Tony Blair's A Journey: Andrew Rawnsley's verdict

The cliches and pop psychology will make you grimace, but Tony Blair's memoir is also remarkably candid – except when it comes to Iraq

Tony Blair
Blair at the Labour party conference in Bournemouth in 2003. Photograph: Murdo Macleod

It is Tony Blair's boast that he wrote every word in longhand "on hundreds of notepads". That I believe. He was the most brilliant communicator of his era as a platform speaker or television interviewee, but he can be a ghastly writer. Anyone thinking about taking this journey needs to be given a travel advisory: much of the prose is execrable.

  1. A Journey
  2. by Tony Blair
  3. Buy it from the Guardian bookshop

No cliche is avoided. Loins are girded, leashes are strained at, die are cast, lights appear at the end of tunnels and wounds are rubbed with salt. The Vatican is "an amazing place". Princess Anne "is a chip right off the old man's block". Princess Diana "captured the essence of an era". Derry Irvine is "like the proverbial dog with the bone". Many of the chapters are as badly planned as the invasion of Iraq. There are abrupt jumps from this year to that and back again. He will launch into one subject and then suddenly lurch off in an entirely different direction. The text is littered with the apology: "Anyway, I digress." Sentences begin with redundant clunkers: "Funnily enough…" or '"Needless to say…" One paragraph concludes: "Blimey, get a life." Another ends: "blah, blah, blah." There are passages that read like a Craig Brown parody in Private Eye. Of Condoleezza Rice, Blair writes: "She is also a classic example of the absurdity of people with experience and capacity at the highest level not having big political jobs after retirement from office. But that's another point!" There is a smattering of scenes with Cherie that will be strong contenders for the Bad Sex award. By page 544, he is inviting us to join him on the toilet. "I like to have time and comfort in the loo."

I could say that it is a pity that Tony Blair did not employ a ghostwriter to prettify the prose and organise his recollections more elegantly. I could observe that he is straining after the faux-intimate style of the autobiographies of footballers or models, and that was only to be expected from the politician who turned himself into Britain's first celebrity prime minister. Funnily enough, as he would write, the direness of much of the prose helps to give this autobiography some of its authenticity. The book has a kind of integrity. I say kind of because it is a rare political memoir – and this is not one of them – that is unflinchingly candid. He is slippery on inconvenient facts and passes over issues that are too painful to confront. He is not always reliable about either chronology or detail. Events and relationships are sanitised.

That said, this is a more honest political memoir than most and more open in many respects than I had anticipated. He is compellingly candid about how scared he was when he first became prime minister. He was masterful at masking his fear from the public, but it prevented him achieving as much with his first term as he might have done. Even after many seasoning years in office, his "demons" still urged him to "run away". I am sure many politicians harbour such feelings, but no former prime minister has ever been so open about it. Talking about his strengths, he describes himself as a "manipulator". He is unusually direct about his calculations, even when they don't reflect well on him, and his motivations, albeit in a pop-psychological way that frequently makes you wince. So long as the subject area is not Iraq, he is often brutal with himself about his mistakes. He admits to stretching the truth beyond "breaking point" to secure a settlement in Northern Ireland. Even when the lies are told in a noble cause, few politicians are honest enough to admit that they sometimes feel compelled to be deceivers.

The book adds little to what has already been written about his relationship with Gordon Brown. We had already gathered that he found his friend turned rival "strange" and "maddening" – and much worse that he does not say – but for complex reasons could never bring himself to deal with the chancellor who relentlessly sabotaged his premiership. The TB-GBs were fiercely denied when some of us started to expose their uncivil war long ago. It is useful nevertheless to have further corroboration supplied by Blair himself. One of his most important confessionals – and this reflects worse on him that it does on the other man – is that he knew that Brown would be a disastrous prime minister but did nothing serious to seek an alternative outcome.

This is not a bitchy memoir. That reflects the nature of a man who tends to look for and try to exploit the good in other people rather than the bad. That trait equipped him to woo both Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley for peace in Northern Ireland, which was a plus. On the negative side, he still can't see what is wrong with Silvio Berlusconi. There is no resiling from his admiration for George Bush, who is lauded as a man of "genuine integrity" and "a true idealist". He finally admits that he wanted Bush to win a second term, an extraordinary position for a Labour prime minister to have got to and the most vivid example of how Blair was bent out of shape by that alliance. He struggles to account for the terrible consequences when he hitched his liberal interventionism to Bush's crude neo-conservatism. The Iraq chapters are the least revealing. They are unlikely to change anyone's mind. 

In his early years in office, he was often called a chameleon. He has tried to make sense of his career by defining himself as a leader who started out as a successful populist who was too eager to please and matured into a statesman prepared to be a hated "minority of one" for the causes that he believed in. Hence the title. I finished his autobiography still thinking of Tony Blair as a kaleidoscope. He can be charmingly self-deprecating one moment, and repellently vain the next. Banalities tumble across these pages, but there are also thoughtful and significant meditations about modern politics. This autobiography, like its author, has many faces: important and infuriating, trite and profound, cynical but also optimistic, world-weary and yet often quite naive, racked with anxieties about some things and evangelical in his certitudes about others, intellectually lazy and confused about many issues but more often than not utterly clear-sighted when it comes to the big ones. When he says the world is a place of contradictions, Labour's longest-serving prime minister is really talking about himself.


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  • HammondOrganB3

    5 September 2010 1:08AM

    A fair review Andrew, but it could have been written by Mark Lawson. One can read this review in either voice. You're at your best when you're on the attack. Go-on boy, kill.

  • AshMD

    5 September 2010 1:32AM

    I honestly don't think I'll live to see another PM introduced to such acclaim and hope as Blair and the Labour Party were in 97, at least in my lifetime. On health he did OK given the terrible hand he was dealt, and the billions he threw at it. And NI, sure, but Major also had a role in instigating talks. Minimum wage is taken for granted now but I remember fierce business related opposition at the time (not that Blair was ever anti-business, but he stood up to filthy rich chief execs at least once more than the con-dems will - happy to proven wrong in time though). I don't think he'll just be remembered for Iraq but I think any future 'war tribunal' is undermined if Bush and associates aren't indicted some point soon. Evidence that the war was illegal within the parameters of international law is overwhelming.

  • 96594004841

    5 September 2010 1:36AM

    Good morning i red his excellecyt high think book "Journey"
    Mester past presedent : Tony Blair it is Awonderful words in our Awonderful World fantastice

  • akahamish

    5 September 2010 1:59AM

    I would rather be reading about Blair’s travelling to The Hague for a war crime trial rather than this Journey of fantasy, but at least the review is more honest and relevant than the actual book. However, Mr Rawnsley, you fail to mention Blair’s quest for further glory in the confessional box at Chequers where he claimed to have warned off the “Peoples Princess” regarding her affair with Dodi. This seems to be another deliberate piece of invention as the chronology of events appears to show.

    Brown and Blair do have a similar uncanny ability to distort events without allowing the facts to get in the way of their stories. Brown's latest claim to be devoting time to working for Africa without remuneration is utterly disingenuous when one considers he has been working on his memoirs since May whilst being paid by the UK taxpayers under false pretences. It would not surprise me, in the least, if any expenses for his so called freebie trips to Africa were refunded by the same short-changed taxpayers.

    At least Blair funds a portion of his deluded salvation of the planet by his questionable and possibly nefarious activities, without salary contributions from the UK public purse. However, we should not forget the huge costs of protecting this monster from his just deserts. If the establishment cannot take action against these two for their lies and misdeeds then they should force them to pay for their own protection against the court of the UK and World public opinion. Perhaps then, one way or the other, we might see the back of both for the good of mankind.

  • Hibernica

    5 September 2010 2:04AM

    Blair's reputation was destroyed by Iraq. But he will never admit he was wrong. His Friday night television interview in Dublin was notable for his failure to be convincing on the issue of Iraq. The Iraq segment of the interview kicks off about 21 minutes into this video......

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xS1LZZ8Vto4

    Interesting that he chose Ireland as the venue for his only TV interview. His work on Northern Ireland gives him a better reputation in Ireland than he has elsewhere. Perhaps he felt he would be safer. Certainly there were some anti-war protesters at his book signing but they would have been present in bigger numbers elsewhere. But even the Northern Ireland stuff grates. He gives no credit to John Major who was the first British PM to deal substantially with the issue. It almost sounds as if Blair thinks he delivered peace in Northern Ireland all by himself. Never mind that the peace process started in Northern Ireland itself, was moved on by successive Irish governments as well as Major and was under way long before Blair came to power.

    He has a very high opinion of himself. Unfortunately for him, his love affair with Bush and the disaster of Iraq mean he's pretty much the only one with that opinion.

  • RoyA1

    5 September 2010 2:07AM

    Good morning i red his excellecyt high think book "Journey"
    Mester past presedent : Tony Blair it is Awonderful words in our Awonderful World fantastice

    And now he comes on here commenting on reviews of his own book! The nerve of the man!

  • RoyA1

    5 September 2010 2:10AM

    Interesting that he chose Ireland as the venue for his only TV interview.

    You didn't see him on the BBC with Andrew Marr then?
    I listened to his BBC World Service radio interview and he was entirely unconvincing over Iraq. Either he just cannot grasp the idea that swaggering illegally into other countries encourages resentment which may drive some to terrorism, or he is in total denial. "We didn't encourage terrorism by doing this we confronted it" he said repeatedly. Staggering.

  • BoudiccaBrent

    5 September 2010 2:22AM

    I am not surprised Tony Blair was scared when he became Prime Minister in 1997. It must have been quite dismaying to get to the top of the greasy pole without having any idea what he was going to do once he found himself squatting there.

  • labourpartysuicide

    5 September 2010 3:13AM

    This comment has been removed by a moderator. Replies may also be deleted.

  • labourpartysuicide

    5 September 2010 3:22AM

    I see Blair was pelted with shoes in Dublin. That sounds like the best literary criticism on his book.
    No doubt he will restrict the rest of his appearances to Texas and Tel Aviv, where he can really be sure the money will flow his way.

  • harryboy

    5 September 2010 3:32AM

    One of his most important confessionals – and this reflects worse on him that it does on the other man – is that he knew that Brown would be a disastrous prime minister but did nothing serious to seek an alternative outcome.

    And yet if Blair had schemed so that Brown wouldn't get the PM job - I wonder what would Rawnsley have written ? How well that reflected on him ? I doubt it.

  • donoevil

    5 September 2010 3:44AM

    No doubt he will restrict the rest of his appearances to Texas and Tel Aviv, where he can really be sure the money will flow his way.

    Indeed. The man rules for the interests of other states it seems.

  • TruthandDare

    5 September 2010 6:23AM

    Anthony Blairba_mouth Blair, a political trifler of the century; prime minister turned James Bond 007 licensed to kill at will. A very pompous and starchy element with no substance(s). This man dragged the prestigious image of 10 Downing Street to the mud,. lying with bold, doped face to the entire World that Saddam Husein should be destroyed, because he possessed weapons of Mass destruction. What are his justification(s) for his memoir; that he he was a litmus test to perfection, OR a raven looney tunes with no substance(s).

  • publunch

    5 September 2010 6:27AM

    I think what Rawsthorne is trying to tell us is that if you only read one book, it should not be Bliar's, nor Mendacious Mandy's, nor anything that Gordon gives us, but End of the Party, which is well-written, accurate and was published first.

  • PristineAudio

    5 September 2010 7:17AM

    This is the first review I've read which suggests somebody's actually read the book rather than taken snippets out of context in order to justify a pre-held position or merely to generate a headline.

    I'm currently not quite halfway through the book and go along with a lot of what Andrew says. Frankly I don't think anyone reads a book like this for the quality of the prose - but what I've read so far has been fascinating, illuminating to a degree, and quite absorbing. One plus point of Blair's style on paper is that he's an easy read - sometimes this is an advantage, regardless of the use of cliché. By not straining for new metaphors he gets his points across in a way that's simple to comprehend and easy to absorb.

    I've not reached Iraq yet - I've just finished Kosovo - but I am enjoying the book and would recommend it to everyone who has spent the last 5 days straining to come up with new witticisms and insults to fill the pages of Cif - at least some of them might have something new and substantive to talk about, about rather than rehashing endless liar/murderer lines...

  • CuthbertB

    5 September 2010 8:57AM

    If Blair thinks Bush was an idealist then that sums up Blair - an idealism based on brutal and naked power. Despite being PM for 10 years there was a lot less politics about him than there was ego, greed, narcissism, presentation and a self-serving conviction of destiny. He did little to bring anything new into force and just went with the Thatcherite flow. Other than Ireland - where he was pushing at an open door - I can't think he did anything of any acheivement, but a lot of damage.

    I won't read his book as the very thought of him disgusts me but the quote from it that sums him up for me is the one where he claims Brown lost because he stopped Labour being Blairite. Labour fell from 43% in 1997 to 35% in 2005 and Blair still thought New Labour was popular. 35% was less than Callaghan got and only allowed Blair to form a third government because the Tories were so useless. I hope he hangs about both because people will keep having a pop at him and because he'll continue to drag Labour down in the polls. If he continues to make Labour unelectable that would do just fine.

  • TonyCrust

    5 September 2010 9:05AM

    @cuthbertB

    I hope he hangs about both because people will keep having a pop at him and because he'll continue to drag Labour down in the polls. If he continues to make Labour unelectable that would do just fine.

    If he manages to make Labour unelectable against the current incumbents he will truly be a remarkable man.

  • skundi

    5 September 2010 9:16AM

    you disgraced , George bush,s poodle you were never welcomed to ireland, you caused arrest of 4 innocent irish youth on public order offences charges , when they saw your odourous presence in local book store

  • Richard33

    5 September 2010 9:27AM

    Cheers Andrew, as always. It seems odd that we've moved so far into these 'autobiographies' rather than diaries or memoirs. It almost feels like they feel they have to explain themselves, that they didn't have the ability to say who they were in office.

    Sure, I guess culture has changed a bit and we all like 'pop psychology' or bar room philosophy but it's a bit bubblegummy. Hmm - times change.

  • Chriskiy

    5 September 2010 9:32AM

    I was never going to read this self-justifying money-spinner by a person who should be before a war crimes tribunal anyway. But to know that it is written in schoolboy prose and that he all but invites us to watch him having a shit . . . Christ, it gives me gooseflesh!!!!!!!!!!!

  • IvanBunin77

    5 September 2010 10:01AM

    Of course, no Guardian readers voted for Blair in his latter election victories, did they...........? I wholeheartedly agree with the comments above about the loathesomeness of the man and the illegal carnage he created in Iraq, but I'm pretty tired of listening to New Labour voters whine about the freak that they installed in power. Often you hear people say things like "I voted Labour because my family always has", or "best of a bad bunch". Well, thanks for that. Anyone who voted for him should shut the f*ck up.

  • fibmac70

    5 September 2010 10:18AM

    I think I loathe Blair more than Thatcher
    @manclad

    Let me be transparent and absolutely clear
    'I think' looks a tad redundant here.......

  • Chriskiy

    5 September 2010 10:25AM

    @Manzani:

    Does this sound better to you:

    "But to be told authoritatively by Andrew Rawnsley that it is wriiten etc, etc . . ."?

    The purpose of book reviews is to tell you about the book and the reviewer's opinion of it. Rawnsley gives enough examples from the book to make his point convincingly, I think.

  • fibmac70

    5 September 2010 10:27AM

    Many of the chapters are as badly planned as the invasion of Iraq.

    The Man may read this and laugh
    But it is likely to be his epitaph.........

  • justoffpeak

    5 September 2010 10:36AM

    You only have to look at Blair's college days - putative rockstar, averagely blokish, drunk and lecherous etc, but with this desperate craving for a superstitious meaning to his existence.

    This lead pretty seamlessly on to his chameleon-like ability to fool colleagues and public, whilst teaming up evangelically with the rather raving Cherie, the raving Dubya and the neocons, and, finally, coming out with Ratzi the Nazi.

  • sandinshoes

    5 September 2010 10:44AM

    The years have taken their toll on Blair.From being the reasonably good looking man when he took office, until now, with the drawn look on his face, shows what an unenviable job this is.
    Not that I excuse him from his actions over Iraq, I do not, he has to continue carrying the unweldy can, like it or not. If I recall, most of the thinking public did not want this war; he should have noted this and not nuzzled up to Bush.He has to live with this. Why anyone would want to but his book, I cannot imagine!

  • Kevinho8

    5 September 2010 10:44AM

    The use of "needless to say" reminds me of Alan Partridge's autobiography:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5drObf8yWOc

    Blair is currently coming across as a little deluded and arrogant but so is anyone who posts "Murderer" and "Arrest Blair" after a book review. In reply to them I would like to say, "Sanctimonious" and "BBC Have Your Say". I'm no Blair apologist but don't you have anything more constructive to say?

  • haward

    5 September 2010 10:55AM

    Blair can't see anything wrong with Berlusconi , he admires Gerry Adams and sees George Bush as a man of principle.

    That's as damning as it can get.

  • Mercurey

    5 September 2010 11:06AM

    Is it true there is a some sort of ruse afoot, placing this book in the Crime section. I think we should be told.

    Of course Rawnsley himself is equally lacking in candour when commenting on his view of just how dandy it was to follow Bush in to war.

  • shallowasapuddle

    5 September 2010 11:30AM

    I think I loathe Blair more than Thatcher

    Not a chance.
    For all his failings, Blair did some good , brought hope to some, transformed the lives of many at the bottom yet will be remembered for his conversion to NeoCon Conservatism. Ah, well, it would appear the trappings of power and wealth seduced him.
    Thatcher, however, destroyed the social fabric of this country, without a doubt and it will be a day of national celebration when she passes. Won't be long now.

  • orangered

    5 September 2010 11:47AM

    TORY...... TONY

    He is a very opportunist man.
    First.... when 9/ 11 happened,he has seen the dollar sign and he called George v Bush to make sure that (What ever the cost is going to be) he wanted to be part of it.There was alot of people who opposed his idea and told him there is an another way to support but he did not listen. Neo con's could not belive their eyes , it was a big surprise.Immediately Tony money and George W Bus became best friend.Neo cons, told Tony money what to do .Tony money follow them in to Afganistan then Irak. While people were dying (civilian and soldier) he had to deal with his ( parner in crime) Gorden Brown .Because he and Gorden talked about this in one of the cafe shop in islington.Deal was one term Tony money another term Gorden. Tony could not kept his promise and made Gorden angry . Gorden started digging tony's grave.After couple of push Tony had to live, he left .Little while he thougth about his future Then he remembered his faith, it was a big ticket for him to get American's (Dollar) heart's and mind. It worked . American's payed him alot of money to talk "bullshit" . Now, he is a millionaire. He want to donate the book money to get some sympathy but we should not forget about those soldiers died because of poor eguipment and alot of civilian died because we went to war without a proper plan.
    For tony GOD BLESS AMERICA "N" (DOLLAR) .

  • liberalcynic

    5 September 2010 11:52AM

    I want to read it just to see how the shameless old creep justifies himself but I'll be damned if I'm going to pay for it.

    Looks like I'll have to wait until it's in the local library.

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