Tony Blair: A Political Journey Across The Pond

Mark Laluan

One might think of public policy making as an act of political conjuration—a process by which unpalatable policy is shorn of disastrous omens and thus rendered acceptable to the electorate.

Politicians of all stripes must weigh the reality of providing results with the grudging realization that perusing the promises made in their campaign manifestos will earn them entrenched enemies both inside the halls of power and in the larger world.

To sustain oneself in such a hostile, unforgiving atmosphere, the politico becomes a wearer of many hats. Unfortunately, swapping identities can lead to the shifting of moral boundaries.

After a time, the line between what is permissible and impermissible becomes blurred. The public servant thus undergoes the transformation from representative of the collective will to a messianic figure free from the concept of restraint.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in his autobiography “A Journey,” hints in a subtle manner that this transformation from starry-eyed man of the people to self-appointed savior is somewhat inevitable.

The British political scene is both similar and different than ours.

Like America, the British maintain a two-party system between the center-left Labour Party (an analog of our Democratic Party), and center-right Conservative Party (an analog of our Republican Party).

The British Parliament is comprised of two houses, the House of Lords and the House of Commons, much like our Senate and House of Representatives.

Unlike America, the British have supreme authority vested in a monarch instead of a written constitution. A third party, the Liberal Democrats exists as a force of opportunism that allies with Labour or the Conservatives depending on which party would better aid their platform, a platform which has its best analog in America with the various libertarian movements.

Blair stood at the apex of this political system for the better part of a decade. His memoirs provide a window into these tense years for both Britain and the larger world.

Blair’s tenure of office from 1997 to 2007 is a case study in what Bismarck termed “the art of the possible,” that being the use of political power as a transformative force to impart changes deemed necessary on a nation-state as a whole. Blair led an anemic Labour Party still reeling from electorate defeats inflicted by the Conservative Party out of two decades in the political wilderness to a landslide victory.

To push through an agenda that included items as diverse as Scottish devolution, peace initiatives in Northern Ireland, university tuition reform and interventionist polices in Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq, Blair had to convince the British electorate of the absolute necessity of his policy planks and his personal leadership.

Blair waxes eloquent over his vision of a third-way democratic reformulation of what he viewed as the traditionally socialist and trade unionist values of the Labour Party.

Thus, in the sort of down home manner that one comes to expect from professional politicians, Blair masterfully lays out the case for why the Labour Party had to abandon its core constituency to woo the mainstream British public.

From this starting point, Blair takes us on a surprisingly candid tour of his political career. Even for those who are not students of British politics, Blair’s memoirs provide a template for what one might expect in the thought processes, emotions and actions of a career politician in high office.

While Blair does assume of the reader some level of familiarity with parliamentarians and political figures dotting the British political scene, the author gives us adequate background on the significance of their figures in relation to his tenure as Prime Minister.

A picture begins to appear that is very different from the “Dubya’s lapdog” image that developed in the American media in the days following the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Blair portrays himself as instrumental in prodding the Bush Administration into taking up the banner of a two-state solution for peace in the Holy Land between Israelis and Palestinians as part of a border package to win support from the Muslim world for the War on Terror.

He never tires reminding the reader of his self-appointed role as a mediator between President George W. Bush’s “honest objectives” and those held by the more aggressive members of his cabinet, such as Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Ronald Rumsfeld.

Much type is also devoted to explaining his complicated relationship with his Chancellor of the Exchequer and sometime-rival for leadership of the Labour Party, Gordon Brown. Brown would eventually succeed Blair as Prime Minister after he stepped down in 2007.

The story of Brown and Blair’s interactions, from their spat over leadership of the Labour Party in 1994, conflicts over domestic policy in the early part of last decade, Brown’s assumption of the premiership in 2007 to the disastrous electoral showing of the Labour Party in 2010 are used to illustrate what is perhaps the overarching theme of Blair’s memories.

Blair accuses Brown of remaining with one foot firmly in “Old” Labour instead of having both feet firmly in “New” Labour—that is to say, Brown never fully committed to Blair’s vision for party. In Blair’s opinion, the act of abandoning his policies alienated the mainstream British voter and led to the disastrous 2010 election, which saw the Conservative Party and its leader David Cameron take power from Labour.

Blair gives the impression that he was the essential lynchpin that held New Labour policies in place—that with his departure, “Old” Labour functionaries were free to return from the backbenches to wreck havoc on Blair’s finely tuned machine.

When taken together, Blair’s packaged thoughts would lead a reader to believe that his political memoirs function as a giant slap in the face against the Labour establishment he fought during his tenure in office.

In one sense it is an honest attempt at throwing the gauntlet down at his detractors, in another sense Blair’s memoirs benefit from his successor Brown’s inability to steer the Labour Party to victory on his own terms. Blair’s three successfully fought elections look positively smashing in comparison to Labour’s ungainly rout in 2010 with Brown at the helm.

“A Journey” will probably not change anyone’s perception of Tony Blair. Granted, political memoirs are not written with an eye to change contemporary viewpoints, but for posterity.

Blair’s autobiography covers a selection of some of the most momentous years in the modern era. As a resource written by a figure intimately involved in the process of making history in those years, Blair’s memoirs are of incalculable value to future generations wishing to know the mind of Tony Blair.