“You know, I of course I feel sorrow for the people who have died, how could you not…” God, there it was again, that voice, pouring out of the radio at 6:30 in the morning, as one of the last sunny days began outside. Tony Blair back from the shadowlands of post-priministerial life, and right in the middle of it all again, to plug his long-awaited memoir, A Journey.
Though it is not being serialised, the doorstopper has become famous before anyone has had the chance to read it, and for reasons evocative of New Labour at its worst. For two weeks now the chatter has all been about the launch and signing Blair will be undertaking at Waterstone’s flagship bookstore on Piccadilly.
The event is being run as a major security operation, and the list of conditions (‘no cameras, no phones, no jackets, your book may not get signed, no talking to Mr Blair’) has turned it into some grim East European parody (‘Comrade Hoxha will be appearing at Borders Ballarat to sign Collected Speeches Vol 52.’), and a magnet for the Socialist Workers Party … sorry, Stop The War Coalition.
Before that there was the gazumping by Peter Mandelson, with his contribution The Third Man, a volume which to call disingenuous would be to, um, diss ingenues — ‘I was very surprised to find that we were selling peerages for party donations’; ‘I was shocked to find that we had invaded Iraq’; ‘It was 2004 before I learnt of the Millennium Dome’ — and last and least the change from the allegedly messianic The Journey to the apparently unobjectionably self-obsessed A Journey. Two words, two lies.
But no amount of foreshadowing can prepare you for the return of Mr Tony. The disastrous radioactive tan and pseudo-American accent are gone, thank God in the election, standing glowing at the podium in Sedgefield Labour Club he looked like a trophy he was awarding to himself. But there is still the smooth alien head, the eyes stretched back to the side of his head, the mouth a rictus grin.
And the cover photo is bizarre, a dead ringer for a B-movie serial killer promo, and all the more alarming when you realise that this, by definition, was the one that made him look the most engaging and inspiring. God knows what the discards looked like.
This is Blair’s farewell to British politics,and he means to do it proper — the book is everywhere. The absence of serialisation has sent journos scurrying for juicy, easily-digested tid-bits. So we’ve heard how Blair now thinks it was a mistake to ban fox-hunting, which permanently alienated a swathe of marginal country seats; how he can’t believe he was so stupid as to introduce a Freedom Of Information Act; that Brown threatened the nuclear option; calling an inquiry into the cash-for-peerages scandal from within government if Blair tried to reduce pensions; and that the relationship became so toxic that Mr Tony took to the bottle and “became worried about his own drinking”.
God knows what problem drinking is for a man like Blair; a second half-glass of white wine, given his government’s definition of binge drinking, but it has the same half-truth of much else of what he’s saying. Blair never had much chance of avoiding that one; the Labour leadership always hated the hunting ban, but the party was largely in favour of it, and it came up through a private members bill. The FOI bill was a manifesto promise, and the effects that Blair describes that makes it impossible to have both open-debate and proper documentation within government as a “huge shock” could both be expected, to a degree, and are highly exaggerated. Drinking, thinking and hunting — not hugely important in themselves but indicative of the way in which Blair manages to avoid inventing reality, but succeeds in bending it to the shape he wants.
That tendency comes out perforce in the two big topics: Iraq, and that man Brown. Ever since his oleaginous performance at the Chilcot Inquiry, in which he wriggled around the word ‘regret’ while giving an account of a war unpurposed and out of control from the start, and his subsequent consultancies, including that for a Korean oil concession in Iraq, has produced something amounting to disgust with him from many people, including those who had supported the war.
Blair has attempted to assuage that despite by the no-strings-attached donation of his book advance (4.6 million pounds, $A9.5 million) to facilities for injured soldiers, but it’s indicative of his lack of understanding that none of the money went to any bloody Iraqis. To do so would be to admit some guilt.
A Journey continues Blair’s long career of obfuscation over the blatantly deceitful, amoral and chaotic lead up to the war, with Blair refining the idea that Saddam Hussein had a WMD program that could be restarted quite rapidly as a casus belli. That was not the case that was presented, of course — we were told that Iraq had WMDs ready for use within 45 minutes of attack.
Despite the fact the British intelligence ‘dodgy’ dossier contained, inter alia, a masters degree taken off the internet and presented as intelligence, or that former inspectors such as Scott Ritter had set out the clear proof that Iraq did not have WMDs, it is clear that war had been on the agenda since 2002 and possibly since before 9/11. In his major publicity piece, an hour-long BBC interview with Andrew Marr, mention of the ’45 second claim’ was the closest Blair got to losing his ability to dissemble or even speak at all. Unsurprisingly, because it was a barefaced lie.
For the rest of it, it’s the vaguely mad circularity whereby Blair restates the need for the West to reshape the Middle East, and then warns the struggle may become more bitter and wider, because the Middle East seems to be so full of people who unaccountably hate the West.
But of course, the Iraq years were for Blair about the struggle with a malign tyrant of ceaseless energy and cunning. Apparently it was only in the final years the relationship with Brown fell apart. For Blair, what gave the rationale to welch on his deal to hand over to Brown within two terms, was his suspicion that Brown would not follow through on the ‘new Labour’ agenda. This apparently was not futile wars, but public service reform in terms of choice, service delivery, etc.
But even here Blair seems to be seeing the whole debate in the rear-view mirror. His passion was for various forms of quasi-private schools academies even though (like charter schools in the US) they have underperformed state schools on a pound for pound basis. He claims at one point that the NHS wasn’t an issue in 2010 because “Labour had basically solved it”, which will be news to anyone who has had to wait four days for a GP appointment in a 1948-era front-end system that genuinely was in need of reform, and didn’t get it. About 70% of people wanted the privatised oligopoly of the railway renationalised — hardly possible but giving a license to shake them up. And on and on.
Indeed what Blair appears to have meant by public service reform is cutting back welfare in a neo-Thatcherite manner, something which Brown prevented him from doing, thus making him, in Blair’s eyes, unfit to govern. Whether public service reform was ever the vote winner Blair thinks it was, arguing that lack of it cost the 2010 election remains to be seen after the ’08 crash. Blair would have been dumped too. But Brown’s refusal to let Labour start the cutting may well have given some bulwark to the poorest against the Lib-Con condominium. Blair’s verdict was that Brown was unfit to be PM because of this and because he had “an emotional intelligence of nil. Strange guy.”
Strange guy indeed. Brown himself moved pretty far to the Right, with his enthusiasm for finance-led ‘endogenous growth’ and neo-Victorian moralists like Gertrude Himmelfarb, but Blair simply became a global imperialist, for whom domestic concerns in a shitty little island loomed ever less interesting with each new invasion. He helped sow hate and chaos in the whole geographical middle of the world, and he offers more of the same as a response to what he had created.
He sacrificed a genuinely modernised Britain on the char-blackened altar of a naivete about the West that can only come as the product of being a deeply shallow person. Blair’s new Labour did improve the lives of the poor, but it never got around to attacking inequality of opportunity, before the martial drums began to sound. Had he not committed to that slaughter, and those to come, we could assess him as a middling successful social market reformer — and one who might still be in power, accepting the thanks of a grateful nation for avoiding the Bush-era quagmire.
Instead we have a man who reduced hospital waiting queues in one country, while filling the morgues of another — and then argued that each act inhered in the other. No wonder his face has the perennial tension of a man who is forever trying to stop his skull from breaking through his skin. No wonder he is loathed, even by his colleagues, supporters and friends. Farewell to him, as he wanders between the winds of ‘interfaith dialogue’ and speeches for Exxon, in perpetual self-justification and fear of a warrant.
All I hope is that there are no more mornings when I wake again to his voice on the airwaves, Narcissus triumphant, all echo and no psyche.
Guy Rundle is Crikey's correspondent-at-large. He was co-editor of Arena Magazine for 15 years, and has written four hit stage shows for Max Gillies, two musicals, numerous books and produced TV shows including Comedy Inc and Backberner.