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Saturday, July 9, 2016

Tony Blair as he appeared in 2004 - The Cool Son Thatcher Never Had

Philip Stephens' Tony Blair is expressly addressed to Americans. He wants to answer their question: "Who was this British Prime Minister who was ready to risk his own political career to go to war alongside President George W. Bush?".

Canadian readers are probably more aware of British politics than Stephens' intended readers. We understand parliamentary government. It is disconcerting to find that New Democrats refers to Bill Clinton and his supporters. Nonetheless Stephens' book, more extended magazine profile than full biography, is a good brief account of Tony Blair's life and career to date.

Blair's rise to the leadership of the Labour Party seems both effortless and unaccountable. From a middle class family, his father a Tory, at Oxford he showed little interest in politics giving his spare time to lame efforts at playing the guitar and goofy ventures in managing bands. After Oxford Blair found a place in the law chambers of Derry Irvine, until recently Blair's Lord Chancellor. Irvine did a lot of work for unions and was well connected with Labour Party barons. Blair joined the Labour Party. It must have seemed the right thing to do. But Stephens reports no signs that Blair had any deep political convictions or even burning ambition.

Young Blair's most noted step was to be confirmed as an Anglican in 1975.  His "Christian faith" is made much of by Stephens but it remains vague and seems to come down to a conviction that he is called to "do what is right". Stephens says he is not writing hagiography but he is highly sympathetic to Blair. He admits that Blair can sound preachy and sanctimonious but he takes Blair's relentless assurances that he sincerely believes he is doing what is right at face value.

In 1983, like an 18th century lord handing out a rotten borough, Irvine arranged for Blair to run in a Labour safe seat. At Westminster Blair spoke for various left-wing positions that he would jettison in the 1990's but his chief interest was in making Labour electable. Much work in taming left-wing factions and reducing union domination of the party was done by Blair's predecessors as leader while Blair became an opposition star in a party of union hacks and loony leftists.

When Labour leader John Smith died suddenly in early 1994 Blair and Gordon Brown, a dour but bright Scot who serves as Blair's Chancellor of the Exchequer, were the contenders to succeed him. At a fabled dinner at the Granita restaurant in trendy Islington, Brown agreed not to run for the leadership. Whether, as has been widely reported, Blair agreed to step aside for Brown after two elections, Stephens does not say.

Blair persuaded his party to drop its pious commitment to "common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange". He was able to reassure middle Britain that he was in Paul Johnson's phrase, "the son Margaret Thatcher never had" while persuading the young that "Cool Britannia" was coming.

In power Blair left Thatcher's legacy untouched. Image and spin was the big change from the Major years. The domestic innovations of Blair's first four years were constitutional changes made either from political necessity in the case of Scottish devolution or to be " cool" in the removal of most hereditary peers from the House of Lords without thinking what should follow and the incorporation into British law of the European Convention on Human Rights, which threatens Britain with Charter like rule by judges.

Stephens' main concern for his American readers is Blair's role as a world leader. Blair's first important foray into international affairs was Kosovo. Kosovo was pretty much a fiasco but Blair's resolute conviction that NATO was doing what was right perhaps helped to keep it from being a complete fiasco.

Over Iraq Blair had been a hawk even in the Clinton years. Stephen's account of Blair's dealings with the factions in the Bush administration, Cheney and Rumsfeld seeing the British as a tiresome distraction, Powell and Rice working closely with them, Bush making the final calls, is the best meat in the book.

In domestic politics Blair's stand on Iraq was not as courageous as some think. The revolt in Labour ranks was never a threat with Tory support assured. When the fighting started and after victory came the war became a political asset.

The Kelly affair bizarrely threatened to deplete this asset. Six years of media management and spin caught up with Blair. Like the boy who cried "Wolf!" he was suspected of faking it when his conviction was probably at its strongest.

The Hutton Report's clearing of Blair removes any immediate political danger but public trust in him has been permanently damaged. Unlike Stephens' American audience, for whom Blair is a new friend, the British public may be tiring of Blair's relentless effort to persuade them that he is their friend.

In domestic politics Blair presents a curious parallel with Brian Mulroney. First interested only in winning elections and afraid to do much, he has now decided on a few right things to do and is prepared to take big risks to do them. Labour has poured money into public services but the public remains dissatisfied. Blair now plans to make changes in how public services are organised and funded. His plan to raise university tuition fees was the first big test of the new Blair. He barely passed it. It is as a national leader and not a world leader that history will judge Tony Blair and it will be what he can do in Britain in the next few years that will form the basis of that judgment.

This appeared in The National Post on February 28, 2004.

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