What a difference thirteen years make. In 1997, Tony Blair strode into No.10 to the applause of voters lining the streets of Westminster. Earlier this week, he had to cancel a book signing only half-a-mile away from Downing Street, in fear of the disruption and violence it could provoke. His wariness is understandable. At a similar event in Dublin last weekend, a gaggle of protestors hurled spittle, slogans, eggs and shoes in the former Prime Minister’s direction. Blair hate thrives. And it needs a police cordon to keep it in check.
It is a seismometer for the shifting ground of British politics. Conservatives praising their old adversary; Labour repudiating him.
The ruckus in Dublin was a decent approximation of the overall reaction to Blair’s memoir. According to bystanders, the people queuing to have their copies of A Journey signed outnumbered the protestors by two or three to one. The books themselves are pouring from the shelves, with one high street chain commenting that, “Dan Brown and JK Rowling are the competition here.” Among British political figures, only Blair could rouse such a response. But the adulation for him still exceeds the hatred, which is admittedly louder and better organized.
Blair would be advised to forget the streets though as the most interesting reaction to his memoir has come not from the egg throwers but from other politicians, foes and allies alike. And it’s not his memories that has them so excited as it is his what is the most insightful part of A Journey: its postscript. This is where Blair attacks his successor and one-time ally Gordon Brown on a political, rather than personal, level—eschewing a statist response to the downturn, and pushing for policies that sound awfully like those now being enacted by David Cameron and his coalition government. As Blair himself puts it, “We should have taken a New Labour way out of the economic crisis: kept direct taxes competitive, had a gradual rise in VAT and other indirect taxes to close the deficit, and used the crisis to push further and faster on reform.” When Cameron taps out his own memoirs, he may be able to boast that he did just that.
The Conservatives have leapt on these comments as eagerly as if they had just captured the enemy’s standard. The day the book was published, two of their ministers hit the airwaves to claim that Blair had “endorsed” their approach to fixing the nation’s public finances. Another Tory MP boasts that, “Tony Blair is now fighting the good fight. Our fight.” His delight is indicative of the esteem in which some Conservatives hold the former Labour leader. Only this past week, the schools minister Michael Gove has been pushing a bolder version of Blair’s own Academies program. He once confessed, "Tony Blair really got it on education."
By sharp contrast, the main contenders in the Labour leadership race have slunk away from the Blair memoir and its prescriptions. It is, they feel, a handicap to be linked to a figure who attracts so much vitriol from leftwing quarters. So, when Blair’s implicit criticisms of him are brought up, Ed Miliband now quips that, “I must be doing something right.” And even David Miliband, a former Blair adviser, is stressing that, “I am my own person. I look forward to the day when Tony says he is a Milibandite rather than people asking me whether I am a Blairite.” Gordon Brown has had to restrain his attack dogs, preferring, for now, the moral high ground to chunks of his predecessor’s flesh.
Now that Westminster has sifted through all 700 pages of Blair’s memoir, its abiding use is clear. It is a seismometer for the shifting ground of British politics. Conservatives praising their old adversary; Labour repudiating him. The reformers using his book as a how-to manual; the wreckers forcing it through their office shredding machines. In a newspaper interview at the weekend, Blair said, “I feel a great urge to participate in my country's political life.”
But, at least for the time being, his country is betraying mixed emotions about its former prime minister. In the British newspapers for every reviewer extolling the virtues of Blair and his book, there has been one giving both a vociferous beating. And so The Times observed that, “Tony Blair’s memoir is a fascinating reminder of why voters were not wrong to award him three election victories,” and in the Guardian Polly Toynbee lambasting the book as, “a historic act of treachery.” Some are even peddling the same innuendo about “guilt” and “blood money” that greeted the news that Blair would donate his royalties to a British veterans’ charity.
The most vicious anger comes from the left—and, as with the protest in Dublin, much of it is inspired by Iraq. As one pundit put it to me, “it would have been better if he had apologized for the war in Iraq. We would probably still have gone hard on him, but that would have tempered what we could write.” Yet Blair does not apologize for Iraq.
Instead, he makes a pointed request of his opponents: “I ask you to reflect as to whether I may have been right.”
Loathe and praise—these will be familiar to Tony Blair after a decade spent as Prime Minister. None of his detractors or supporters will have sloped across to the other side because of the contents of this book. But there is one dimension to the critical response that is less familiar: the outright mockery of a figure who managed to win three general elections.
Perhaps most savagely criticized has been the prose of his book. Blair shunned the services of a ghostwriter, and penned the book himself in between various political and business engagements. Writing for The Spectator (where I am a columnist), Bruce Anderson called it, “the worst-written memoir ever twittered by a serious politician.” And he is not alone in thinking that. One Blair-supporting Labour MP admitted to me that, “[Blair] has made himself look a bit silly, to be honest.”
Peter Hoskin has been in and around the worlds of politics and journalism since graduating from university in 2006. He currently runs the Spectator's political blog, Coffee House, and writes about cinema, literature and culture as much as he can.