Old wounds shall be worried anew; stale arguments shall be leavened once more.
Tony Blair’s record-shattering memoir, A Journey, which has been marketed for its salacity of disclosures about Gordon Brown (emotionally unintelligent, blackmailing), the Queen (lunch-maker and dish-washer), and Princess Diana (dangerously emotional, manipulative) was published on a day when its author wasn’t even in England but the Labour party was in the midst of deciding its next leader.
This was either a twofer display of chutzpah or a sign of his centripetal significance.
In the last several months, the former prime minister has given testimony at the Chilcot Inquiry, where every arcane footnote in the British preparations for the Iraq war was cited to challenge him once more on the decision that has defined his legacy. He has also, as the Mideast envoy of the Quartet, overseen the Palestinian state-building effort in the West Bank led by Salam Fayyad, delivered a blockbuster speech on de-legitimization of Israel at Herzliya, and acted as a key participant in the Arab-Israeli direct talks currently taking place in Washington. If David Cameron has worked this hard in office, he has yet to let on.
The re-emergence of Blair in the press means the re-emergence of demonic Blair hatred, which Roman Polanski’s conspiratorially silly film The Ghost Writer utterly failed to capture. What’s left of this ragtag contingent of “war crimes” accusers is not very impressive by way of number or influence. This contingent specializes in organized disruption: A tour stop in Dublin has already been interrupted by egg and shoe throwing protestors allied with the Stop the War Coalition, a potpourri of irrelevant Marxists and hyper-relevant Islamists led by Tony Benn, the second-longest serving Labour MP and a type of befuddled English radical that only grows more fuddled with age. (Benn was last heard explaining the agricultural achievements of Mao Zedong on the BBC World Service documentary about useful idiots.) Nevertheless, this party stalwart is treated somewhat reverentially in A Journey, a volume that his Stopper coalition, ever professing concern for the blood spilled in Iraq and Afghanistan, wishes to see unsold despite the fact that all proceeds go to a veterans’ charity.
The neo-fascist British National Party had threatened to attend a similar demonstration, planned for last Wednesday, during a scheduled book signing at Waterstone’s in Piccadilly, an appearance Blair decided to cancel at the last minute rather than risk a public disruption. The Socialist Workers Party has already moved scores of memoirs to the “Crime” section of book retailers where a reading public glutted on the fiction of Dick Francis and P. D. James is more likely to discover it anyway.
Blair-loathing has a history of backfiring. Nick Cohen, a longtime Observer columnist and now one of the country’s most vigorous left-wing defenders of interventionism, tells of the difficulties that his erstwhile publisher had in finding an unflattering likeness of the then boyish prime minister to outfit the cover of a Cruel Britannia, a collection of Cohen’s initial polemics against New Labour. No such likeness existed.
The winsome expression and easy manner before the cameras were on full display in Blair’s hour-long interview with Andrew Marr on BBC 2 last week, a broadcast that drew 1.8 million viewers and caused even the Guardian, a newspaper that treats Blair as one of the nastier-minded members of the Borgia family, to conclude the enemy reined triumphant yet again. “By the end,” wrote TV critic Euan Ferguson, “he could have armpit-squelched his way through ‘Teddy Bears’ Picnic’ and made it sound like Pericles's funeral address to the Athenians.” And this exchange included Blair’s full-throated endorsement of military action against Iran (“Not on my watch, if I had anything to do with it, would I allow Iran to attain nuclear weapons capability”) as well as an unbowed defense of removing Saddam Hussein:
The intelligence picture was clear, we acted on it. It isn’t correct to say that the Iraq Survey Group Report finds that, well, maybe he might have [reconstituted his nuclear weapons program] at one point. No, what they actually find is that he retained the technical know-how, he retained the scientists able to develop this, that there were laboratories that he concealed from the UN inspectors that were there, ready for use. In other words, I don’t accept today that there wasn’t a strong case that he was in breach of UN resolutions. He was.
But what does that compare to chants of “Bliar”?
The saucy revelations in A Journey are in keeping with what any tabloid reader might have surmised over the past decade. The “TBGBs” was the name given for the Blair/Brown relationship, which alternated between spousal and fratricidal, so the notion that the more growling chancellor of the Exchequer would effectively blackmail the man who outfoxed him for the Labour leadership over a pension overhaul scheme seems remarkably anti-climactic in retrospect. Much more interesting is the claim that, of the two men, it was Brown who had the real ear for politics while Blair was more involved in the technocratic nitty-gritty of policymaking. The Wall Street Journal has celebrated his advocacy of a non-Keynesian solution to the economic crisis and if this book is to be believed, it was his idea to grant the Bank of England monetary independence in the early days after the 1997 landslide election that swept the Tories out of power, a signature reform then owned by Brown. Can it really have been Blair’s robotic number two who accidentally alighted upon what was to become a principal slogan for the Third Way: “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”?
As for the haters, their comeuppance has been stark. Not only are the ravest reviews of A Journey coming from ruling Conservative quarters (it was almost certainly Michael Gove, the current secretary of state for Education, who told the Independent’s John Rentoul, “if it were possible for the ardour of my Blairism to deepen, it has done so”) but Blair admirers can still turn up in the strangest places. Waiting for my coffee at a Starbucks near Kings Cross the other day, I noticed a multi-pierced barista pointing to the copy of the memoir tucked under my arm. “Just ordered mine off Amazon. Can’t wait, mate.”