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Posted on Sep 17, 2010

By Peter Stothard

This review originally appeared in The TLS, whose website is, and is reposted with permission.

Tony Blair’s political memoir has been pulled apart this week as though it were the palace of a fallen dictator, not so much reviewed as ransacked. Reporters have raced through its 700 pages as though each were some hitherto shuttered room hiding unused ammunition, looted antiquities, piles of purposeless propaganda, racks of vintage wines and extravagant wardrobes. With no prior newspaper serialization deal, there was a stampede for stories that matched the frenzy for Saddam’s Picassos or Mrs Marcos’s shoes. The British may not like him much any more but the media remain fascinated by the man who led their government for a decade, led an unelectable party to three election victories, followed an unprecedentedly unpopular American President into even more unpopular wars and redefined the role of Prime Minister for an age in which the lines between the political and the personal were themselves being redefined.

The best prospects for looters seemed to lie in the pages indexed under the name of Blair’s sometime collaborator, rival and loathed successor, Gordon Brown. Early results here were good. Although it was hardly any longer a surprise for Blair to say that his Chancellor of the Exchequer was “maddening” and had “zero emotional intelligence”, the news that in March 2006 Brown had blackmailed Blair with the threat of a formal investigation into the selling of peerages unless plans for pension reform were abandoned was sharp. “I have considered at length whether to include this episode”, Blair writes of the day when Britain seems to have come closest to an outright coup by one politician against another.

Revelation of the “truly nasty side of politics” is not, however, what Blair wants his book to be remembered for. Much of the personal abuse that marked the relationship between the two founders of the New Labour project remains unrepeated, at least for now. The consequence, in the Brown zones of Blair’s ransacked palace, has been unexpected emphasis on the long-time policy differences between the two men. Disputes over the modernization of welfare and the State’s role in solving the financial crisis were revealed in detail that was fresher, feeding the simultaneous media battle over who should be the next Labour leader and whether the TB-GBs (as the two men’s hatred became known) would continue into future generations, Blairites vs Brownites like some second-rate curse on the House of Atreus.

book cover

A Journey: My Political Life

By Tony Blair

Knopf, 720 pages

Buy the book

The other area that seemed a ripe source of stories was the one marked Iraq, especially the shrines to the genius of George W. Bush that the book’s limited pre-publicity had promised. The result here was more of a disappointment to those seeking new facts. But there are no new heights of hagiography either: when Bush is described as having been both “very smart” and of “immense simplicity in how he saw the world”, it is of interest now only to collectors of narrative contradiction. Blair has always been empathetic to a fault (he has a voice for every room), and in these parts he is writing for American readers who like their leaders treated with a pale-toned respect. Describing Camp David as “a collection of log cabins, very much American-style and very well done” is perhaps a little too lame even for the lowering prose that is the dominant vocal style here.

One paragraph, however, stands out and in a way which becomes peculiarly characteristic of the whole. The description of the Blair family’s arrival at Bush’s Crawford Ranch in April 2002 begins as expected, a place “pretty much in the middle of nowhere, 1,600 acres with a house and guest house and various outbuildings”. And then:

“as usual I turned up mob-handed with Grandma [Cherie’s mother] and Leo [their baby son] in tow. It was all very odd. Cherie used to like the family to travel with me but, frankly, when I was working, I preferred to be on my own and undistracted, able to concentrate entirely on the matter in hand, not having to worry about Leo feeling bored, Grandma complaining or making sure that everyone got on together. ”

To see long excerpts from “A Journey: My Political Life” at Google Books, click here.

For some readers this enlivening of the political by the personal may be merely charming, a reminder of just how like the rest of us our Prime Minister once was. For others it may bring a mild alarm. Ten months later when the Iraq war was close and unstoppable, Blair faced hundreds of thousands of critics who were sceptical that he was still negotiating in good faith and that he had not long ago given his word to back the American removal of Saddam. The British ambassador to Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer, has said that at this Crawford Ranch meeting the Prime Minister had pledged his backing “in blood”. Blair has always denied this claim; but then perhaps he was worrying about Grandma when the blood-dipped pens were handed around the table. There are truly some details that one would rather not know.

The former Prime Minister spends little time in Britain now, preferring the popularity, the profit, and the opportunities to spread religious harmony which are open to him overseas. His single high-security signing session in London has been cancelled after bottles and shoes greeted his first publicity appearance in Dublin. There is a popular internet campaign for bookshop customers to move his oeuvre to the “True Crime” or “Dark Fantasy” shelves.

As long as he is abroad Blair sees a continuing future for himself as a professional guru and guide. The future has always been the time zone in which he feels most comfortable. “I’m not really a retrospective person”, he writes. He describes how he told his wife in Paris in 1994, before there was a vacancy as leader of the Labour Party, that the then occupant would die and he would take over the job: “I think this will happen, I just think it will”. As he told Peter Mandelson after the first part of this prediction had come true, “this is mine, I know it and I will take it”. He predicts confidently now about the prospects of China, seeking “to set out a view of the world both as it is and as it may become”.

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