Book of the Week: A Journey

Five wars, three terms, one unpalatable truth: Alex Danchev interrogates the great persuader's mock-demotic attempts to defend the indefensible

September 23, 2010

Stanhope: Better eat your dinner before it's cold.

Raleigh: I'm not hungry, thanks.

Stanhope: Oh, for God's sake, sit down and eat it like a man!

Raleigh: I can't eat it, thanks.

Stanhope: Are you going to eat your dinner?

Raleigh: Good God! Don't you understand? How can I sit down and eat that - when - when Osborne's - lying - out there ...

Stanhope: My God! You bloody little swine! You think I don't care - you think you're the only soul that cares!

Raleigh: And yet you can sit there and drink champagne - and smoke cigars ...

Stanhope: The one man I could trust - my best friend - the one man I could talk to as man to man - who understood everything - and you think I don't care ...

Raleigh: But how can you when ...?

Stanhope: To forget, you little fool - to forget! D'you understand? To forget! You think there's no limit to what a man can bear?

Tony Blair's first finest hour was at Fettes College in 1971, aged 18. He had a starring role as Captain Stanhope, the whisky-sodden company commander who has seen too much, in R.C. Sherriff's examination of honour and conscience on the Western Front, Journey's End (1928) - a title that now seems more like a premonition.

Forty years on, the adrenalin has curdled.

"As I thought on how to answer the question that was put to me at the end of my evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War in January 2010, I felt sick," he writes, "a mixture of anger and anguish." The question was: "Do you have any regrets?" It was put twice, and on Blair's own account his answer was deliberately incomplete.

He spoke of a sense of responsibility; he expressed no regrets. He seems to feel that he was set up.

"The anger was at being put in a position in an inquiry that was supposed to be about lessons learned, but had inevitably turned into a trial of judgement, and even good faith" - "good faith" is his watchword - "and in front of some of the families of the fallen, to whom I wanted to reach out, but knew if I did so, the embrace would be immediately misused and misconstrued. But the anger was selfish, trivial - comparatively at any rate - and transient."

There remains the anguish. "The principal part of that is not selfish. Some of it is, to be sure. Do they really suppose I don't care, don't feel, don't regret with every fibre of my being the loss of those who died?"

Even this Stanhopish sentiment does not get to the bottom of what he wants to convey. Now, he says, he is beyond tears, beyond sympathy, beyond sorry. He is in a different place, a place of perpetual burden.

"Regret can seem bound to the past. Responsibility has its present and future tense." Piteous yet unrepentant, Tony Blair feels your pain.

"You" are addressed directly throughout the journey. Blair is keen to stress that these are all his own words, and the register is nothing if not demotic. People are "seminal" (Neil) or "weird" (Gordon). They either "get" it, whatever it is, or they don't. Tony's best friend Bill gets everything, quick as a flash; the Neanderthals of Old Labour don't get aspiration; Tony himself doesn't get Abu Ghraib. "Genius" is a common term of approbation; its polar opposite is "rubbish", as in "he was rubbish".

The cultural references tend to be lowbrow and dated ("You know the scene in Marathon Man..."). Books do not bulk large; nor do those who write them. Merchants of many kinds find their place in this story, but not merchants of ideas. "Probably the most influential person in my life", Peter Thomson, the Australian Anglican priest he encountered at Oxford, lives and dies in a single page, interred with Blair's eulogy. Thomson set him reading the works of the philosopher John Macmurray, but what he took from them does not bear scrutiny here.

Blair's hinterland is barren ground. Tabloid prejudice mixes with showbiz effusion - he "adores" the most unlikely people (David Blunkett, the Labour Party). Mills & Boon confessional vies with puritanical expurgation. Thus "bull****". "Don't f*** it up" (Rahm Emanuel's advice before a press conference with Bill Clinton). And even: "Blair, you are a c***" (a pensioner's placard). The shocking thing about the book is not the bad language but the bad writing. The mock-conversational style and matey tone ("Don't get me wrong") are excruciating. The literary effect is something akin to a New Labour James Ellroy. Ellroy: "I was frayed, fraught, french-fried and frazzled." Blair: "members of the ejected, dejected and rejected". Of Princess Diana's funeral: "It had to be dignified; it had to be different; it had to be Diana."

To be fair - a phrase that infests the work like death-watch beetle - there are flashes of illumination, especially on the practice of politics. "With each successive Tory leader, I would develop a line of attack, but I only did so after a lot of thought...The aim was to get the non-politician nodding...So I defined Major as weak; Hague as better at jokes than judgement; Howard as opportunist; Cameron as a flip-flop, not knowing where he wanted to go ... Expressed like that, these attacks seem flat, rather mundane almost, and not exactly inspiring - but that's their appeal. Any one of those charges, if it comes to be believed, is actually fatal...Because in each case, it means they're not a good leader. So game over."

On Iraq, he repeats the line he took with Chilcot. (Rule 1 in Alastair Campbell's playbook: always have a line to take.) According to this, there was no "big lie" about weapons of mass destruction; the intelligence was not "sexed up" or oversold; there was no prior commitment to Washington; Lord Goldsmith was not "leant on" to change his mind about the legality of the war; the French declared that they would not support military action whatever the circumstances. These are arguments of desperation. Symptomatically, they become increasingly legalistic. TB, QC, is defending the indefensible.

Blair is defined by his wars and his starring roles. The two are connected, not least in his own mind. "I always reckoned that even the ones who didn't like me...still admired the fact that I counted, was a big player, was a world and not just a national leader." He could have been a contender, but was put out to grass. He has God, and Mammon, and his very own Lady Macbeth, but withal a hollowness at heart. He had so much left to give. He calls his book a love letter to Britain. The pitch is corny yet revealing. The great persuader has been spurned, and he knows it. How it chafes him.

Stanhope goes stiffly up the steps, his tall figure black against the dawn sky. The shelling has risen to a great fury. The solitary candle burns with a steady flame, and Raleigh lies in the shadows. The whine of a shell rises to a shriek and bursts on the dugout roof...Very faintly there comes the dull rattle of machine guns and the fevered spatter of rifle fire.

The play ends

THE AUTHOR

Tony Blair is the Labour Party's longest-serving prime minister, having held the position from 1997 until he resigned in 2007. He is the only person to have led the Labour Party to three consecutive general election victories.

However, his teachers at Fettes College may have had a difficult time imagining their pupil growing up to assume such a lofty office: Mr Blair's teachers were said to be unimpressed with his work ethic.

After school, he took a year out to start a short-lived career as a music promoter before going on to the University of Oxford to read jurisprudence.

When he graduated, he became a trainee barrister at Lincoln's Inn, where he met Cherie Booth, who was to become his wife. He married Ms Booth in 1980 and has four children with her: Euan, Nicholas, Kathryn and Leo - who was the first legitimate child of a prime minister to be born in office in 150 years.

A Journey

By Tony Blair

Hutchinson, 718pp, £25.00

ISBN 9780091925550

Published 1 September 2010

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