful – a point Blair has finally conceded by writing of "the nightmare that unfolded". It is no surprise that at every stage he has refused to express regret for the invasion itself. He would, his lawyers have advised him, have left himself open to potential legal suits at home and abroad.
If hubris provides part of the answer, shallowness and under-confidence provide the rest. Blair was more of a pre-millennium politician, a Diana-style, feel-good leader: an emoter. Thus he deployed the "if only you knew what I knew" in the pre-war phase. As the WMDs eluded him, he switched to "Saddam was a bad man". He then resorted to "I did what I thought was right" – a line that the former director of public prosecutions, Lord Macdonald, astutely punctured as pure narcissism. Now he has settled on the more plaintive: "I have often reflected as to whether I was wrong. I ask you to reflect as to whether I may have been right."
Blair explains this most complex of foreign-policy decisions in terms of feelings. Writing about the anger felt by families of servicemen killed in combat, he asks: "Do they really suppose I don't care, don't feel, don't regret with every fibre of my being the loss of those who died?" His critics needlessly play him at his emotional game. Did he knowingly lie or merely convince himself and those around him to stretch the facts? Ultimately it does not matter. Is he a war criminal? Such a facile question denotes moral equivalence with the likes of Milosevic or Liberia's Charles Taylor. Such language only encourages Blair's tiny army of defenders – Mormon-style devotees – to denounce his mainstream critics in ever more desperate language. I wanted to laugh when one recently denounced me during a BBC radio discussion as a "Saddamite".
No, the best way to analyse Blair and Iraq is to stick coldly to the facts. This war, as he now admits, gave al-Qa'ida and Iran a foothold in that country. It provided a pretext, however crazed, for home-grown terrorism in the UK. It undermined British credibility around the world, particularly in the Middle East. This war all but destroyed the notion of military intervention as a last resort in areas of egregious human rights abuses. And that is not even to mention the hideous death toll. Perhaps the only comfort is that publication of Blair's memoir coincided with President Obama's announcement of the end of combat operations in Iraq.
John Kampfner is a former editor of 'The New Statesman' and the author of 'Blair's Wars' and 'Freedom For Sale'
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