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Almost Noble

Tony Blair’s memoir reveals him to be neither a cynic nor an innocent, but a man of some principle.

By Christopher Hitchens

Image credit: Nadav Kander/Contour by Getty Images

When I went to interview Tony Blair, the newly elected leader of the opposition in the House of Commons, in 1994, I wanted to ask him about his membership in the Christian Socialist Movement, a very traditionalist affiliate of the British Labour Party. I had, I told him, by now read all his speeches since he had become leader, and could find no trace of any such commitment in his rhetoric. With the very disarming open-faced grin that so many people would later come to dislike, he replied that this was because he couldn’t stand the sort of politician who exploited religion for electoral purposes. His administration would become partly defined by a terse response from his highly unsentimental media chief, Alastair Campbell, to a faith-based question: “We don’t do God.” Toward the end of his time as prime minister, Blair had increasing resort to moral suasion and hints about faith as a means of defending some of his less popular positions. And he had barely retired from official politics when he was received into the Roman Catholic Church and set up a foundation in his own name with a vaguely ecumenical global agenda.

To his many enemies, this trajectory was still another proof of his protean and opportunistic nature. I remember the many nicknames with which, successively, such opponents tried and failed to saddle him. First there was “Bambi,” a derisive and belittling reference to the facial expression noted above. Then there was “Tony Blur,” an attempt to net him in the all-things-to-all-men trap that awaits poll-driven public figures. Bliar was the much harsher placard flourished by those who were convinced that he had deceived Britain into a disastrous participation in the Iraq War. “Bush’s poodle” was another favorite, though by then, as you can see, the early effort to present him as naive had been deposed by the view that he was a calcified cynic.

A reading of this memoir, which is almost exclusively about the unprecedented length of time—a full decade—over which a Labour prime minister held continuous office, does not really license either viewpoint. Measured by the base standard of his immediate predecessors as Labour prime minister, James Callaghan and Harold Wilson, Tony Blair was a man of almost inordinate attachment to principle. When compared to those who led the party to repeated defeat at the hands of Margaret Thatcher—the old-style leftists Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock—he was a man who crossed the road only to get to the middle of it. But despite his genius for public relations and political manipulation, the record still shows a consistent attachment to at least two important precepts: hostility to totalitarianism and a strong belief that Britain has both an Atlantic and a European future.

The second point may seem an obvious one, but for most of the postwar period, Britain was governed by leaders who felt anchored in one or the other allegiance. The post-1945 Labour government stood or fell by its alliance with Washington on military and economic matters. Winston Churchill’s second term in office was marked by his refusal to join the embryonic European Common Market, while his successor ruined relations with Eisenhower in order to invade Egypt in concert with France and Israel. Harold Wilson’s government overbalanced in the opposite direction and lost all credibility by supporting President Johnson in Vietnam, to be replaced by a Tory administration that was wholly focused on joining Europe on almost any terms. Mrs. Thatcher’s long affair with Ronald Reagan was conducted in such a way as to heap maximum contempt on her hated rival Helmut Kohl, and she ended her career trying to maintain the partition of Germany and to insulate Britain from further contamination by the mainland. This constant lack of synchronicity was largely independent of party, but it meant that Blair was the first leader who felt equally at home with American culture (he had been a singer in an Oxford rock band called the Ugly Rumours, not discussed in this book) and with holidays in Tuscany or Provence. This alone made him a more natural representative, not only of the Boomer generation of which he was a part, but of the British business community.

It was Thatcher herself who said that her greatest achievement was to have changed the politics of the Labour Party, and this uncomfortable truth was one that Blair was swift and early to grasp. And not only grasp, but take to heart: he was the first senior member of the party to feel that it had to undergo a makeover, or rebranding, not for reasons of “image” alone, but as a matter of integrity. And because he believed it himself, he made it convincing to others. There is a difference between this and mere grudging tactical adjustment, and the electorate was able to scent it. The haplessness and corruption of some in John Major's regime, and the influence of Clinton’s “Third Way” rhetoric, did the rest. In a mildly hilarious set of initial recollections, Blair describes how he confronted a party rank and file that still half believed it was possible that the voters had rejected Labour because they wanted more socialism rather than less. No compromise with the electorate was the clever taunt with which he disarmed them. Unfortunately, these passages are rather clotted with annoying “man of the people” anecdotes and expressions designed to showcase a sort of easy populism. His rival Gordon Brown is locked in the lavatory; Alastair Campbell is described as having “clanking great balls”; a popular illusion is dismissed with the equally vulgar British expression cobblers. In a further wince-making section, about the early and fortuitous crisis that catalyzed his first term, Princess Diana is droolingly conscripted as follows:

In temperament and time, in the mood she engendered and which we represented, there was a perfect fit. Whatever New Labour had in part, she had in whole.

This is the language of “icons” and “celebs,” but however rebarbative it may be, it allows Blair to showcase his easy mastery of the demotic. One may squirm at the annexation of Diana’s death by his coinage of the vapid term the people’s princess, but there is no denying that in that extraordinary month of mass obsequy, Blair became the first Labour politician ever to influence the British monarchy rather than be overawed by it. In doing so, he also very probably did the monarchy an enormous favor. By effectively telling the Queen what to do, he almost accidentally put an end to centuries of deference and, along with his abolition of the hereditary principle in the House of Lords and his lofty treatment of the House of Commons (canceling, for instance, one of the two regular weekly sessions of Prime Minister's Question Time), moved Britain toward a more presidential style of government.

Another matter that had psychologically hobbled past Labour governments was that of military intervention. Neither one on easy terms with the chiefs of staff or very confident with the legacy of empire (or, for that matter, very courageous), men like Wilson and Callaghan had abdicated the use of force when faced with a revolt of white settlers in Rhodesia or the Turkish aggression against Cyprus—both important British responsibilities—and tried to split the difference on the interminable question of Ireland. In practice, this really did mean playing an undistinguished second fiddle to the United States. It probably was Clinton’s initial diplomacy in the Irish case that enabled Blair to consummate the Good Friday Agreement that effectively disarmed the IRA, though his own part-Irish heritage and his willingness to acknowledge historic British mistakes were useful as well. But in several other important instances, his strong dislike of moral neutrality led him to deploy British force on its own, and to try to persuade the international community that the evil of dictatorship had not ended with the Cold War.

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