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The 'Slightly Unexpected' Leader
 An interview with Blair biographer John Rentoul

John Rentoul is chief editorial writer for The Independent and the author of Tony Blair: Prime Minister (Time Warner Books, 2001), considered the definitive biography of Blair to date. In this Web-exclusive interview with FRONTLINE, Rentoul discusses Blair's character, his political influences, and the evolution of his "ethically based" foreign policy. The interview took place on March 21, 2003.

 
 

Blair's historic speech to the House of Commons on March 18: What were you thinking as you watched or listened to Blair's speech. Will it go down as a defining moment?

Well, it was a very, very important speech. There's no question that it came at the end of a week which was really the most serious week that he had faced as prime minister over the six years. It wasn't his best speech or his most striking speech. It was a powerful speech and it showed the extent to which he has grown in confidence as prime minister.

His command of the House of Commons was total. He took interruptions from his own side, which is a debating skill which I don't think you see in any other legislative chamber in the world, apart from those modeled on the Westminster system. And that is a difficult skill, to take skeptical questions from your own side in the middle of a speech and to retain a sense of coherence and argument throughout.

I personally thought that he piled up the arguments for this war in the hope that the sheer scale of his rhetoric, and the sheer weight of numbers of arguments, would overwhelm the critics. But there was no doubt that it was a powerful performance and it had an important effect outside the House of Commons. I don't know how many MPs were actually persuaded by it, but it had an important effect outside the House of Commons in persuading people who disagreed with him to respect him.

There was a lot of coverage in the U.S. of Prime Minister's Questions, Blair's weekly question and answer session in the House of Commons. Every week he's been there, arguing his position on Iraq as forcefully as possible, but the British public meanwhile remained unconvinced. In your estimation, does he simply lack the rhetorical skills to get the public behind him? Or was the mission simply unsellable? Is it the man or the mission, in other words?

Ronald Reagan was described as the great communicator, and Tony Blair is undoubtedly the great communicator of contemporary British politics. He is head and shoulders above anybody else in British politics as a communicator, both on television and in person, and as a persuader. He is possibly one of the most persuasive people on the planet. His great skill in politics and one of the secrets of his success has been his ability to charm and persuade people with widely different views that he understands problems from their point of view and shares their views -- while speaking with such care as not to use words which actually commit himself one way or the other.

Related Features

))) Better Angels: Kosovo War
An excerpt from John Rentoul's Tony Blair: Prime Minister.

))) The Liberal Divide
Paul Berman, Timothy Garton Ash, and David Rieff discuss Blair, the liberal case for war, and the divided left.

Related Links

))) Interview with Blair (2000)
FRONTLINE interviewed Blair for its 2000 documentary about the Kosovo war, where he discusses his determination to keep open the option of deploying ground forces despite fierce resistance from several of his allies.

))) Interview with Blair (2002)
Blair was also interviewed for FRONTLINE's 2002 documentary, "Campaign Against Terror," where he talks candidly about his diplomatic efforts in support of the coalition against terrorism, including his conversations with President George W. Bush and the leaders of France, Germany, Pakistan, and Iran.

 

The fact that he's been unable to convince the British public that this was a necessary war is interesting because it's the first time he's been unable to persuade people that he's right on a really important issue.

But there's a fairly simple explanation for that, which is that George Bush pre-empted the issue. President Bush made it clear even before Sept. 11, I think, that the removal of Saddam Hussein was the objective of American policy. And so in a sense everyone in this country -- and not necessarily people who are anti-American -- tended to feel that the arguments for delay would not be heard. And so Blair's persuasive powers are irrelevant because people assumed he was trying to think up reasons for supporting something which had already been decided.

And now people accuse him of simply being a tool for the U.S. That's not something new, though. In your book, you jokingly say at one point that he had acted like a caddie to Clinton.

Yeah, that was a slightly unfair reference of mine. He played golf with President Clinton when Clinton came to visit him once at the prime minister's country residence in Chequers, which is surrounded by some quite pleasant countryside, including a golf course. So Bill Clinton showed him how to play golf, and Blair, who is good at sport, managed to play a reasonable round of golf the first time he touched the ball. So I made a rather unkind joke there about him acting as caddie to the American president, which is another form of the gibe which he has persistently suffered, which is that he is the American president's poodle and that he was in that role with Clinton and with Bush.

In fact, his relationship with Clinton and Bush has been different. It was Clinton who was reluctant in Kosovo to commit ground forces, and Blair's achievement there was to bounce Clinton into making a credible threat of using the ground forces, which is what was decisive in forcing Slobodan Milosevic to give in. Whereas with Bush, Blair has had the opposite problem of being seen as acting as a restraining force on the Americans.

The comparisons of Blair to Bill Clinton, of course, still have currency: Both are young and charismatic, both moved their parties more to the center. But Margaret Thatcher has been essential to the development of Blair's political strategies as well. You write that he's learned the most important lessons about politics from the Thatcher period. Didn't she in some way endorse him even?

She said on a number of occasions that she respected him. There is a big difference between her attitude toward previous Labor leaders -- whom she regarded as snakes in the grass, socialists, dangerous, subversives -- and her attitude toward Tony Blair. She was quoted as making one private comment that he wouldn't let Britain down, which was pretty much an endorsement, although in public she always criticized him or at least criticized his party and said that his party's policies were wrong.

But she gave her coded endorsement to him, and that was pretty significant and a good example of his ability to charm parts of the political spectrum that you wouldn't expect to be sympathetic toward him.

You talk about the development of Blair's political philosophy and how it diverged from that of his father's, and you say he's basically the Christian socialist son of an atheist Tory. "Christian socialist," that's not a term we hear often in the U.S. What does that mean exactly?

The word "socialist" means different things in Britain and America. In America it's very much a minority sport, whereas in Britain the Labour Party until relatively recently was quite happy to call itself a socialist party. But by that it meant a pragmatic form of socialism in the tradition of Harold Wilson and the pragmatic political leaders that the party has had since the Second World War.

There is little difference in policy between the Democrats under Clinton and the Labour Party under Blair. Both Clinton and Blair adopted a "new" label: We had New Labor and the New Democrats. But actually they were more or less following in the pragmatic tradition of both their parties, trying to appeal from the left of politics to the center ground.

His religion. Reading your biography, that was the most mysterious part of Tony Blair.

Well, it's the most mysterious part of any person, where their deepest beliefs come from. He does appear to have always been a believer. His father wasn't, but his mother took the children to church, not regularly as far as I can make out. It's not something that Tony Blair has spoken much about, and certainly not to me.

It is slightly difficult to understand where that came from. He was regarded as a believer at his prep school. He later became a teenage rebel and a slightly uncouth teenager and young man at his senior school. People would not have thought of him as being religious, either there or at university, but privately, the people who knew him best -- such as his girlfriend at school and one or two of his close friends at university, although not all of them -- knew that he was religious.

And the kind of Christian beliefs he espoused were Broad Church, New Testament, egalitarian, believing in social justice, and tending toward the left of the political spectrum. And he said that his Christianity and his socialism -- by which we mustn't take that to mean Marxist socialism but just social democracy -- came together at the same time, they are two sides of the same coin.

You position him as an against-the-grain sort of character and figure. He spent most of his career in the Opposition in Parliament, so he's accustomed to being on the defensive, which you indicate hasn't always served him well. How do you think that's affecting his decision-making, especially as it relates to Iraq?

I suppose you could speculate that, having been on the defensive all his life, once he became the leader of his party in 1994 -- at a time when it was transparently obvious that the Conservative Party was exhausted and that Labour were going to win the next election whenever it came (as it turned out, it took three years) -- he might have overreacted in some respects and become quite aggressive. But we didn't see any of that aggression, except in foreign affairs. In domestic politics he remained very much a consensus politician.

And what do you attribute that to, his willingness to be aggressive in foreign affairs?

Well, again, you've got to look back to the lessons he learned from Margaret Thatcher, who was a dominating figure of his period in Opposition as an MP. And I think he learned that if you are bold in foreign affairs, that if you know what you think is right and has to be done, then you will earn rewards for it. Hasn't quite worked out like that in the Iraq business, because the war has been unpopular for so long and remains unpopular even now it's begun.

You studied how Blair applied his foreign policies in the initial years of his first term as prime minister and you ultimately determined that his decisions were, quote, "morally ambiguous," or at least some of them were.

Do I say that? [laughs]

More or less.

Well, yeah, it took a long time for him to gain his bearings. His initial engagements in foreign affairs were a bit inconclusive. The business in Sierra Leone -- which is almost too complicated to go into even in a book -- was not a neat and tidy affair. Eventually, after it was more or less over, he developed a coherent story to try and justify his actions: that the British were involved in trying to defend a democratically elected government against a bunch of gangsters. But it wasn't until Kosovo that he achieved the real clarity of an ethically based foreign policy.

And it's true that because British interests have not been at stake in foreign policy issues throughout his premiership, the issues have always been about using British influence or power to bring benefits to parts of the world in which we don't have an interest; we're doing it just for the sake of democracy and human rights. And that's another problem for him, because in the Falklands war, where Margaret Thatcher forged her reputation, that was British territory at stake and it was a much simpler issue as far as the British public were concerned.

Kosovo, you say, is when his foreign policy came together. And in a sense, that was his "Churchill moment": he was somewhat of a lonely figure, assiduously fighting for what he considered a moral necessity, and ultimately he prevailed. Two questions: How is Kosovo affecting his decisions on Iraq? And secondly, how would you respond to those who say that Blair's foreign policy became somewhat more messianic after Kosovo?

Well, the second you certainly can't argue with. But the second is the answer to the first: he became more messianic about his foreign policy as a result of his surprising and surprisingly complete vindication in Kosovo. He was told before Kosovo that you can't win wars from the air, there's no point in fighting wars for altruistic motives just to help out relatively small groups of oppressed people. And he was told that it was illegal to interfere in the sovereign affairs of a nation state purely on humanitarian grounds. All those he confounded and he succeeded.

Editor's note: Read this excerpt from Rentoul's biography of Blair for further background on the prime minister's role in the conflict in Kosovo and its significance to his premiership.

And surely that's on his mind now, his success there, and being vindicated.

Absolutely.

George W. Bush. Their relationship has been subjected to all sorts of speculation and analysis. Certainly Blair's alliance with Bush has resulted in some pretty dire predictions about Blair's future. Do you think, behind the scenes, that Blair is angered by what some consider the Bush administration's diplomatic heavy-handedness?

Well, who knows? Blair is much too clever a politician to allow a sliver of doubt about his position. He has taken a position in public that he will stand shoulder to shoulder with America and with George Bush personally. And to allow any doubt to show about that would undermine the point of adopting that position. A more human politician might allow their petticoat to show, but--

A more human politician?

Well, Tony Blair isn't a human being; he's a robot. He is a very, very self-controlled man who does not tend to make mistakes. One of his strengths as a politician is that he sticks to the script and he understands all the nuances and the traps that can be set, and he's careful with words. And his great skill as a politician is to make fewer mistakes than anybody else.

And that legendary self-control. What do you make of that?

What's the psychology of that, is the question. Who knows where that comes from? It's built-in. It's always been there. I have quotations from his teachers at Fettes College, his senior school, saying they had the problem that we all face now, which is, who is the real Tony Blair and what lies behind the faade?

You could speculate as to what lies behind the façade. When Blair went to Crawford, Texas, last April and George Bush said, "I've just explained to the British Prime Minister that the policy of my government is the removal of Saddam," Tony Blair must have felt like putting his head in his hands and staring through his fingers in despair because he is such a natural diplomat. He cannot fail to notice that George Bush cannot do diplomacy. But Blair is a clever enough politician to know, to understand that, and to try to work around it. But there are limits to what can be done. And in the Iraqi war he's reached those limits.

You write that Blair once said that the "second most interesting character in the New Testament" was Pontius Pilate, who presided over the crucifixion of Jesus. Pontius Pilate is considered the model of moral ambiguity; he knew Jesus was innocent, yet political expediency dictated that he "wash his hands." Blair wrote in the Sunday Telegraph on Easter Sunday in 1996 that "it is possible to view Pilate as the archetypical politician, caught on the horns of an age-old political dilemma. ... Should we do what appears principled or what is politically expedient? Do you apply a utilitarian test or what is morally absolute?" To what extent is Blair a pragmatist? What's his record on principle vs. expediency?

Well, expediency most of the time. You know, all that stuff about Pontius Pilate is all very well, but it is just a form of intellectual showing off. It is just to impress people that he's not stupid and he's not shallow.

But, of course, it's also an indication of how much religion factors in to his thinking. And he's not afraid to show it.

Yeah, except he doesn't do that kind of stuff very often because it does get him into trouble. That Sunday Telegraph interview, he basically said that you can't be a good Christian and a Conservative. He didn't quite put it like that, but that was the implication of some of what he said and obviously that offends a lot of people. Religion is a difficult issue to get into in British politics, and so he tends to steer clear of it.

But he also likes that stuff to be known, in the sense that it does help fill out his character as a more complex human being, as you were saying. It provides him with a form of authenticity, which he needs because otherwise he risks being seen as an entirely artificial, unreal person and just a very clever politician. And obviously there is more to him than that. He does have sincere beliefs. All politicians go into politics in order to bring about changes that they sincerely believe in and most of them lose sight of a lot of them along the way. And his government has done a lot of very good things that a lot of people in the Labour Party do support when they're not ranting on about how evil his conduct of the war is.

It's difficult to argue that his position on Iraq is politically expedient, though. So is this one of those times when his principles are trumping everything?

No, I don't think it is. I don't know where personal conviction starts and political calculation begins. But I think he just couldn't have distanced himself from America in the way that [French President Jacques] Chirac and [German Chancellor Gerhard] Schröder have done. That's just not in the blueprint. That's just not how he could have conducted himself. His rhetoric has always been Atlanticist and the special relationship has always been central to his rhetoric and his political positioning.

At the same time, in your book you seem to imply that Blair is very, very cautious in nature. He's rather risk-averse?

It goes back to what I was saying about not making mistakes. You succeed in politics by being lucky and making fewer mistakes than your opponents. So especially in quiet times, being risk-averse -- it's not the whole key to success but if you make a mistake in politics you're finished, and it only takes a few seconds or a misspoken phrase to ruin a career, and I think he understands that very well. Until the present situation, which may or may not turn out to be a mistake, the worst thing he did was waste three-quarters of a billion pounds on an unnecessary dome to mark the millennium.

Which brings us to his political future. How are you gauging it now?

I think he'll be weakened by the war. I don't agree with people who suggest that if the war is short and, in quotes, successful, that he'll emerge strengthened and he'll benefit from a Falklands-style wave of popularity in this country. The opposition to the war, it's not just wide, it was surprisingly deep. Nobody expected a million people to take to the streets on what was really not a big issue in British politics until now. And the people who felt that the war was not justified, many of them will continue to think that it was a bad idea, even if it all goes reasonably well. And he'll take a hit from that, and especially from his own base, in the Labour Party.

The Labour Party has never really warmed to him, and now a large number, possibly a majority, of the Labour Party will actually hate him for what he's done here. And although he has earned a lot of respect on the right in politics in this country and he's earned a lot of respect in the center, even among people who are not supportive of the war, he's earned a lot of respect for the way he has argued his case. He's in a very awkward position of not having a solid base, having people in the center who have their doubts about him and having to rely on support from the Conservatives.

You seem to have a great deal of admiration for this person, for Tony Blair. On a personal level, what do you think of this guy?

I think he's utterly fascinating. A lot of people deride him as bland, shallow, just as a technocrat, as an adroit politician. I'm just fascinated by the things which motivate him and drive him and which have shaped him and made him into this slightly unexpected leader of the country. Although his whole appeal is based on being just an ordinary guy with a Ford Galaxy and four nice kids, he is actually quite an extraordinary person and I'm interested in what drives him.

 

 

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posted april 3, 2003

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