Tony Blair may not be everyone’s cup of tea but this memoir reminds us of the remarkable achievements of a leader which have sadly been undermined by a misjudgement over Iraq. When the former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was once asked what he thought were the greatest challenges of the office, he responded thus: “events, dear boy events”; meaning there was no precise definition for the job but that one’s role as Prime Minister was determined in large part, and often on a day-to-day basis, by events beyond one’s control. In the absence of a precise role definition, the fortunes of most national leaders rest on how they manage crises and events as they arise. The experience of those who have done the job before must therefore be an invaluable guide to those that aspire to the office and others who currently occupy similar positions.
In the “The Journey”, Blair charts his unexpected rise to leadership of the Labour Party, his main political influencers who incidentally include a former Trotskyite, an Anglican vicar and one of African’s finest diplomats, the Ugandan, Olara Otunnu, all of whom he met while a student at St. John’s College, Oxford. Brought up in conservative household frequented then by Tory MPs and educated at Scotland’s most exclusive private school, Blair was an unlikely leader of the Labour Party. However, as a child of the 1960s he was a little more progressive than his parents and titled towards the prevailing left-wing politics of the student campus even if the beliefs that came to define him as a politician were not as doctrinal as the Marxists or Trotskyites of the time.
As Labour went from one defeat to another between 1979 and 1992, they were desperate for a winner who would appeal to the broader mass of the British electorate beyond the Unions and CND activists and Blair looked every bit the part. He took advantage of his ‘outsideness’, however, to challenge and remake the Labour Party, forcing it to ditch many of its preconceived notions including the holy grail of ‘Clause 4’ that committed the party to wholesale nationalisation and moved it to the centre ground of British politics it had vacated since the mid-1970s.
Blair is at his best when he critiques the Left – no one does it better and although his solutions are not necessarily always the right ones in my view, his objective was to jolt the Labour Party from its deep slumber and romanticism about past achievements like the creation of the welfare state and the national health service, to confront the challenges of our changed times as in this: “All progressive movements have to beware of their own success. The progress they make reinvents the societies they work in and they must in turn reinvent themselves otherwise they become hollow echoes from a once loud strong voice reverberating still but to little effect. As their consequence diminishes, so their dwindling adherents become ever more shrill and strident, more solicitous of protecting their own shrinking space rather than understanding that the voice of the times has moved on and they must listen before speaking”.
His analysis and critique of the Left is one of the sharpest I have read and like the barrister that he is, takes apart the inconsistency and naïveté of many of Labour’s positions on obsessions like egalitarianism. He argues that “[t]he impulse of those helped by well-meaning [left-wing] intellectuals [like the Fabians] was essentially meritocratic, not egalitarian – they wanted to be helped on the ladder, but once on it, they thought ascending it was up to them” and hence his favourite phrase about people wanting “a hand up not hand-outs.”
The book is a fascinating journey through the momentous events of his premiership from his euphoric landslide victory in May 1997, the sudden and unexpected death of the Princess Diana, the events of September 11, 2001 and the bombings on the London Underground on July 7th 2005 while he was hosting leaders of the G8 at their summit in Scotland a day after the IOC had announced London as the host for the 2012 Olympics, to the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath.
He deals with the highs and lows of being in power; the inevitable disappointment of his support base that put him in power because of the yawning gap between the ‘poetry’ of campaigning and the ‘prose’ of governing; he sets out the difficulty of achieving real and sustainable change through reform of domestic policy not only because of his problematic relationship with Gordon Brown who remained a thorn in his side, but also the entrenched positions of the many vested interests in the civil service, trade unions and his own party – his so-called ‘forces of conservatism’ – that thwarted every attempt to modernize public services. All of it fascinating and well worth a read for any reforming leader.
His achievements: from the devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland after over 150 years of the Act of Union; the independence of the Bank of England; the introduction of the national minimum wage for the first time in British history; the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law; the reversal of Britain’s opt-out from the Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty enabling British workers to enjoy the same rights and protections as their European counterparts; the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act; the most far-reaching reforms of the House of Lords which had eluded every leader since the 1900s that ended the right of hereditary peers to enact legislation and above all, securing peace in Northern Ireland which even Churchill thought intractable, make him in constitutional terms at least, one of the most radical leaders of Britain of all time.
These remarkable achievements, however, have been over-shadowed by the decision to hitch his wagon to George W. Bush’s and go to war in Iraq to which Blair devotes more than four chapters recycling justifications already in the public domain. That is regrettable but I sense that with the passage of time, history will be fairer to him and judge him, on domestic policy at least, as one of the most successful and finest post-war leaders of Britain.
There is a lot in this book for historians but it is required reading for all national leaders and politicians. It has everything from how to your keep your enemies at bay to keeping the public on side who, in the end, are the only constituency that matter.