David Blackburn

There was more to Blair than a winning smile

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Following Sir Christopher Meyer's review of George Bush's Decision Points, here is the other half of the double act.

The closest I’ve come to meeting Tony Blair was knocking into Michael Sheen on the street. I got no closer reading Blair’s memoir, most of which is beyond parody. Cherie Booth QC is a strong armed nocturnal adventuress; Anji Hunter is a bountiful babe; and Mr Blair is a would-be Casanova with a taste for premonitions and Schindler’s List.

You barely notice New Labour’s reform programme under the torrent of erratic writing and bizarre digressions. The defence of the Iraq war is cumbersome; the sketches of his allies and adversaries too thin to warrant interest: ‘strange man’ is the best Blair can do on Brown, even from the detached safety of print.

For the most part, A Journey is a mundane confessionary – I did this; we wanted that; Peter was there etc. It won’t alter the minds of those who hate Blair, nor those who loved him once. Many of the latter group have been press-ganged into reviewing the book, trying to explain where and why they diverged from Blair.

Naturally, these innocents were all conned by a smile as broad as the Cheshire Cat’s. Allison Pearson writes that he had that sorcerer’s knack of ‘making people want to believe in him’. A malicious editor at The Times instructed Robert Harris, doyen of de-Blairification, to review the book. He wrote:

‘The colossal joke history has played on those of us who supported Blair back in 1994 was that he appeared to us at that time to be the quintessential normal guy — refreshingly sensible, modest, non-ideological, sympathetic, pragmatic.’

Was that it? Non-ideological, sympathetic, pragmatic? New Labour wanted to run the fourth most powerful country on Earth not the Wincanton Tea Rooms. The rude awakening for those who bought Fukuyama’s bunkum was that ideology hadn’t died, either at home or abroad. Blair’s neo-liberal public service reforms were every bit as ideological and potentially impractical as his fervour for liberal interventionism. Though, yes, the devil’s greatest trick was to convince the credulous that he did not exist.

In 1997, Blair was the prophet of the cult of youth. There was no contest between him and the Tory old stagers - their philosophy as pallid as their skin. He is still only 58 and his mind is lithe. Blair’s journey has not reached its terminus.

The epilogue of A Journey should be detached from the tawdry romp that precedes it and be published as a separate pamphlet. He remains a progressive in an economically and socially liberal sense – the state must be made subordinate once more and governments must deliver more with less. The coalition and Blair are talking the same language.

But Blair is also an independent radical. Peering over the parapet of the present, he sees a globalised world that presents new opportunities and challenges. Britain can only do so much alone. More information, more education and more cooperation are the weapons in an unprecedented era of global competition. It is irrefutable when put so simply.  

There was and is so much more to Blair than a winning smile. That is why Robert Harris’ misjudgment is seismic. Blair’s no writer, but he is a thinker and he adapts his beliefs to the constantly changing present. British politicians will stumble after his jig once more.