I’ll have that on my gravestone: “Not far wrong”
Me, me, me. The first thing I did when I got a review copy of the fourth volume of Alastair Campbell’s diaries was to look myself up in the index. On 24 September 2001, he wrote: “John Rentoul had a very good line on the ‘psychologically flawed relationship’ and it wasn’t far wrong.”
Well, that cheered me up. I couldn’t immediately remember the article. I thought it might have been the one where I said that, in his response to 9/11, Tony Blair might be making his “first really serious mistake”. But it wasn’t. It was another article, which does not seem to be on The Independent’s website any more (ah, footprints on the mist of the internet), but I have retrieved it from a subscription database and reproduce it below.
I shall be talking to Campbell about the latest volume of his diaries (which ends, in 2003, with the words “To be continued …”) tomorrow night at the Mile End Group. Free entry may still be available: details here.
Monday 24 September 2001
BLAIR, THE INTERNATIONALLY FETED DIPLOMAT, COMES INTO HIS OWN – BUT ONLY ABROAD
SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 4
TONY BLAIR’S demonstration of shuttle solidarity has earned him adulation in America and unexpectedly solid support in Europe for a robust response to the World Trade Centre attacks. The Prime Minister spent yesterday afternoon on the telephone to Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Indian Prime Minister, and Jean Chretien, the Canadian Prime Minister, after flying from Europe to the United States and back in 48 hours.
His energy in building the international coalition behind the US has been prodigious. But why does he show such decisive leadership in international crises, when he is so hesitant and afraid to offend in domestic matters? It was in the Kosovo war that a previously obsessively risk-averse politician suddenly turned into an international statesman burning with a Gladstonian moral passion. That operation was a huge risk for him to take: he committed himself at an early stage to restore the fleeing Kosovo Albanians to their homes – an objective he could not deliver unless he could persuade a deeply reluctant President Clinton to threaten to deploy ground troops. Yet he succeeded in winning a war he was told could not be won, and was completely vindicated by the overthrow – and now trial – of Slobodan Milosevic.
His reward in domestic politics was meagre: one week after Mr Milosevic’s acceptance of Nato’s terms, Labour trailed eight percentage points behind the Conservatives on a deeply apathetic 23 per cent turnout for the European Parliament elections.
But Mr Blair found that he was good at diplomacy. His charm, his ability to exploit people’s weaknesses, his lawyerly way with words and his conversational moral tone meant he could cajole a coalition of 19 nations towards a goal which he had seen clearly before they did.
Kosovo did not come out of the blue. He had already shown the beginnings of a muscular righteousness in Sierra Leone, where he swept aside a journalistic kerfuffle about sanctions-busting to declare that Britain was “on the side of the good guys”. But the element of coping instinctively with the unexpected was part of what was attractive to Mr Blair. He had proved a sound judge of the public mood on the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
It is only in foreign affairs, however, that Blair the moralist can gain the decisive upper hand over Blair the consensus politician. Villains such as Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden lend themselves to simple garish colours, whereas the evils of poverty, ill health and poor education are diffuse. He is enthused by the stardust of the international stage, and in any case fighting the good fight against such monsters commands wide, if not deep, support at home.
Mr Blair is in thrall to the idea of the strong leader. From his reading of political biographies, from watching Margaret Thatcher as she wrong- footed her opponents, and from his own rise to the Labour leadership, he learnt the importance of judging and seizing the moment, of setting the tempo, of ruthlessness disguised by style. But he is not a conviction politician; he does not practise the politics of the war against the enemy within. For him, the enemy is always without. At home, his political method is always to invite the broadest coalition of voters into his tent.
Besides, at home his style is cramped by his psychologically flawed relationship with Gordon Brown, a relationship with a long history: it was the making of him, now it holds him back. He cannot crusade to reform the health service or raise standards in schools without having his Chancellor shout at him for spending money.
This time, though, the outcome could be different. This time the enemy is wicked enough to fit any kind of moralising rhetoric, but the war aims are much less clear and victory is not only uncertain but it is much more difficult to define when it has been achieved.Tagged in: alastair campbell, contemporary history, me me me, tony blair
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