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Books

A charismatic narcissist

In equal measure, this book is fascinating and irritating.

11 September 2010

12:00 AM

11 September 2010

12:00 AM

A Journey Tony Blair

Hutchinson, pp.624, 25

In equal measure, this book is fascinating and irritating. The ‘Hi, guys!’ style grates throughout. From this, it is tempting to conclude that Tony Blair is incorrigibly insincere. But that is not the whole story. Although Blair is no friend to truth or self-knowledge, this is an involuntary study in self-revelation. The most revealing sentence is a throwaway line, in which he tells us that we are all psychological vagrants. That is the clue to his character.

It is certainly impossible to read this book without wanting to psychoanalyse the author. So here goes. He comes across as a potent mixture of insecurity and certitude. Always prone to self-doubt, he also became aware that he could play the pipes of Pan, and bewitch man, woman or beast. A charismatic narcissist, he formed easy relationships with other exemplars of the same dramatic shallowness: Bill Clinton, the Princess of Wales, Nicolas Sarkozy. Yet he was a little better than they. There was an urge for moral seriousness. He did not know how to express it — in prose, that is still true — or realise it, but he felt a sense of duty and calling. The Christianity was not wholly bogus.

As he was too insecure to try to achieve political momentum on his own, he had a deep need for a strong elder brother. He started with Gordon Brown, who merely became Cain to his Abel, with a murder plot that finally succeeded after 13 years and which has led to Labour’s expulsion from the garden of Downing Street. Blair put up with more rudeness and obstruction from Brown than all prime ministers in the history of the office have from their subordinates, several times squared. That was contemptible weakness on his part. It would never have been easy to sack Brown, but that is why we have prime ministers: to do things that are not easy. Blair was ready to send soldiers to their deaths thousands of miles away, while funking the challenge from the TaleBrown next door. That makes him a coward. It explains why he could never turn great electoral opportunities into prime ministerial greatness. He was crippled by insecurity.

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Then he found another big brother. The relationship was simpler because it never involved British domestic politics. Those of us who would have enthusiastically voted for a George Bush third term have often wondered how we could begin to rehabilitate his reputation; to convince naive and sentimental electorates of the error of their ways. Barack Obama is helping, but Blair is a formidable ally. His admiration for Bush is persuasive, and when he writes about the former president, his prose, for once, almost rises to the occasion and no longer reads like an extract from Private Eye’s St Albion’s column. It is as if Blair were responding to some NCO’s call to pick his feet up. In George Bush he recognises a moral seriousness and a firmness of purpose which he could admire, though never equal.

That said, because they travel light, the shallow can move fast. In the British politics of the early 1990s, Blair had two powerful advantages. First, he did not sound or look like a member of the Labour party, a brand by then almost terminally associated with failure and decline. Second, the image was an accurate reflection of reality. This was a man with no roots in the Labour movement, no sentimental attachment to its tribalism, and a constant irritation with its primitive methods of conducting business. This was someone ready to respond to the public mood.

Since the mid Eighties, it had been clear what a majority of the British people wanted: Thatcherism plus compassion. Although there was active hostility to the ‘no way will my members’ style of trade unionism, there was also a wish for a protective state. Thatcher never understood that: as if she would ever have demeaned herself by allowing the state to protect her. But in an electoral system which is good at turning pluralities into majorities, Thatcher’s victories led her supporters to exaggerate her intellectual conquests.

There was always a market for a third way — encouraged by her apparent lack of enthusiasm for the public services which she was doing so much to fund. Blair tells us that Thatcher never understood the importance of social capital. That is a justified criticism. He thinks that he had the answer: choice and quality in the public services, rights and responsibities in welfare, plus a tough approach to law and order which involves ‘gripping’ the underclass.

There was only one problem. As Gordon Brown could testify, Tony Blair had no grip. Our author admits that he was a better prime minister in 2007 than in 1997. The trouble was that by 2007, no one believed a word he said. He will never admit that this was a justified scepticism, in response to a moral negligence that dogged his entire career. Over to David Cameron; if he has the grip to implement the best aspects of Blairism, he will become a proper prime minister, which poor old Tony never was.

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