When American politicians write their memoirs, the strongest emotion they normally evoke is a measure of sympathy for all the trees shredded to convey reams of turgid or evasive prose. Not so for their British counterparts, who settle scores, reveal secrets and, most valuably, let the public in on the decision-making process of an establishment that often seems to speak in indirection and semaphore.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has now joined the memoirists in a 700-page volume, “A Journey,” that is at times revealing, at other times defensive. Like his decade* at No. 10 Downing St., Blair’s book begins amid high hopes and expectations and ends in political tragedy. Some British reviewers have complained Blair’s memoir does not match those of Disraeli or Churchill, but to revert to an American metaphor, he did not have the same won-lost record.
For Americans, the key is the vigor with which Blair defends his decision to put the United Kingdom side-by-side with the United States in the invasion of Iraq. And while Blair was a political soulmate of his fellow progressive President Clinton, he clearly shared the moral fervor of the more conservative President Bush in believing the war on terror should be extended to Iraq and to thwart Saddam Hussein’s potential to create weapons of mass destruction and disseminate them to terrorists. He also shared the conviction of American “neoconservatives” that the West should remake the Middle East, though unlike Vice President Cheney he felt this could be accomplished by political as well as military means.
And unlike Bush, Blair’s strong international convictions predated Sept. 11, 2001. In the midst of the Kosovo war in the spring of 1999, in a speech in Chicago and a NewsHour interview with Jim Lehrer, Blair laid out a doctrine of humanitarian intervention, calling on the international community to be ready to use military force to stop mass killing and overthrow evil regimes. At the time, that message was mixed into the prime minister’s push for a NATO ground invasion to follow the allied bombing in the former Yugoslavia, which he acknowledged created tension between him and President Clinton, who hoped to avert such a drastic and risky action. What the rest of the world did not realize at the time was that Blair’s doctrine would follow a logical continuum to Iraq.
As for what happened after the Iraq invasion, Blair argues fervently that Iraq is much better off now than it was under Saddam Hussein and that much of the chaos and near civil war were provoked by elements of al-Qaida and Iran. But those arguments proved less than persuasive as criticism grew more fevered in Britain and especially in his Labor Party. And by spring of 2005, he stepped aside for his No. 2, Gordon Brown, who had been chafing for years to move into the top job.
Beyond the controversies that ultimately subsumed him, that left him with the derisory nickname of “Bush’s poodle,” Blair offers an especially interesting insight into the mind of a reform-minded politician at work, how he calculated the politics and public relations of pending decisions, how he balanced the politicians and aides around him and how quickly he could move off an unanticipated event. All absorbing reading for junkies of British politics.
Most memorably, for an American audience, is his telling of how he grasped immediately the domestic and international implications of the death of Princess Diana, which he learned from a policeman standing at his bed after several phone calls failed to arouse him and his wife Cherie from deep slumber. His deft handling of the royal family and Buckingham palace coterie are vividly told, almost on par with the screenplay for the movie “The Queen.”
And as Blair asserts, the Queen herself can wield a mean stiletto. As she formally invested Blair, the morning after the 1997 landslide election, she told him: “You are my 10th prime minster. The first was Winston. That was before you were born.”
Now that the always eloquent Blair has given his version of events, the next two memoirs of the convulsive first decade of the 21st century are due from President Bush and Vice President Cheney. We await to see how their candor and literary skills measure up to their staunchest ally.
- This number has been corrected.*