THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
BOOK REVIEW

In memoir, Blair explains, defends himself

By Claude R. Marx
September 2, 2010

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Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is, like many interesting and accomplished individuals, a collection of contradictions. As a social liberal and economic moderate with hawkish tendencies on foreign policy, he doesn’t completely satisfy those on either side of the political divide.

Blair’s achievements during his 10 years in office (1997-2007) included modernizing the Labour Party and reforming Britain’s health, education, and welfare policies. Yet he knows that his historical legacy is likely to be most closely linked to the ultimate outcomes of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As a result, he devotes a considerable amount of space in his engaging and insightful memoir, “A Journey: My Political Life,’’ to defending those wars, especially Iraq.

Blair contends that the war in Iraq was justified on humanitarian and strategic grounds, even though no weapons of mass destruction were found. However, like the accomplished lawyer he was before entering politics, Blair spends as much time addressing his opponents’ arguments. Unlike some of his American counterparts, he doesn’t question the motives of those who came to a different conclusion.

He sees his task as “not to persuade the reader of the rightness of the cause, but merely to persuade that such a cause can be made out. It is to open the mind. I have often reflected as to whether I was wrong. I ask you to reflect as to whether I may have been right.’’

Blair’s defense of the decisions also contains a great deal of philosophical analysis. This is an intellectually rigorous approach and not surprising given his religiosity.

In 2007, shortly after he left office, he converted to Roman Catholicism and the foundation he runs is actively involved in interfaith projects.

“I can’t regret the decision to go to war for the reason I will give. I can say that never did I guess the nightmare that unfolded, and that too is part of the responsibility. But the notion of ‘responsibility’ indicates not a burden discharged but a burden that continues. Regret can seem bound to the past. Responsibility has its present and future tense,’’ he writes.

If those words had been written by a less philosophically grounded politician, one might say he or she were being cagey or Clintonesque. Those who disagree with Blair’s position won’t necessarily change their opinion but will respect the integrity of his beliefs.

Unfortunately for Blair, his position on the war and close collaboration with President George W. Bush in its execution, caused him irreparable damage with many of his supporters. Blair, who expresses great admiration for Bush’s intellect (that’s not a typo) and willingness to stick to his principle, doesn’t seem bitter about the political difficulties his positions caused him.

Blair’s discussion of British domestic politics and policy are equally detailed and nuanced and reveal him to be part shrewd politico with superb emotional intelligence and part policy wonk. While at times the level of detail bogs down an otherwise well-written narrative, those fascinated by the policymaking process will learn a great deal about the differences between the American and British systems.

The discussion of his relationship with his friend, ally, rival, and successor Gordon Brown is especially insightful and at times mean. There is the all-knowing “if they had only listened to me,’’ tone that is prevalent in many political memoirs.

“Gordon is a strange guy. But by the end I had come to see that this was not the fundamental problem. (He had and has a sort of endearing charm in the strangeness.) The fundamental problem was that he simply did not understand the appeal of New Labour in anything other than a polling ‘strategy,’ election winning sort of way,’’ Blair writes. “He could understand its detailed policies, but not its emotional appeal.’’

While most of the book focuses on politics, Blair takes readers behind the scenes and helps us see certain leaders as human beings. You will never quite think of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in the same manner after reading about one of the rituals during the prime minister’s annual weekend visit with the royal family at Balmoral Castle. The royal couple cooks and serves. “You sit there having eaten, the Queen asks if you’ve finished, she stacks up the plates and goes off to the sink.’’

This combination of recollections and insights makes “A Journey: My Political Life’’ a better than usual contribution to the literary genre of political memoir.

Claude R. Marx, an award-winning journalist, can be reached at crmarx@aol.com.

A JOURNEY: MY POLITICAL LIFE By Tony Blair

Alfred A. Knopf, 720 pp., $35