The past week has been a total
Blair-fest. The launch of Tony Blair’s memoirs, the carefully crafted
and controlled TV interviews, and the even more planned book signing
with resulting protests. It has all had a certain cinematic, star
quality to it; like outtakes from Piers Brosnan in ‘The Ghost’.
An interesting aspect of ‘Tony
Blair: A Journey’ is how little Blair wrote as a politician, and how
temporary and superficial it all was. So where Gordon Brown has written
or edited thirteen books (most of them not very good one can say – with
the exception of James Maxton: A Biography), ‘A Journey’ is only Blair’s
The first Blair book was ‘New Britain: My Vision of a
Young Country’ published in the sunny uplands of New Labourland 1996
pre-landslide. It is a fascinating tome. It is light, breezy and chatty –
in a nearly totally unself-conscious way. It is also deeply superficial
and of the moment – not aspiring to be historic – while hoping that it
is part of history in the making.
There is a case for making that
the first Blair book – being the product of the young, eager pretender –
is more the genuine article than ‘A Journey’ – which is a product of
the calculating, socially constructed Blair – where chattiness and
self-depreciation have become an ingrained part of the entire act and
What is revealing about the first Blair book is that
this came out at a time of immense hope, expectation and even possible
radical ideas – at the fag end of the discredited Major Government.
Progressive thinking such as ‘the stakeholder economy’ was being openly
debated; books like Will Hutton’s ‘The State We’re In’ made it seem like
a fin de siecle.
In a 1996 speech on the Church of England report
‘Faith in the City’ ten years on, Blair delivers an assessment which it
is hard to square with his record and what he became. Thus he says of
the Conservative Governments of Thatcher and Major:
the bottom, what some people call an underclass has been created …. But
even more striking is the contrast with those at the top. While the
risks facing the majority have multiplied, those at the top have been
served up a one-way bet to a risk-free fortune. (1)
translated itself into New Labour’s concern for ‘Middle England’ and
the middle classes:
Between the underclass and the
overclass is a new and growing anxious class – people insecure about
their jobs, afraid that public services will not be there when they need
them, struggling to pay mortgages and new charges, prompted to opt for
private pensions and now finding that they get little in return. (2)
that the Blairite fixation with ‘Middle England’ forgot these
The young Blair goes on to posit that the
Britain of 1996-7, the nation on the brink of electing a Labour
Government by the largest parliamentary landslide in its history, faces
two possible futures:
In one, Britain’s communities
follow the process that has occurred in some places in the US, where the
affluent have retreated into fortresses with private security guards,
leaving the rest to live in ghettos of low opportunity, crime and
insecurity. But the cycle of decay and economic underperformance
continues. This is the Blade Runner scenario. (3)
could be seen at the ultimate destination of the Blairite ‘Fantasy
Island Britain’ of the Bubble, and the dogmatic, determinist vision
of the most radical economic liberals in the Cameron-Clegg coalition –
described accurately by the Tony Blair of 1996 as ‘the Blade Runner
scenario’. This is not the Britain the younger Blair finds attractive:
is not the sort of Britain I want to live in in the twenty-first
century. And this is not a future in tune with Britain’s basic
instincts. We are a country that supports the underdog. We are tolerant.
We are great adventurers. We are patriotic, but we will always stand up
against aggression against someone else. (4)
the exception of the tail end of the last quotation, you have to wonder
if the Blair quotes of 1996 are said by the same person as the hardened
warrior, economic neo-liberal, and defender and apologist of power and
privilege of 2010. And on his own account: they aren’t. Blair
dramatically changed in office, deforming and adopting wholesale a mindset and worldview which
had nothing in common with centre-left or democratic values to many of
Fascinatingly, Blair now dismisses his earlier book, yet it
still manages to capture the radical wind and hope which was in the air
of New Labour 1996-97 – and which was quickly controlled and toned down,
long before the deforming and morphing of New Labour into one of the
most authoritarian, centralist administrations in British history.
his ‘Postscript’ to ‘A Journey’ – a book he calls ‘something of a
letter (extended) to the country I love’ (5) – Blair asks himself, ‘what
makes you a progressive?’:
I would say: belief in
social justice, i.e. using the power of society as a whole to bring
opportunity, prosperity and hope to those without it; to do so not just
within our national boundaries but outside of them; to judge our
societies by the condition of the weak as much as the strong; to stand
up at all times for the principle that all human beings are of equal
worth, irrespective of race, religion, gender (I would add of sexuality)
or ability; and never to forget and always to strive for those at the
bottom, the poorest, the most disadvantaged, the ones others forget. (6)
strange story of Tony Blair and New Labour will take years to fully
untangle and understand. Yet, these closing remarks in ‘A Journey’ show
that on his criterion the Tony Blair of 1997-2007 was no ‘progressive’,
that he knows what is the basic defining blocks of a progressive
politics, but has not yet come to terms with the inconvenient truth:
that he ended up part – an important and influential part - of the
global forces of conservatism, power and privilege.
Gerry Hassan is a writer, policy analyst and researcher. His website is www.gerryhassan.com. This review has been reproduced from openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons licence.
Tony Blair, New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country, Fourth Estate
1996, p. 300-301.
(2) p. 301.
(3) p. 307-8.
(4) p. 308.
Tony Blair, A Journey, Random House 2010, p. xvi.
(6) ibid, pp.