“Aren’t all politicians’ memoirs boring?” Blair comments to his wife and to Morgan at one point. “Yours won’t be darling” she responds.
Cherie was right. I’ve read plenty of political memoirs and biographies and would recommend almost none. How often they read as no more than hundreds of pages of first person narrative journalism, “On 15th August I met with the Chancellor to settle the matter, although it took a brief tussle with the Home Secretary the next day to come to a final agreement. At the latter meeting, I made the case that …”
Blair’s fantastic new book is a shining exception. He begins by denying he is retrospective, but what makes A Journey outstanding is precisely how well he reflects on people and events. Not a deep thinker about politics and policy (of which far more in a moment), Blair is an intelligent man, able to draw plausible lessons from specific instances and elucidate them to the reader.
So Blair sets out, very persuasively, how those with strongly held views “can always spot whether someone is a true fellow believer or not”. He acknowledges his own selfishness – a quality that leapt out of many pages of his wife’s memoirs. He gives a wonderfully readable account of how he would agree to meet anyone who asked, know his staff to be an insuperable barrier to all but a few of them ever doing so. He mentions that even today, he feels a chill at 11.57am each Wednesday, anticipating Prime Ministers’ Questions. He writes perceptively about how drink can be a problematic crutch in ways that fall far short of alcoholism. He notes how political relationships can be destroyed irreparably the moment a subordinate realises the leader doubts he is up to the job that subordinate covets. He observes the failure of leftist intellectuals to put any value on aspiration. He devotes pages to putting himself in the shoes of Neville Chamberlain at Munich. He predicts the current Coalition will collapse if the No to AV campaign succeeds – and makes clear his opinion of Lib Dems is very much that of the typical Tory or Labour activist. This is a Prime Minister setting out what he thinks rather than narrating what he did. This is how politicians should write their memoirs.
To be clear, the lack of depth to Tony Blair’s political thought certainly hurt the country. But it does no harm to the book – indeed, by revealing Blair’s political outlook so baldly, A Journey goes a very long way towards explaining the man’s failures and disasters. Let’s get to the politics. Blair’s understanding of public opinion and of policy – which he lays bare - in many ways explains everything of any consequence that he did.
The curious thing about Blair’s view of the electorate is that early on he hits on the crucial starting point, extremely well established in political science: almost nobody is paying attention.
The single hardest thing for a practising politician to understand is that most people, most of the time, don’t give politics a first thought all day long. Or if they do, it is with a sigh or harrumph or a raising of the eyebrows, before they go back to worrying about the kids, the parents, the mortgage, the boss, their friends, their weight, their health, sex and rock ‘n’ roll.
David Blunkett … once told me that even at the height of his fame as Home Secretary, people would approach him and say, ‘Seen you on telly, what do you do?’, or more bizarrely would see him with his guide dog and would know who he was but would say, ‘I never knew you were blind.'
This description surely fits with most people’s common sense and experience. More importantly, it is strongly supported by the evidence, such as a 2004 poll finding that about half the country did not know who Gordon Brown was.