Leading article: Blair's flawed and self-serving analysis

Sunday 23 October 2011 04:37

Perhaps the strongest impression left by Tony Blair's memoirs is one of familiarity. From Iraq, to terrorism, to public service reform, to criminal justice, the former Prime Minister plays the same tunes we heard from him when he was in No 10.

On the invasion of Iraq, Mr Blair makes his assertion that he does not regret the removal of Saddam Hussein. On the terrorism threat, Mr Blair denies that our foreign policy plays any part in stoking extremism. He mounts the traditional populist defence of Labour's law and order agenda, arguing that illiberal measures such as Asbos and ID cards are favoured by the public.

There is regret over the ban on fox hunting and the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act. And for those fascinated by the New Labour soap opera there is some gossip. He confirms that his personal relations with Gordon Brown were indeed as dreadful as reported at the time. And Mr Blair reveals that he liked to unwind in the evening with a drink. But, ultimately, A Journey is unlikely to be a major influence on the historical debate about Mr Blair's legacy.

The sting of the book comes in the tail, when Mr Blair turns from his own record to that of his successor. He voices his "profound" disapproval of deficit spending. But deficit spending was what prevented the slump in Britain turning into something still worse. Mr Blair also displays his naïve economic views when he remarks: "I was sure we had done plenty of redistribution and needed to give some TLC [tender loving care] to our middle class". But inequality edged up over Mr Blair's time in office, despite the redistribution of his Chancellor.

On dealing with the deficits, Mr Blair says Labour should not have raised the top rate of income tax and, instead, put up VAT. But, as the recent analysis from the Institute for Fiscal Studies makes clear, this would have meant asking the least well-off to bear the greatest burden. Reading such views, it seems almost a blessing that Mr Blair was kept away from economic affairs by Mr Brown.

The timing of the publication is not helpful to the Labour Party. It is not just the resurrection of bitter internal splits that does damage, but the naked attempt by Mr Blair to exert influence. He claims that Labour lost the election because it "abandoned" New Labour. And it is obvious that he thinks David Miliband, the candidate most closely associated – however unfairly – with his own vision of where the party should position itself, ought to be its next leader.

The problem is that Mr Blair offers a flawed and self-serving analysis of what went wrong for Labour at the last election. He seems to be in denial about the extent to which his own popularity was in decline before he left office in 2007. Those aspects of Labour that were repudiated at the election – the contempt for civil liberties, the slapdash approach to legislation, the cynical headline-chasing – were as much Mr Blair's responsibility as that of Mr Brown.

Mr Blair is justified in mounting a vigorous defence of the many good things he did in office, from bringing peace to Northern Ireland, to the minimum wage, to civil partnerships, to public service reform. But even with the burden of office removed, it is plain that he will not, or more likely cannot, recognise where he erred.

And in urging the next Labour leader to stick to his own narrow path or risk electoral oblivion, he does the party a disservice. The final irony is that Mr Blair, the self-styled "moderniser" and "rebel", would keep Labour rooted to the spot, trapped in electoral and economic assumptions, many of which are a decade out of date. But Mr Blair's journey is over. Labour needs to move on.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments