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Blair in History

John Rentoul

tbpmlaunch 225x300 Blair in HistorySome good questions were asked at the launch of the new edition of my biography of Tony Blair at the Mile End Group last night. Here are the ones I remember and a slightly l’esprit de l’escalier version of my answers:

What does it feel like to be a Blair apologist? I remember it was a shock at first, because I thought that he had been on balance a good prime minister and I continued to feel that in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, which, on balance, I supported. But maintaining the view that he was on balance a Good Thing against the advancing wall of hate pushed me to appear to be, and indeed to become, more partisan than before. At the same time, though, as Blair’s public service reform programme took shape in his second term, I became more enthusiastic about his domestic policies. As a result, I came to admire him more at the end of his time of office than I did when the previous edition of this book was published, at the time of 9/11.

How will the Chilcot report affect Blair’s reputation? I doubt that it will have any great effect, when it is eventually published, possibly next year. It will not satisfy the haters, a small and noisy minority whose story of “going to war on a lie” has unfortunately infected the wells of popular memory. No one who has given the matter five minutes’ serious thought, let alone five years’ and interviewed all the participants and read all the papers, could imagine that Blair used Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction as a pretext for military action knowing that they might not be found. As I have said on this blog, the Chilcot inquiry has told us nothing that was not already known, and what confidential papers there are as have not yet been published will similarly add little. But contradicting the haters’ story a fifth time, while it may fill out the historical record, is not going to change many people’s minds in the here and now.

Why was Blair so slow to grasp the importance of machinery-of-government questions in delivering change? Because, and it is the quotation on the back cover of the hardback edition of his memoir, A Journey, “On 2 May 1997, I walked into Downing Street as prime minister for the first time. I had never held office, not even as the most junior of junior ministers. It was my first and only job in government.” Yet I argue, in the new Afterword to my book, that Blair was too hard on himself in saying that he did not achieve enough in his first term. The settlement in Northern Ireland on its own was enough to guarantee a meritorious place in the history books. But he achieved much more: devolution, Lords reform, minimum wage, the start of schools improvement, some of which was fraught and in which he was not much interested. And by 2001 he had grasped the machinery-of-government question and brought in the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit, stocktakes and civil service changes that have been followed since, including around the world.

How would Blair have fared in the newest media era of Twitter? He had already adapted to the faster pace of communications – pagers, mobile phones, 24-hour news channels (remember the BBC’s “rolling news”?). He would, like Cameron, have disdained Twitter, but Alastair Campbell would have explained that it is the future and he would have to get with it. And he would. The important thing is strategic communications; knowing what your message is; the mechanisms are secondary.

What were his greatest failures? Welfare reform and, paradoxically, immigration. That is a paradox because immigration is a symptom of economic success and well as the cause of possible social problems. Even if you favour a liberal policy on immigration, which he did by instinct and default, it was a political mistake to have allowed it to run at such a high level, because that, rather than Iraq, is what mass public opinion holds against his record as prime minister.

In what areas have you changed your view of him? See question 1. And Roman Catholicism. I said in the 2001 edition of the book that I was sceptical about “the assumption, encouraged by wishful-thinking Catholic converts, that Blair is really One of Them”.

In conversation, I discussed with a couple of people how Blair’s reputation would fare in the longer view. I am gloomy, partly because Iraq has not worked out well and should weigh heavily, if not as heavily as it currently does. But the one contribution to the debate that prompts a hollow laugh is Polly Toynbee’s complaint that Blair fails to blow New Labour’s trumpet. Sadly, she was unable to attend in person to explain how her decade-long campaign in The Guardian against Blair for being a Tory helped to portray New Labour’s achievements in the positive light in which they should be seen.

Thank you to my colleagues at the Mile End Group for hosting the event, above all the brilliant Dr Jon Davis, and to Richard Kelly at Faber for publishing the book, which you can buy here (paperback) or here (e-book).

Thanks to Martin Farr for the photograph

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