Mar 9, 2014
Tony Blair’s Journey
Posted on Sep 16, 2010
According to newspaper reports, the title of his book, A Journey, was originally “The Journey”, a switch allegedly made on the grounds that the first choice was more appropriate to the prophet Muhammad and the second left open the very slight possibility – important for a certain section of potential purchasers – that the author’s direction of journeying was only one of the possible choices and not necessarily the one that successors, or even disciples, had to follow. In that same humbler spirit perhaps, the world of the future now only “may become” what he predicts. Nonetheless, this book is still striking for Blair’s powerful sense of himself and his central significance, a confidence comfortingly undimmed by those parts of the past three years spent making money from motivational speeches. The reader does not need to be a ransacking reporter to discover, on the first page of the introduction, that this book is to be “different from the traditional political memoir . . . because my aim was to write not as a historian but rather as a leader”. While many people, he explains, could write “the history of my ten years as Prime Minister . . . there is only one person who can write an account of what it is like to be the human being at the centre of that history and that is me”.
The truly determined ransacker, in search of better, brighter booty and shinier shoes further on, may not pause immediately to reflect on the oddity here that, of all Blair’s modern predecessors, only Churchill ever thought of himself as writing as a historian, that all others have written about themselves as “a leader”, and that thus the difference from the traditional political memoir, wherever it lies, does not lie there. Be that as it may, the words are a preparation for what is much the most striking aspect of this book – well beyond the Leo-and-Grandma show at Crawford – its meandering along and around those lines that link the personal and political, one of the most important changes in public life in which he has both been willing participant, enthusiastic overseer and eventual victim.
Are politicians different from the rest of us? Do they live by the same rules? Should they live by the same rules? When we are told about their personal lives and habits – to a degree taken here further than ever before in a Prime Minister’s memoir – are we being persuaded that they are more like us than they really are? Is that useful for either side? Blair is drily candid on the pretences required for modern politics, the need to appear like a normal person during election campaigns, buying items in front of the TV cameras from security-vetted salesmen in security-cleared shops and learning the prices of grocery items he would never buy lest he be accused of not knowing the cost of corn flakes.
Most of that is “rubbish”, he concedes, but it is rubbish justified by the urge of the media, when left to their own devices, to recognize abuse of politicians as the only newsworthy reality: those bawling pensioners who think they have been wronged, a familiar sight to all who follow election campaigns through the media, become accepted as the bellwethers of the electorate when they would be better categorized as “Rottweilers on speed”.
There are certain other deceptions in this book which are wholly harmless and intended only, we must assume, for the most exclusive audience. Of Bob Geldof and Bono, “they ultimately care more about getting things done than about protecting their egos”; of the political potential of the U2 singer alone, “Bono could have been a president or prime minister standing on his head”. There is no room, sadly, for a discussion of Mick Jagger’s views on the European single currency or any highlights of the “Cool Britannia” party in Downing Street after the 1997 election. I often wondered what happened after Noel Gallagher was led away for his personal tour of the state rooms.
Sometimes, Blair explains, deception is justified for reasons that any Metternich would understand, when, for example, a necessary part of the Northern Ireland peace process would collapse without it. More often, and just as understandably, there was the need to deceive in ways that normal people as well as politicians regularly do, like pretending a non-existent friendship, buying ice creams for himself and Gordon Brown from a van in order to seem “together and normal”, and then being told not to put a chocolate flake in his cone because he might appear “greedy”. Blair, we discover, does not like his soft ice cream without an accompanying chocolate bar, and boldly he describes himself putting truth before appearances, in that respect at least.
The variety of personal revelations, in this archetypal book of modern politics, extends far beyond preferences in confectionery. There is gentle reminiscence – spattered with child-like exclamation marks – that includes his teenage failure to share a sleeping bag with the girl who would later become his most acute political aide. The description of his role at the birth of his son (“I was in a corridor with my detective listening and waiting while Cherie did a bit of preliminary shrieking and groaning”) might once have seemed unusually intrusive but since Mrs Blair in her own memoir has already explained the baby’s conception, on a weekend with the Queen, as a failure to bring the appropriate contraceptive equipment, it has hardly merited a notice; nor has Blair’s account of the “mild disgust” felt by his older children at the proof of their parents having sex. In the week of A Journey’s publication, political reporters were soon withdrawn from ransacking duties here to cover the miscarriages of the Foreign Secretary’s wife, officially announced by him in the cause of quelling internet rumours of his homosexuality.
How the public reacts to these varying levels of candour is hard to gauge. While Blair complains about the demands of his advisers to let the voters see his ice cream side, he went along with them, give or take a chocolate flake, as necessary vote-getters at the time. While critics say that he set a standard for stunts that is unlikely ever to be matched, Blair says he is only doing what needs to be done. He attacks the pack mentality of the media and its preference for Rottweiler-pensioners as representatives of the nation. But he always happily summoned his own pack.
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