Will next chapter in Blair's story tell us anything we didn't already know?
His long-awaited book – out tomorrow – is set to follow an age-old template. Promise everything, reveal very little
Tuesday 31 August 2010
When winston Churchill remarked that "history will be kind to me for I intend to write it", he spoke for the 11 former inhabitants of Number 10 who have published their memoirs before and since. The contribution of the 12th, Tony Blair, will come tomorrow. He can only hope that history will be kinder to him than his contemporary critics, few of whom will have their minds changed either way by the TB version of his decade in power.
Mr Blair may have had the assistance of talented editors, but Churchill's words remain the only ones remotely capable of standing on their merits as Eng Lit, especially the ripping yarns from his time as a correspondent in the Boer War. Then again, Churchill was the only PM to have been a journalist (with the exception of Ted Heath's brief, and bizarre, time as news editor of the Church Times).
Mr Blair's book is already being talked of in terms of its relevance to the next Labour leader; but at least he didn't "spit on the deck" as James Callaghan once put it when his immediate successor took over. Whereas the Thatcher book landed like a howitzer shell in the middle of John Major's trench warfare with his Eurosceptics in the early 1990s, and helped to destabilise his premiership, Mr Blair's take on Gordon Brown can do either man little damage now.
Like all politicians, Mr Brown will make straight for the index and references to himself before turning to the rest of A Journey. Let us hope he does not endure the same mortification that John Major must have when he found "Major, J ... Suitability to succeed MT" at the back of The Downing Street Years.
Few political memoirs tell the whole truth about everything, and neither will Mr Blair's, especially about Iraq. Anthony Eden did not give anything like a full account of Suez (despite a £1m newspaper advance to spill the beans); Margaret Thatcher avoided embarrassments such as the Westland and Spycatcher affairs; HH Asquith was evidently so regretful about opposing votes for women that he forgot the whole episode in his writings.
All very understandable. But for a group who have won the ultimate prize, the ex-PMs are surprisingly ungenerous about the colleagues they eclipsed: Wilson being sarcastic about George Brown's drinking; Thatcher laying into the vanity of Heseltine; and no one has a good word to say about Enoch Powell. Score-settling, a partial version of the truth and a few good anecdotes is the standard ex-PM package. Like the infamous Iraq "dodgy dossier", these memoirs are a case for the defence put together as a clever barrister would. It would thus be a shock if Mr Blair strayed too far from the template.
The view from No 10: one hundred years of memoirs
Years in power 1997-2007
Title(s) A Journey.
Published (first volume) 2010, three years after leaving No 10.
Made Around £4.6m, donated to the British Legion.
Choice quotes Whatever he says about Gordon, Peter, Cherie, Alistair...
Revelations What he really thought about Gordon.
Notable omissions Carole Caplin and all that.
Critical reception Likely to be mixed
Rating Like his political soul-mate Bill Clinton's memoir, could be colossally dull.
Years in power 1990-1997
Title(s) John Major: The Autobiography.
Published (first volume) 1999; two years after leaving No 10.
Made About £600,000.
Choice quotes "I shall regret always that I rarely found my own authentic voice in politics. I was too safe too often. Too defensive. Too reactive."
Revelations Affair with older woman as a young man in Brixton.
Notable omissions Affair with Edwina Currie.
Critical reception "Compelling! A classic of holding the reader's attention which many fiction writers might envy." (Roy Jenkins)
Seen from today Cameron is heir to Major's centrist Toryism.
Years in power 1979-1990
Title(s) The Path To Power; The Downing Street Years.
Published (first volume) 1993; three years after leaving No 10.
Made £3m (£4.6m in today's terms).
Choice quotes "Michael Heseltine's sense of priorities was gravely distorted by his personal ambitions and political obsessions." "More than 40 years later I know that my decision to say yes to Denis was one of the best I ever made."
Index entry "Major, John ... suitability as successor to MT".
Revelations Few. Admitted just one mistake: the failure to give universities more freedom.
Notable omissions Spycatcher affair; not much on the Westland crisis or her mother, Beatrice.
Critical reception "It comes as no surprise to find her autobiography is shot through with malice, contempt, rage and hatred like no political memoir since – well, Mein Kampf – to which it bears more than a passing resemblance." (Robert Harris)
Seen from today Still a definitive account, despite the cattiness.
Years in power 1976-79
Title(s) Time and Chance.
Published (first volume) 1987, eight years after leaving No 10.
Made Not known.
Choice quotes "There is no better test of the character of a man than where he stands on the issues raised in the Beveridge Report". Fell in love with the 16-year-old Audrey in 1929: "I felt she was quite unlike anyone I had ever met before. I still think so."
Revelations Won a prize for biblical knowledge aged nine.
Notable omissions Relationship with the banker Sir Julian Hodge.
Critical reception "Time and Chance describes, with usual frankness, the terrors as well as the triumphs, the disappointments no less than the delights, of over 20 years at the top of politics." (Roy Hattersley)
Seen from today Has done little to rehabilitate the reputation of Lord Callaghan's government.
Years in power 1970-1974
Title(s) The Course of My Life: The Autobiography of Edward Heath.
Published (first volume) 1998, 24 years after leaving No 10.
Made Not as much as an aborted first effort, for which Weidenfeld and Nicholson paid a substantial advance, which had to be repaid. Hodder and Stoughton paid less.
Choice quotes On his mother: "She was a wonderful woman: my lasting memory is of her beauty and calmness. She never failed us." "Over a wide field the Conservative government of 1970-74 has now been fully justified."
Revelations Nothing left, two decades after he left office.
Notable omissions His sex life, if any; how he got the money for the yachts.
Critical reception "You learn little of what made him the way he is, which is a pity, for his is a remarkable life-story." (Michael Cockerell)
Seen from today Account of the economic successes of his government comically attempts to turn history on its head. Working title was "The Last Laugh".
Years in power 1964–70, 1974-76
Title(s) The Labour Government, 1964-70: A Personal Record; Final Term; The Making of a Prime Minister 1916-64.
Published (first volume) 1971, just one year after leaving No 10.
Made £250,000 (£2.9m in today's terms).
Choice quotes "I was taking a risk with George Brown. It was not that he drank more than anyone else but that he could not hold it." On his future wife: "I told Mary I was going to become an MP and, indeed, PM. Had she believed this it would have been the end of a promising romance."
Revelations Midnight car drive with Charles de Gaulle to try to secure British entry into Europe.
Notable omissions Alleged secret service plots to remove him; Marcia Falkender's influence.
Critical reception "Why did a man who seemed to promise so much achieve so little?" (Malcolm Rutherford)
Seen from today Like viewing an extinct volcano: once passionately contested issues such as trade union power, Rhodesia and the defence of sterling seem hopelessly antique.
Name Sir Alec Douglas-Home
Years in power 1963-1964
Title(s) The Way The Wind Blows
Published (first volume) 1976, 12 years after leaving No 10.
Made Not known.
Choice quotes On meeting Hitler: "I noticed that his arms swung low, almost to his knees. It gave him a curiously animal appearance." "Enoch Powell had a fine mind which I flattered myself I could have harnessed to constructive policies. Perhaps I was wrong".
Revelations Married the daughter of his headmaster at Eton. "We became engaged, having been to Epsom together and won the Tote double."
Notable omissions The Suez affair. How he won the Tory leadership and became PM in 1963. No photo of him with Neville Chamberlain.
Critical reception Mostly favourable, especially the bits about fishing.
Seen from today Forgotten memoir by a forgotten PM.
Years in power 1957-1963
Title(s) Winds of Change. The Blast of War. Tides of Fortune. Riding the Storm. Pointing the Way. At the End of the Day. (six volumes)
Published (first volume) 1966, three years after leaving No 10.
Made Not known.
Choice quotes "I was a sort of son to Ike, and it was the other way round with Kennedy."
Revelations Total ignorance of John Profumo's dangerous liaisons.
Notable omissions Suez; infidelity of his wife Lady Dorothy, with fellow Tory MP Bob Boothby.
Critical reception Like the man himself, ambiguous.
Seen from today More style than substance.
Sir Anthony Eden
Years in power 1955-1957
Title(s) Full Circle (three volumes).
Published (first volume) 1960 three years after leaving office.
Made £100,000 (£1.7m today)
Choice quotes "Although [in 1937] we might still hope to prevent the divisions of Europe into Fascist and anti-Fascist camps, our real affinities and interests, strategic as well as political, lay with France, a fact which some of my colleagues were most reluctant to realise."
Notable omissions A truthful, full account of the Suez affair, which destroyed his premiership.
Critical reception Poor. "Anthony's father was a mad baronet and his mother a very beautiful woman. That's Anthony – half mad baronet, half beautiful woman." (R A Butler)
Seen from today Uncomfortable parallels with Blair: a long and distinguished career overshadowed by foreign policy disaster.
Years in power 1945-1951
Title(s) As It Happened.
Published (first volume):
Made Not known.
Choice quotes Becoming Prime Minister of first majority Labour government: "quite an exciting day". On Ramsay MacDonald: "His habit of telling me the poor opinion he had of many of his Cabinet colleagues made an unpleasant impression."
Revelations Bad taste joke about shooting Germans as big game.
Notable omissions Account of the Second World War, during which he was deputy Prime Minister merits just 30 pages.
Critical reception "Not very good." (The author)
Seen from today Understated, as ever.
Years in power 1940-1945; 1951-1955
Title(s) My Early Life; The Second World War (six volumes);
Published (first volume) My Early Life came out in 1930, The Second World War between 1948, three years after leaving No 10, and 1953.
Made Not known.
Choice quotes "Events were soon to arise ... which were to absorb my thoughts and energies until 1908, when I married and lived happily ever after." On Poles and Poland: "Ingratitude over the centuries has led them through measureless suffering" and "too often led by the vilest of the vile".
Revelations Escaping from a Boer PoW camp and being wanted "dead or alive" with a price of £25 on his head.
Notable omissions Ultra code-breaking story.
Critical reception No less than the Nobel Prize in Literature 1953, "for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values".
Seen from today My Early Life is the only political memoir to have been made into a biopic, Young Winston, for his birth centenary in 1974.
David Lloyd George
Years in Power 1916-1922
Title(s) War Memoirs.
Published (first volume) 1933, 11 years after leaving No 10.
Made £90,000 (£3m today).
Choice quotes On the generals: "They were quite incapable of looking beyond and around or even through the struggle just in front of them". "The naked truth about war as I saw it from the conning tower at Downing Street."
Revelations How awful the British commander, General Haig, was: "I never concealed from myself or my colleagues that I thought Sir Douglas Haig was intellectually and temperamentally unequal to the command of an army of millions fighting battles on fields which were invisible to any commander."
Notable omissions Romantic diversions.
Critical reception Successfully settled old scores with the generals.
Seen from today Like the Great War – a long muddy slog.
Herbert Henry Asquith
Years in power 1908-1916
Title(s) Fifty Years in Parliament (two volumes) and Memories and Recollections (two volumes)
Published (first volume) 1926, 10 years after leaving No 10.
Made Not known.
Choice quotes "The office of Prime Minister is what its holder chooses and is able to make of it".
Revelations That Lloyd George, great war leader was "all for peace" in 1914.
Notable omissions Drink and his struggle to deny women the vote.
Critical reception His love letters to Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby, written at the Cabinet table as the nation hurtled towards war and published much later, were better received.
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