The History of “Bliar”
I haven’t yet attempted a considered assessment of Tony Blair’s A Journey. Several good reviews have already appeared, some of which I have noted here; since when we have had Paul Waugh at Critical Reaction and Fareed Zakaria in the New York Times.
But here’s a little thing. On page 459 Blair says in passing, in a discussion about the media reaction to David Kelly’s death, “It was in the 2001 election that the Tories had first called me ‘Bliar’.”
I thought: Really?
Not quite, actually, but the story of the insult is worth a footnote in history.
The coinage was first used in print by Tom Hibbert, a music journalist who wrote The Observer’s Pendennis column, on 4 May 1997, which is not online:
As it is 3 May and we have a new government hooray for my old chum Tony Bliar (sic) Pendennis turns, inevitably, to his copy of the People’s Friend diary to see what he should be doing today. ‘To clean an oil painting, cut a large onion in two. Rub the cut surface of the painting using a circular motion. When the onion becomes soiled, cut off a slice.’ Hmmm, that’s a handy tip, except Pendennis used it on something in his attic which turned out to be an original Manrique and all the paint came off and he is thus yet more penniless than before. Moral; Do not trust the People’s Friend. It isn’t.
No idea what he was on about, but The People’s Friend is a Scottish magazine “for women who love good reading”. It all seems a rather cheerfully innocent play on words.
Who is Hibbert and what happened to him? Of all people to explain, it fell to Mark Ellen, Blair’s fellow member of Ugly Rumours at Oxford University, later editor of Q and The Word, in a post in October 2008:
It means a great deal to me read all these affectionate posts about Tom Hibbert. We were inseparable friends after meeting in May 1980 in the offices of New Music News, an underground rock weekly published by Felix Dennis to fill the vacuum of the IPC strike (NME and Melody Maker had been suspended). I’d noticed a perilously thin individual sitting in the corner in a cloud of smoke operating a manual typewriter and, looking over his shoulder, discovered he was inventing post to the NMN letters column from imaginary correspondents. When I asked why, he rolled his eyes – duh! – and said “because we haven’t got any readers!”. I suggested that I edit the letters for him and put comments after each one, and we thought it might be a wheeze to stop a passer-by on Oxford Street and ask them to sit in the photo booth by Tottenham Court Road tube station and for me to then edit the letters in the fictional voice of the person in the photo. We kept this up ’til the magazine folded 12 weeks later, alternating each week – me writing the letters, Hibbert as the imagined guest editor with this week’s picture, and vice versa. I moved to Smash Hits at this point, hired by David Hepworth and when I moved off to start Q with Dave in ‘85, I was looking for someone to take on my role as the Black Type (an imaginary character who edited the – very real – Smash Hits letters column). There was clearly only one man for the job: Hibbs – who took this piece of psychedelic whimsy to extraordinary heights of mystery and imagination. I still have a framed photograph of him and Margaret Thatcher when he interviewed her for Smash Hits at Downing Street in the late ’80s, a catastrophically misjudged plank in her re-election campaign. When we launched Q we offered him a regular slot called “Who The Hell”, an invention of Dave’s, which cemented his reputation, and he later wrote the Pendennis column for The Observer. Tom was very ill in 1997 and has since considered himself retired from showbiz. He lives quietly in Henley-On-Thames. We were at the Big Star concert in Shepherd’s Bush in August.
Meanwhile, back to the story.
“Bliar” was indeed first used prominently by the Conservatives, but it was in the 1999 campaign for the first Scottish Parliament elections, rather than in the general election two years later. The Mirror reported a Scottish National Party event on 27 April 1999:
The Tories cruised past regularly in a van towing a giant advertising trailer which proclaimed: “Tony Bliar.”
This so-called slogan was apparently dreamt up by Yellow M, an advertising agency that sufficiently impressed William Hague for him to hire it to handle the Conservative Party’s account for the 2001 election.
I had thought that it was Michael Howard who had debased public language by calling Blair a liar in 2005 (the Conservatives then put up a poster that said, “If he’s prepared to lie to take us to war, he’s prepared to lie to win an election“).
It turns out that Hague got there first.
Photograph: APTagged in: blair a journey
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter