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09.03.10

A Very American Prime Minister

As his new memoir, A Journey, confirms, Tony Blair was a brilliant leader and godsend to George W. Bush, argues Tunku Varadarajan. If only the British had appreciated him.

The three most consequential figures in the last decade of American political history have been George W. Bush, Barack Obama and…Tony Blair.

I’ve just finished reading Blair’s memoir, A Journey, published this week, and the book rekindled memories of how immensely invigorating the British prime minister’s immediate and unstinting support after 9/11 was to America’s national morale. Had Blair dithered even the slightest bit in throwing Britain’s weight behind America and her people, a gingerly, fragmented response to al Qaeda could have prevailed. (Indeed, as Blair writes in his book, he “noticed with a little anxiety that Jacques Chirac particularly was urging caution in respect of any response.”) Blair’s support ensured that an attack on America was regarded as an attack on Western civilization.

What shines through most clearly in Blair’s memoir is his unabashed love for America, something that rankled with both the left and right in Britain, where an intense dislike of America is entrenched in the political class. Add to Blair’s Amerophilia his excellent relations with George W. Bush, and there was every reason, in his critics’ minds, to heap abuse on Blair as Bush’s “poodle,” America’s “lap dog,” and so forth.

The British left (like much of the left in Old Europe) detests America as an “imperial” or “neo-imperial” power, and its statist obsessions lead it to fear America’s market-driven ways. The British right’s repulsion is more complex (and complexed), and results from a mixture of post-imperial envy and a sense of cultural superiority. The Tories were, I’m sure, aghast that a British prime minister not only loved America, but also believed that Britain could learn from America’s “essential goodness as a nation” (as he writes in his book). The temerity of the chap!

Blair is a remarkable man, and was, for three terms, a remarkable prime minister. That we have a coalition government in Britain today—and a most improbable one it is, you might say, between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats—is entirely thanks to the fact that Blair had conditioned Britain, over many years, to the notion of political flexibility and compromise. Blair was a coalition politician, the coalition being, in his case, one of political ideas. His “New Labour” was part Margaret Thatcher, part Clement Attlee; part Edmund Burke, part Aneurin Bevan; part Milton Friedman, part John Maynard Keynes; part Guardian, part Financial Times. In other words, he wasn’t an ideologue in the slightest—and this drove the ideologues in his own party to yammering distraction—especially when he asserted that a perfectly “progressive” case could be made for the “neocon” intervention in Iraq.

Tony Blair was a very American prime minister. It’s no wonder, then, that he is loved better here than in his own country.

Has Britain ever had a modern prime minister less dogmatic than Blair? I can’t think of one. (I’m not counting David Cameron, the current, non-dogmatic prime minister, as he’s hardly been in office.) Blair’s pragmatism wasn’t confined to domestic policy. As prime minister, he worked as fluently and companionably with Bush as he did with Bill Clinton—a man with whom, clearly, he had great political affinity, both being supple progressives who listened to all sides with an open mind. With Bush, he focused on the ideals they shared. In his book, he showers praise on Bush’s “integrity” and decisiveness, his clarity of thought and belief, his uncluttered certitudes. (One awaits Bush’s own memoir, Decision Points—set for release on November 9—to see how handsomely he returns Blair’s compliments.)

Here, I wonder how well Blair might have worked with Obama.

Certainly, Obama could use the counsel of one such as Blair, adrift as he is with no real soul mate among international leaders. There’s a section in his memoir in which Blair writes, without naming names, the following words—likely referring to his successor and rival, Gordon Brown, but also, I suspect, to Obama: “There are leaders who agonise too much; who are forever weighing up; whose consideration of the options becomes an end in itself and a substitute for clarity of decision.” Blair might have taught Obama a thing or two about clarity—and the perils of agonizing.

Blair and Bush conjured a famous partnership, one that will rank alongside that of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher (and, of course, Blair and Clinton) in the annals of the Special Relationship. Britain’s support for America after 9/11 was the first significant example, in that bond, of the former coming to the latter’s help in its time of greatest need. Normally, America has embraced Britain. This reversal of the natural order is significant, and to Blair’s enduring credit.

Tony Blair was a very American prime minister. It’s no wonder, then, that he is loved better here than in his own country. The British don’t love their politicians, it should be said; they are too uptight for that. (When they love, they fall for princesses instead, and the consequences are grotesque.) But in the case of Blair, they have not been swift enough to recognize the blessing he conferred on his country by his cultured and sophisticated governance. One day, however, they will gauge Blair’s true worth. Of that we can be sure.

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU's Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)