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Tony Blair’s journey to power
Is this doorstop of a book a record of a journey from principle to pragmatism?
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 second book.
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 stageshow.
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:
This translated itself into New Labour’s concern for ‘Middle England’ and the middle classes:
Strange that the Blairite fixation with ‘Middle England’ forgot these elementary insights.
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:
This 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:
With 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 us.
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.
In 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?’:
The 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.
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