Review: A Journey

A Journey, by Tony Blair – hardback, out September 1st, £25, 718pp

The former PM is witty, engaging and occasionally wise – but when the mask slips, the faults emerge.

Review by Ian Dunt

I remember going up in the London Eye for the first time, expecting to understand the arrangement of the capital better. It was no use. However high we went, it wasn’t high enough to get a firmer grip on London’s lackadaisical, anarchic geography. All you could see was even more mess. A similar sensation takes over while reading Tony Blair’s long-awaited memoirs, A Journey.

On the one hand, the former prime minister appears to be staggeringly honest. In the first page, he tells us that his predominant emotion on winning the 1997 election was fear. But zoom out, go a little higher, and you wonder whether a whole new level of manipulation isn’t taking place. What was it he was scared of? “I was afraid because suddenly I thought of myself no longer as the up-and-coming but as the owner of responsibility. I realised I knew nothing about how tough it really was, nothing about how government really works.”

What starts as an intriguing display of vulnerability, quickly permeates into a rather clever bit of defensive rhetoric, an observation which usefully weakens any argument against his decisions in office.

But ‘A Journey’ is not some simple, self-congratulatory briefing on how wonderful Blair thinks he is. The Middle East peace envoy quite openly admits to his faults – specifically his talent for manipulation – in several passages. “Don’t let the mask slip,” he advises fellow politicians. “I began to think there was never a moment when I could be completely candid and exposed.” Or on the death of Princess Diana: “We were both in our own ways manipulative people, perceiving quickly the emotions of others and able instinctively to play with them.”

At other moments he is simply astoundingly, and often very amusingly honest. On spending a weekend at Balmoral, he writes: “The blessing was the stiff drink you could get before dinner. Had it been a dry event, had the Queen been a teetotaller, or a temperance fanatic, I don’t believe I could have got through the weekend.” There are times when he succeeds in making you grudgingly empathising with him over issues you would have never thought possible, such as his refusal to apologise for the loss of life at the Chilcot Inquiry. The ensuing headlines of ‘Blair apologises for war’ would have done an injustice to those who supported it, and appeased those who didn’t, he argues persuasively.

But Blair’s character fails to really emerge from his account of life as prime minister. It’s a surprising sentiment to take from a book which appears so honest, and which is written in such a businesslike manner. The language has already been attacked as childish and colloquial. In certain parts this is true. The occasional page encourages the reader to punch the book, such as the description of the Queen’s behaviour as “very queenly”, or the incessant use of exclamation marks. At one point, Blair concludes a tale of how he nearly had to scramble fighters to shoot down a passenger jet over London with the words: “I needed to sit down and thank God for that one!” His arrogance can occasionally get the better of him as well. He says of one of his conference speeches: “As with all visionary speeches, it attracted both plaudits and sneers. I had written it myself, virtually straight out.”

But the matter of fact tone does have Blair’s voice to it, and it makes a change from the lofty and alienating affections of most political memoirs. Reports that it was not ghost written must surely be true. You can almost hear him talking. Certain moments see his undoubted political genius translate into exquisite writing. His description of the days following Princess Diana’s death as “a moment of supreme national articulation” is a particularly brilliant construction.

It becomes rather difficult to establish how well written the book is merely by virtue of the fact that the subject matter is so fascinating. The pleasure and insight to be gained comes predominantly from a first-person account (admittedly from an unreliable narrator) of the major events of our period in history. After being led by Blair for so many years, it is mesmerising to finally be granted access to what often appear to be his private, genuinely held views.

“George Bush had been re-elected US president,” he says of the American ally who had such an impact on his time in power. “I am, of course, a Democrat, and I liked John Kerry and thought he would have made a good president. But the issue, whatever my own political tribe, was – in terms of perception – completely obvious: a defeat for Bush was a defeat for Blair.”

His tactics for defeating the steady parade of Tory leaders who he vanquished is also captivating. “I defined Major as weak; Hague as better at jokes than judgement; Howard as an opportunist; Cameron as a flip-flop, not knowing where he wanted to go. Expressed like that, these attacks seem flat, rather mundane almost, and not exactly inspiring – but that’s their appeal. Any one of those charges, if it comes to be believed, is actually fatal.”

His assessment of Prince Charles exhibits an uncanny knack of comprehending the zeitgeist, revealing just how intuitively and effectively he grasps the essential mood of the nation. “Probably he underestimates how much the public – now more than then – get him and are comfortable with him,” he writes. A passage on a recurring problem with left wing intellectuals, sees Blair realise that figures like Ed Balls “could ‘get’ that it might not be smart to penalise [the middle classes]; but not that it might be wrong to do so”.

But the mask does finally slip, and it comes, rather predictably, during the lengthy passage on Iraq. It does so in a telling way which reflects the same faults which ruined him. It is that quasi-religious zeal which the British public came to find so distasteful which emerges again to derail his account of himself and the world around him.

September 11th was a “declaration of war”, he says. That is indeed what the terrorists intended it to be, but Blair fails to ask if the US/UK reaction needed to play into that narrative. Opponents of the foreign policy decisions which followed wanted a response which treated the act as a crime – a response which would not have involved Guantanamo, a decade of war and an assault on traditional British and American freedoms.

“If I had known then that a decade later we would still be fighting in Afghanistan, I would have been profoundly perturbed and alarmed,” he admits. “We had not counted on the deep grip this extremism could exercise on the imagination, will and way of life of its adherents.” At no point does Blair ask himself if this growing extremism was the result of his decision to act precisely as the September 11th terrorists had wanted. They wanted war, and it was given to them.

By the time of the final chapter, which sees Blair summarise his views on a host of current political issues, his rhetoric has expanded to almost Biblical levels. “I believe we should be projecting strength and determination abroad, not weakness or uncertainty. We have become too apologetic, too feeble, too inhibited, too imbued with doubt and too lacking in mission.” It is with gradually encroaching worry that you realise this passage does not even refer to the UK. It refers to the West. He then ponders how Muslims might have come to the conclusion that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are a continuation of the Crusades.

Blair veers terribly close to arguing, essentially, that ‘they started it’. “What is the nature of the threat?” he writes. “It does not derive from something we have done; there was no sense in which the West sought a confrontation.” He then goes on to insist on preparations for military action with Iran.

It is in these moments that some other side to his character emerges, a profoundly dangerous, simplistic and religious side, which has done incredible damage to the world. The jovial nature falls away, the mask slips, and the questionable side of him emerges, the side of him which would, even now, go to war with Iran, despite everything that has happened since September 11th.

The irony is that it’s the only time where he abandons a ‘third way’, a path between positions, and commits himself totally to one perspective. It is not an irony that he recognises.

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, ‘A Journey’ is a fascinating read. It is not well written in the original sense of the word, but it is compulsively readable. It is hugely insightful, although not always on purpose. The revelations are those of his perspective, rather than the events. But at that level, it does not disappoint. As a study of being in government, it is far more accessible than any memoir before it. For those interested in British politics and the issues which defined us at the turn of the century, it is indispensible.