Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Tony Blair in Print

It's nice to know books still matter. The embargoed memoirs of Tony Blair, "A Journey", were released yesterday to non-stop news coverage. It's one way to create a stir, I guess, getting everyone to speed-read at the same time. I guess in some way you could call this the final Harry Potter book, as I think the Blair years and Rowling's boy wizard seem inextricably linked in my brain.

In my last blog post I talked about portrayals of Thatcher in fiction - well, Blair has generally been portrayed only realistically. Maybe it's the lack of Spitting Image, or maybe its the 24/7 news cycle, but Blair, Presidential, always on-message, a decent enough actor (remember the appearance with Catherine Tate?) seems to defy charicature. That's why his memoir will be interesting I guess, as the image we have of Blair is very much the image that he's made available. He's his own self-construction, and that, more than anything, I think, perhaps explains his latterday hubris. More than any other politician I can remember, Blair has always been in control of his own narrative, and this seems his final major rewrite. It is why he finds it so hard to apologise, or, when in power, to change with the times - and why yesterday he was still going on about the New Labour project as if it is current, rather than from a different world.

By the middle of his second term even Blair had forgotten what the point of Blair was for, and yet as the poster-boy of a new politics, this man, heading into his fifties, struggled to articulate a vision beyond spin. Yet, if the liberal intelligentsia were somehow let down by Blair over Iraq, it seems an incomplete picture - the hatred out of proportion. After all, would Bush have gone to war without the UK? Yes. Would any other leader - Labour or Tory - hitched ourselves to the US - yes again, I fear. The memoir will be fascinating for not just being about Iraq. For in Bosnia, saving many Muslim lives, and in Ireland, Tony's sense of destiny, and his control of his narrative was matched by events as they unfolded. They both required Blair as political superhero vaulting over the barriers and making things happen. The long slog of post-conflict Iraq, with its insistence on "detail" was never one of Blair's strengths. I remember before then, how many policies had been set up with broad brushstrokes and powerful rhetoric, the detail to be worked out later, by lesser lights. The Blair who made a stirring speech on the information society in the late 90s, leading to massive investment in e-government, hardly spoke of the subject again, and - pointedly - was yet to send an email himself. The hardest thing for contemporary Blair to contemplate is the idea that he is "yesterday's man", yet for all the fascinating snippets yesterday, that seems to be the case. The "second acts" that we see from Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are yet to happen - for, in the American narrative tradition, you have to fail, before you can be forgiven, and to be contrite. It is a narrative that the protagonist has lost control of.

Looking back to how Blair has been portrayed fictionally, it strikes me that if we should have satirised Thatcher a bit less, in order to confront her flaws in flesh and blood, we should have satirised Blair a bit more. Only Steven Bell comes to mind, and nothing there is as memorable as his portrayal of John Major. Looking back I can hardly remember Blair being there, other than the set piece speeches, and that, at least is a credit to the grown-up politics of the Labour government, at least until 2003. Until the house price boom, Iraq war and the credit crunch, there had been a welcome period of stability, and of confidence in ourself as a nation and in the good leadership in Westminster. Blair was so often on television in the 24-hour news age, commenting on everything from Diana's death to Deirdrie Barlow's incarceration on Coronation Street, that he perhaps became a fictionalised version. When we see him fictionalised in "The Queen" it is exactly how we imagine him.

I first mentioned Blair in a song I wrote in about 1996.

"Tony Blair asked me what book I was reading/
I said it's a book without any pages/
He said he would read it however outrageous."

This was before he was Prime Minister, and I think I got then the sense of theatre about him, that, yes he could read an empty book, and like the Emperor's New Clothes, see in it what he wanted to. He makes an appearance in the novel I wrote on my M.A. but it is the real Blair, arriving from Sedgefield by helicopter for the victory speech at the Royal Festival Hall, a genuine historical cameo. The politics in that book was an invented politician/businessman - who turned out to be a pretty good representation of the all the chancers who would surround New Labour; an unholy mix of Mandelson, Campbell and Ecclestone. I'm not sure I mentioned Blair again in my fiction after that (1999), yet I've recently gone back to him, writing an alternative history where he never became Prime Minister. I think the key point that I made earlier, that Blair was in control of his own narrative, means that there is little "after life", either in popular culture or people's affections. Only when the sun shines brightly on Blair do we really remember him. The hatred he engenders seems ill-directed, for one policy decision, that history has yet to adjudicate on.

Popular culture rewrote the Blair years as spin, with Malcolm Tucker as the embodiment of Alastair Campbell in "The Thick of It". Yet the common factor in these portrayals is always of a weak prime minister at the heart of it, manipulated by his Machiavelli's and Talleyrand's. And Blair was never weak. The question of why Blair needed these particular skills at court, and why he invested so much in these attack dogs, is one that still puzzles me - the Labour Party, which seemed to be his one true "enemy" when in office, was still in awe of him getting it into power. The flurry of autobiographies from the New Labour kingpins is clearly an attempt to continue controlling the narrative, yet, as we look aghast at the coalition's dismantling of many of the social justice interventions of Tony Blair's government, it's clear the real story will have to come from outside the loop. There will be plenty of material to work from.

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