Saturday, 18 September 2010

a Journey

Tony Blair, 'A Journey'

Here I am again, reading the big political books so you don't have to.

A lot has been written about this book, and many reviews published.  Most of those who have commented on the book, in the blogosphere and elsewhere, have not read it.  It is a long book, and even if you have nothing else to do it is going to take you a while.  Most of those who commented have looked in the index, either for their own name (ahem) or, for example, for names such as that of Ruth Turner, because of the alleged - oh, never mind.  Anyway, I have actually read the whole thing, and an enjoyable read I found it too, and not just because he gives background and detail to situations I was in.

When I started reading this I knew I would broadly be in agreement with Tony.  I did not vote for him as leader back in 1994, but I became a Blairite as time went on, especially on international affairs.  So, his opening remarks "this [Labour government] lasted thirteen years.  It could have, as I say in the final chapter, gone on longer, had it not abandoned New Labour".  He saw that when public opinion turns against you, even if you're right you're wrong, as was true too of the Major government.  Like most (including me) who have been candidates and won elections, he feels no euphoria,, not even on election night in 1997.  When someone lurched up to him that night and said "You're going to be a great prime minister, Tony, you really are, he said "Oh, bugger off."  Early in the book he presents the insight that progressive governments always develop, nearly always too late: "All progressive governments have to beware their own success.  The progress they make reinvents the society they work in, and they must in turn reinvent themselves to keep up...as their consequence diminishes, so their dwindling adherents become even more shrill and strident... They must listen before speaking" (p. 41).

He is interesting on politics and religion.  After all, he had little choice but to go there.  "Religion starts with values that are born of a view of humankind.  Politics starts with an examination of society and the means of changing it.  Of course politics is about values; and religion is often about changing society.  But you start from a different place" (p. 79).

He says the 1997 manifesto and policies were worked out with Gordon, and every decision "was born of a set of thoroughly worked-out positions" (p.93).  Yes they were.  A candidate can always tell when the platform they are standing on is rubbish.  And most of us have done it.  This is why being a candidate in 1997 was hugely comfortable and secure.  I thank him too for this, which I had to battle for eight long years, against the stupid left and the general ignorance, to be found especially among Labour Party activists: "It's extraordinary how anyone who opposes the government is principled while anyone who is loyal is just a sycophant, when the support is usually harder than the opposition" (p. 125).

I enjoyed some of the language, it was a bit Rover and Wizard or even Malory Towers (Tony is about a year older than me) - he quite often "beetles off", Bill Clinton is a "total brick" and people are "clattered about the head".

And now we come to interventionism, something close to my heart, though I did not realise in 1997 that it soon would be.  "Back up a demand with a credible threat, and the demand has a good prospect of being satisfied.  If you seem unsure about how far you will go to enforce a demand, a confrontation becomes almost inevitable" (p. 230).  This is from the speech he made in Chicago on 24th April 1999, "Doctrine for the International Community", not much remarked on at the time, but extensively quoted from since.  It was a slow burner.  I was laughed at by some of my Guardian-reading constituents when I cited it to them.  But partly as a result of that speech, and of course of intervening events, in 2005 the UN (yes, the UN) adopted 'Responsibility to Protect", which gives the international community the duty to intervene if a state fails to protect its citizens from atrocity.

As an aside, I hadn't realised that his speech to the Women's Institute, at which he was slow-handclapped,was about - Good Manners!

Iraq and WMD: "...a mystery.  Why should Saddam keep the inspectors out for so long when he had nothing to hide?  Even when he let them in, why did he obstruct them?  Why bring war upon his country to protect a myth?" (p. 374).  Tony tries to answer this in the following pages, and they are worth reading.  These pages have not been mentioned in any review I have seen, either. Because they are too subtle for those who wish to comment, or because those people have not actually read them.  In any case these, as Tony says, have made their minds up already.

The Suez venture,  in which Britain and France sought to topple Nasser in Egypt, failed.  How would it have been seen by history if it had succeeded?

Apparently (p. 411) Hans Blix kept saying "I have to decide for war or peace" and wouldn't listen to Tony telling him it wasn't actually his decision.  There's a lot here, but remember that there had already been military action in Iraq, in 1993 and 1998, in support of UN Resolution 660 (1990) which was still extant in 2003.  In fact Resolution 1441 was itself the "second resolution" people were on about at the time.  Also, "when people say that there were warnings that planning for the aftermath was not up to the mark, that is absolutely true.  What is forgotten, however, is that those warnings were about eventualities that fortunately didn't materialise.  Somehow, despite the inadequacy, there was no humanitarian disaster.  The food was distributed  The system worked." (p. 442).

Tony had dinner with Vladimir Putin in April 2003.  He has a lot of admiration for Putin, though relations between them cooled around Iraq, and the smaller former eastern bloc nations' support for the action, and for NATO. He quotes Putin: "Suppose we act against Georgia, which is a base for terrorism against Russia - what would you say if we took Georgia out?  Yet Americans think they can do whatever they like to whomever they like.". (p. 451).  Russia did invade Georgia of course, in August 2008.  And received polite criticism internationally for doing so (and enthusiastic support from some of my correspondents, despite the lack of UN input of any kind) despite the many deaths and the thousands of refugees created.

Too many autobiographies and memoirs give the author's take on events and incidents without quoting any facts.  Tony does not do this.  He quotes, even when the quotes are decidedly unhelpful to him.  This is what Andrew Gilligan said on the Today programme, which I remember hearing, half-asleep, and being shocked by: "What we've been told by one of the senior officials in charge of drawing up that dossier was that actually the government probably knew that the forty-five minute figure was wrong even before it decided to put it in... Downing Street, our source says, a week before publication, ordered it to be sexed up, to be made more exciting, and ordered more facts to be discovered.".  We know what happened after that.  A man died in an Oxfordshire wood.

"There was no popular uprising to defend Saddam" (p. 465).  No there was not.  Despite the millions who marched in the West waving the flag of Saddam's regime.  Those who actually lived under his rule, and most of his neighbours, wanted him gone.  As to the Iraqi casualties, Tony consistently sees Iraq Body Count, an organisation which does not have the aim of rehabilitating the then Labourgovernment or of being helpful to Tony Blair, as authoritative.  And "the lesson goes wider: it is about rising above the fray, learning how to speak above the din and clatter,and always, always, always keeping focused on the big picture" (p. 481) "assorted intellectuals whose main contribution was to explain why nothing should change, in the name of being radicals" (p. 487).

Vignettes (what is the English for vignette?): when Israel disengaged from Gaza (p. 515) "the international community saw it as a unilateral act lby Israel and therefore wrong, not as lifting the occupation.

He describes himself as a "naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop" (p. 516) for wanting the Freedom of Information Act.

During the 2005 UK presidency of the EU a budget deal was reached.  The UK media called it a betrayal, but "frankly they would have done if I had led Jacques Chirac in chains through the streets of London"  (p. 542).

"Then there is the moment of encounter, so exciting, so naughty, so lacking in self-control" (p. 591) - he was ostensibly talking about John Prescott's affair with his diary secretary, but - did he know personally what this was like?  His marriage with Cherie struck me as happy, but still...

Tony clearly has a conscience about letting himself be pushed out, I think because he chose his time.  If you don't want to go it is better if you make them make you go.

"I was, after all, still prime minister" (p. 625) - his Duchess of Malfi moment.  Such a mistake.

He describes his final chapter, intended as a postscript, as more of a credo, though I find it pure self-justification.  I think his credo is more like this: "all successful, modern campaigns, including the Sarkozy campaign in France in 2007,  utilised modern methods and - this to me being the crucial point -blurred the distinction betwewen the inner core - the activists - and broader public support" (p. 638).

And finally, as someone once said, "Every walk of life is now subject to strong rules of  disclosure, scrutiny and accountability, except one: the media." (p. 678).

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks, very informative...but please could you explain "Duchess of Malfi moment" for those of us too lazy to read the play? I can only recall a general feeling of spectacular violence from when I saw it on TV 40 years ago.

Anonymous said...

Duchess of Malfi maybe - but the tragedy of the Labour Party is that they have turned Tony into Browning's 'My Last Duchess'.

Labour should really allow its Prime Ministers to go at a time of their own choosing. Left to themselves, they will generally know when this is right. However, if the Party decides that it knows best, you end up casting the last leader quite unfairly in pole position of spectre at the feast aka Banquo/My Last Duchess (rather than in their own Prime Ministerial place on the wall of 10 Downing Street),walking the earth - or in TB's case -- all four corners of the world, rather like the undead or Yasser Arafat or Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights.

So no new leader can stake out their own territory and the only real policy autonomy belongs to the Tories.
Generally takes at least three Genral Eletcion defeats to 'make the break' -- or more probably, even the death of the Duchess/Earnshaw figure.

It is a fact that few remember but true -- Labour could only 'break free' and accept that it had a new, real 'next Prime Minister' in May 1995 when Harold Wilson died.

Nearly 19 years after he had stopped being PM.....

Tony Blair shows quite a knack for bodice-ripping prose, if the extracts printed are anything to go by.
Must take it on trust so far, because I haven't as yet, read the book.

But , from the academic perspective of literary criticsm - or 'practical criticism' as we called it on the Eng Lit university course, a distinct difference emerges when you analyse the evocation of marital sex - the clunky embarrasment of 'devouring Cherie's love' etc and the heady thrill that abounds from the prose when he is describing the 'naughty' excitement of JOHN PRESCOTT's AFFAIR.

I bet that our ex Deputy PM had no idea that his prosaic secretarial grab was titillating his boss in such a way.

And finally, the index.Name checks!
Lots of ridiculous guff has been written about Anji Hunter who receives 23 detailed name checks.
Famously, Edwina Currie was miffed to get none in John Major's well written autobiography.

Ruth Turner gets three mentions - about three lines.

Twas ever thus.

Anonymous said...

Ruth Turner?

Is the Pope a Catholic?

Anonymous said...

I have just watched The Special Relationship with Martin Sheen again in the role of Tony Blair.

Deals with the Blair/Clinton relationship, taking in the Lewinsky moment and Kosovo.

Last shot is authentic reel of his first press conference with George W Bush.

Two points.
1) I had so forgotten the amazing young, healthy, animal charm he radiated then. Rather like a big tiggerish golden retriever puppy - all paws and bounds and yaps.I am now so used to the leathery, balding ultra-tanned skulls head that we see on the box or on the book cover or whatever. He wasn't alwyas like that.

2)Interesting and telling snippet of dialogue.

Tony to Cherie 'Would you leave me?' ( if he had an affair like Clinton).
Cherie 'No - but I'd make your life hell'.

Hm.

Jonny said...

Anon 12:53. As she is being tortured before her murder, the Duchess cries defiantly, maybe hubristically, certainly poignantly "I am Duchess of Malfi still!"

Anon 00:16. Martin Sheen is an enjoyable actor, but Michael Sheen's portrayal of Blair is probably better.

Jonny - helping with the trivia of life.

Sauti Ndogo said...

I'd like to hear more of your views of what the book says about Brown.

Brown made the Blair premiership and then broke it. I think history should judge Blair's failure to deal with Brown's wrecking as a more significant feature of his premiership than Iraq.

To put it another way: Blair must have, should have, more regrets about how he handled Brown than about how he handled Iraq.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Johnny - I stand corrected. Martin Sheen played the good guy in Wall Street who wins out against Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko.

Gordon 'Greed is Good' Gekko.

Anonymous said...

"I am Duchess of Malfi still!"

Brilliant! Thanks for the superb quotation (most apposite) and the explanation. I liked the "Last Duchess" aallusion as well. All very educational.

jane said...

Martin Sheen played President Bartlet in The West Wing, as any fule kno.

Tony doesn't have very much at all to say about Gordon, and he certainly should have said more. He also does not have enough to say about why and how he was pushed out. I tend to agree that Tony is to blame for not smacking Gordon hard enough and early enough, but having been in a similar situation on a smaller scale myself I know how difficult it is to see, and treat, as enemies those people who are ostensibly on your side even though they are working against you.

Anonymous said...

"A candidate can always tell when the platform they are standing on is rubbish. And most of us have done it."

So why stand on it?

jane said...

Politics Key Stage One. You join a party and stand as its candidate because you believe that party is a force for good, and as such should elect people, and preferably form governments local and national. The party may have some policies with which you disagree, in fact it is bound to. It may mess up with its election strategy too, but this doesn't stop you believing. I hope this is helpful.

Anonymous said...

Am I mad or are some of these comments suggesting a Blair amatory adventure?

Surely the words Blair and amatory just have to be paradoxical?

jane said...

you might mean oxymoronic - but no, I don't think so.

Anonymous said...

If your money is on Hunter or Caplin then you might as well burn it.

jane said...

Indeed - look later in the alphabet

Sauti Ndogo said...

Bridget "Diary" Jones said TB was the first prime minister in her life she could imagine having sex with.

I certainly assumed he was one of the types of men that women found attractive: the intelligent manner, the boyish smile, the easy non-threatening way he spoke.

Anonymous said...

Yeah - all of that.

But it is a time honoured tradition that employees often find it sexy and intriguing to bonk the boss - even if the boss is John Prescott.

A mutual exchange of power along with the bodily fluids ( too much info - Ed).

Anonymous said...

Then Bridget Diary Jones has a very limited imagination.

What the hell was wrong with Benjamin Disraeli?

Anonymous said...

Woosh. All feels a bit last century now - sort of.

Off with the old etc.

However, one suspects it will be same old.