x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Tony Blair's leadership journey

History will judge Tony Blair as one of Britain's most successful leaders, despite the media attacks on his political memoir.

The former British PM Tony Blair, right, and Gordon Brown.
The former British PM Tony Blair, right, and Gordon Brown.

The cascade of condemnation, insults and cynicism that has greeted Tony Blair's political memoir was predictable, derived from the sort of revisionist antics of which only the media is capable. Contrary to popular belief, Blair was one of the most successful prime ministers in British history. Indeed, his three successive electoral victories were not so much down to the uselessness of the opposition parties as to his ability to tease out consensus between opposing political and social stakeholders.

The recent revival of the Conservative Party as one of (coalition) government has rested in no small measure on its leader David Cameron mimicking Blair's "third way" political approach, while some of the coalition's domestic reforms follow the same principles as New Labour. As for the media, Rupert Murdoch moved his entire News International stable over to Blair's camp. The Guardian and The Observer were, as left-leaning newspapers, already sympathetic and the BBC was, certainly before the Iraq war, uncritical. The Times sometimes carried governmental leaks on policy that should properly have been announced first in Parliament. Most media institutions, including some on the right, succumbed to the seductive whisperings of Team Blair's briefings.

True, the media later grew disillusioned with Blair after the Iraq war but in the crucial early years, New Labour was hip, part of "Cool Britannia", in keeping with increased net worth, social mobility and lazy cafe lattes at Pret A Manger. And even in the later years, when the UK was winning the right to stage the 2012 Olympic Games and hosting the G8 summit at Gleneagles, many applauded Blair's leadership gifts.

So the visceral reception given to Blair's book, titled A Journey and written (probably deliberately) in the breathless and saccharine style of the celebrity tell-all, sits ill with the fact that swathes of Britain, her institutions, media and of course the electorate, endorsed or at least acquiesced to the New Labour project - a movement that has now been pronounced dead by Ed Miliband, the party's newly elected leader.

A Journey wastes no time in attempting to stake out a legacy amid the smoking ruins of Gordon Brown's premiership. Blair points out that before he came along, his party's longest period in government had been six years: "This lasted thirteen. It could have… gone on longer, had it not abandoned New Labour." The Blair domestic social contract was born from a break-up of what he calls "the homogenous class base" and the emergence of an electorate geared towards choice, rather than the ministrations of the state.

Blair also wanted to inject some private-sector dynamism into the sclerotic public services regime - giving rise to such reforms as foundation hospitals, city academies and tuition fees. This brought him into conflict with the unions and with his chancellor who resented the "marketisation" of public services and who was an ardent statist. For a time after the fall of Baghdad in 2003, I was editor of The Daily Telegraph in London and so had some limited access to Blair, Gordon Brown and other ministers. Reform of the public sector had begun, but was not yielding results, despite huge increases in "investment" (that's spending to you and me). Post-invasion Iraq was beginning to unravel and Gordon was acting up.

I was summoned to Downing Street to see Blair on more than one occasion. Our most heated encounter involved what he refers to in his book as an inconsistency among right-wing newspapers who were obsessed with law and order, but critical, as he saw it, of his attempts to enforce it. Blair told me a story, repeated in his book, about how he was threatened with a knife when he asked a drunkard to stop urinating in public: "When I try and deal with these people, you attack me," he said.

In his time in office around 3,000 new offences were put on the statute book and those newspapers with a more libertarian view criticised this trend as an intrusion into public life and personal discretion. On this occasion I pointed out to Blair that there were already laws for dealing with his drunk - and that if the police were not so hampered by the bureaucratic load visited on them by government, then more of them would be on the streets enforcing them.

This was the problem with New Labour's policy platform. Based on market principles, such reforms were enforced through a target-driven regime. The result was the creation of thousands of clipboard-wielding officials who overrode local solutions through the obsessive policing of central expectations. Blair admits to being frustrated by this: "We could not produce change that was self-generated or self-sustaining, but only change generated or sustained from the centre," he writes. He claims success later on, but in reality the state grew larger, laying down carpets of legislation and expanding the public sector.

All of which delighted Gordon Brown whose leftist inclinations, combined with his ambition for the top job, to help stifle reform. Blair refers to Brown throughout as a friend, though I could not imagine two more contrasting personalities. Blair was excellent at public relations. Watching him work a room, shifting chameleon-style from pop star to technocrat, from general to nursing administrator, was a joy.

Brown for his part possessed a sort of detached genius, but was ill at ease and given to inexplicable bouts of temper. He used to call the editors after his annual budget but I always felt I was listening to a pre-recorded message. Blair writes that he did not sack Brown because of the latter's manifest talents and wide support within the party. But he then goes on to outline how in the case of one proposed reform (tuition fees) it took two years of stalling from the Treasury before Blair felt he could proceed. Blair also reveals how Brown threatened to publicly embarrass him over a donations scandal if the former proceeded with pensions reform.

One is left wondering how a man who invaded Iraq with no credible multilateral support, who faced down the unions and abolished Clause Four failed to summon up the resolve to fire his chancellor. Blair's impatience for results (and headlines), his endless legislative tinkering, combined with Brown's divergent political inclinations served to widen the public sector, increase welfare entitlement and transform vast areas of Britain into overdependence on the largesse of the State.

Thus many of those who should (according to Blairite theory) have been ushered towards social responsibility instead became morally and financially feckless. Those with little interest in domestic policy will nevertheless find within A Journey ample material concerning Blair's willingness to expend blood and treasure in in places as diverse as Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and, of course, Iraq.

Britain's military interventions drew, one suspects, a degree of legitimacy from engineering "revolution" in some previously benighted place, through "intervention... based on a desire to bring freedom and democracy". Blair is careful to give his thinking a multilateralist dimension, citing the United Nations' adoption in 2005 of the principle of "responsibility to protect" civilians - a responsibility that falls to the international community if local governments are found wanting.

On Iraq, Blair argues that UN resolutions governing arms inspections were being blocked by Saddam Hussein and the suspicion that the Iraqi leader had weapons of mass destruction was shared by the international community, not simply a bellicose anglospheric rump looking for a reason to invade. However Blair is not afraid to use the language of moral intervention: "If there was a people in need of liberation, it was surely the Iraqi people," he argues. He also lends credence to the theory that invasion was as much derived from a desire to send a signal to troublesome regimes - pour encourager les autres - as to force compliance over WMDs: "If there was a message to be sent about the defiance of the international community, it should be sent to Iraq," he writes.

For me the most compelling part of A Journey is the postscript, where Blair makes a plea for the West to keep faith with its democratic and free-market principles. "We have become too apologetic, too feeble, too inhibited, too imbued with doubt and too lacking in mission," he contends. He prefers to lump Europe and America together as natural partners, but only tends to cite members of the Anglosphere (Britain and America) as exemplars of what "the West" should preserve in the face of globalisation and financial upheaval.

In doing so I believe Blair falls short of articulating a key and geopolitically defensible component of his worldview - that strategic solidarity among what Churchill described as "the English-speaking peoples" had over the last century prevailed over some of the gravest threats to humanity, from Prussian expansionism to Nazi aggression to Communism. In Afghanistan still, where most agree, at least on paper, that there is a legitimate case for international intervention, it is America, Britain and Canada, its Commonwealth partner, who have done most of the wet work.

Fidelity to America, as the senior partner in this arrangement, is crucial to its health and so Blair had a compelling strategic reason for following the United States into Iraq, quite detached from facts on the ground: "The alliance between our two nations was a vital strategic interest and… a vital strategic asset for Britain…our job should be to be with them in their hour of need."

Martin Newland is editorial director of The National.