Monday, March 21, 2011

His Journey

Yes, The Conscience of Zeno is an autobiography. It just isn't mine.

(Italo Svevo)

Some time before the last American election I listened to Obama’s two memoirs, Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope, read of course by the man himself. Both books are well-written, engaging – in spite of the substantial lack of political analysis and content – and flawless in the construction of Obama the candidate, Obama the blank slate, Obama the post-Clintonian, late-Blairite progressive. What struck me the most at that time was the insistence to place demands on the voter and on society, and not just peddle to their aspirations. The two books, and especially the latter, seemed to be at times curiously less about Obama himself and more about the American body politic, albeit in a manner that was more descriptive and wishful than critical or analytic. In time, both pre-election pamphlets will become interesting texts through which to read the mood of the first decade of this century in America, and against which to read the failure to materialise of those inchoate hopes, as well as of some of the more concrete and legitimate ones. There will be, no doubt, post-Presidency memoirs with which to compare and contrast Obama’s earlier mythologies of self, and the extraordinarily powerful public narratives that they briefly sustained.

It’s in that spirit that I rather looked forward to reading Tony Blair’s latest memoir, his first as an ex-politician. Not because I expected it to offer any honest insight into his own conduct or dispassionate examination of the interaction of social, political and geopolitical forces during his years in office; but rather because I figured that the sheer enormity of the task of justifying retrospectively everything that had happened, and fitting it into a bold and coherent, always-already-formed project, would likely produce at the very least tiny fissures, little cracks that might let some light through.

When it comes to this kind of book, I always like to start from the cover. Leaving aside the resemblance to John McEnroe, and compared to, say, Roger Douglas’ debut into political biography, this is at first glance an unexceptional image. Blair looks into the camera, his mouth slightly open, half smiling, half preparing to speak. His gaze is fixed on the reader, suggesting frankness. The dark blue shirt subtly points to Blair’s retirement from active duty and the armpit-staining effects of vigorous political oratory. The title, A Journey, is unassuming, utterly forgettable. Not a messianic The Journey, nor an introspective My Journey. Just A Journey. It could be anybody’s.

But of course this isn’t anybody. It’s Tony Blair. And one of the threads in the book has to do to the extent that this is in fact his story: not his party’s, not his country’s, but strictly his own.
There is only one person who can write an account of what it is like to be the human being at the centre of that history, and that's me. [xv]
Constantly we are reminded that there is no ‘we’ in team. Blair is not an expression of the Party, or the leader of a movement, or the interpreter of the aspirations of a social class, but a transcendent figure, sole repository of a bold, definite and unquestionably correct set of ideas about state reform and international relations. He is also the saviour of the left: the only politician capable of transforming Labour from occasional one-term spoiler into the natural party of government. On election night, 1997, for a moment he fears that he may be just too good at it:
The moving line at the bottom of the TV screen was showing over a hundred Labour seats. The Tories had just six. I began to think I had done something unconstitutional. I had meant to defeat the Tories and do so handsomely; but what if we had wiped them out? [6]
But in the end it’s just a victory, albeit ‘in a landslide’ (for no cliché is left unturned – that’s something you quickly learn about this book). And here is the first instance of Blair portraying himself as the victim of his own success: for a perception begins to form in various quarters, including within the Party, that New Labour is ‘just’ a formidable electoral machine, and that its reform project is a purely rhetorical construct. But the leader is sincere in his convictions and has one thing on his side: the electorate. It’s having connected directly with the people – that messianic streak, again – that enables Blair to pursue an agenda on government and economic reform that he can now candidly describe as Thatcherite and an ‘open’ (read: pro-Europe, but also interventionist) approach to international affairs, all against the multiple areas of resistance in his own party and in the various institutions that stand in his way.

However, this is not to say that Blair is actually fond of people. He knows that their love for him will wane; he is wise to the cyclical nature of the public’s political infatuations, and the media’s capacity to accelerate the downward trajectory. He also lets slip at times a remarkably stereotyped dislike for whole categories of his fellow humans.
One of the greatest myths of human existence is that as people get older, they get more benign, more long-suffering, more relaxed and more phlegmatic in how the world treats them. Not in my experience. Your average Rottweiler on speed can be a lot more amiable than a pensioner wronged, or, to put it more accurately, believing they are wronged. [299]

At any rate Blair never actually regards the public except as a vast, sympathetic, amorphous demographic, as if a segment of the middle-class – however broad and like-minded – was actually coextensive with the whole of the people:
There was no doubt in my mind that this was where the majority of the public stood, where the sensible, serious centre ground could congregate and where we could define an agenda that was essential third-way material: personal ambition combined with social compassion. [318]
These model citizens are the product of modernity and globalisation, they exist ‘in the 21st century’, with the implication that people whose circumstances or aspirations differ from theirs or advocate a different brand of politics – most especially socialism and the trade union movement – are obsolete models existing in the past, irrelevant to the point of being inexistent.

The imperative to modernise according to this narrow and self-serving purview morphs seamlessly into imperialism when it is applied to the peoples outside of Britain, and Muslims in particular. Here Blair in the aftermath of 9/11 – and whilst protesting far too much against the meaninglessness of the ‘neoconservative’ label – puts forward the view that bringing the Muslim world into the 21st century is a matter of survival for the West and paints himself into a frankly bizarre corner, again under the guise of being a victim of his own superior clarity of vision.

Blair’s position on Iraq goes, roughly, as follows: I did what I thought was right; furthermore, if I knew then what I know now, I would still take the same decision, on the grounds that Iraq and the world at large are better places since the Coalition got rid of Saddam. But this is where things get problematic: the aftermath of the invasion was planned badly, this Blair will admit. However, that Iraq would become the actual theatre of the war on terror via the radicalisation of the insurgency and the irruption of foreign fundamentalists is in fact entirely consistent with the presumption – on which Blair and Bush both claimed post-facto to have been operating – that al-Qaeda would seek such a confrontation. This displacement into Iraq of the wider conflict (‘we’re fighting them there, so we don’t fight them here’ as Bush said and Blair is wise enough not to reprint) became in fact retrospectively one of the justifications of the war itself and proof positive that the neoconservative analysis of the situation was correct. But then how was this eventuality not planned for? This is where Blair’s own rationale, supposedly more nuanced and less facile than his ally’s, runs aground. If the war was fought for the benefit of the Iraqi people, then visiting upon the country a transnational fundamentalist insurgency can’t possibly have been part of the plan; and if the escalation hadn’t been anticipated, then the countries that adhered to the Coalition didn’t really believe that they had been declared war against on 9/11, which is a major premise of Blair’s argument. Conversely, if the war in Iraq was pursued in order to precipitate this confrontation with evil, then the coalition ought to have prepared for such an outcome, and not having done so would be a criminal dereliction of duty to the ‘liberated’ country, as opposed to a staggering miscalculation.

Blair doesn’t see any of this. His regret never turns into apology, and he reserves most of the pity for himself (‘I was between numerous rocks and innumerable hard places’ [424]). In what is probably the single most grotesque passage in the whole diatribe, he blames the enemy for being unaccountably successful (unfair!):
The al-Qaeda leader in Iraq estimated that between 2003 and 2006 there were thousands of suicide bombs that they successfully detonated. My point is very simple: take those out of the equation and the security task would have been enormously different: tough but manageable. [467-468]
When the reader and the author are confronted with the enormity of the suffering that was caused, Blair’s truly heroic determination to deflect guilt leads into a syntactically incoherent non sequitur:
Think of the horror. My responsibility. [572]

What makes this incoherence even more astounding is that Blair at this point is in conversation with himself, and not under hostile questioning. I thought quite often of Frost/Nixon whilst reading this book, and the lines by Sam Rockwell’s character on how the country needed to hear Nixon admit what he had done, and apologise for it. There is a touch of irony in the association, because Frost, the inquisitor, is portrayed in the film by Michael Sheen, who has played Blair twice[*], in The Queen and The Special Relationship, and on the face of it quite sympathetically, accentuating his occasionally exuberant warmth and attenuating what John Lanchester has called Blair’s 'inner chilly hardness'. Both films in fact broadly reflect the story as later told by Blair in A Journey, save for the coda of The Special Relationship, when Clinton makes way for Bush and the film cuts to actual footage of that famous first press conference with Bush and Blair at Camp David.

No longer played by Sheen, Blair is left to be himself, and at the mercy of an ally which he would later delude himself to be capable of influencing. It is an understatedly subversive ending.

However, there is another film that undercuts Blair’s memoir rather more savagely, and it’s Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer. Here the truth about Iraq extends the conspiracy to the realm of the fanciful, as the ghost writer in charge of fixing up the memoir becomes convinced that the Blair character – Adam Lang, played with nothing but chilly hardness by Pierce Brosnan – had been recruited into the CIA as a young man at Oxford and was helped by sinister forces to scale the leadership of the Party and do America’s bidding. I’m not going to give away the final twist, which is rather good, except to say that it involves a paranoically close reading of the book, and the truth is revealed in the form of a sort of acrostic.

If there are hidden clues to a criminal conspiracy in A Journey, I wasn’t able to find them, but I suspect that – under no coercion other than that of writing, at length – Blair let on more than he should have if he was interested above all in establishing a reputation for honesty: and not just by putting his final signature on a paradoxical case for the war in Iraq and his entire approach to foreign intervention, but also by articulating a philosophy and set of political ideas that – if they were truly always held, as he claims they were – would have necessitated the conduct of a profoundly duplicitous relationship with the Labour Party and its membership.

It is bad enough that Blair admits that he didn’t think that a Labour victory was the best thing for the country at the 1983 elections (‘and I was a candidate!’ [15]), or that he reserves in the book his most consistent vitriol to the unions, whose votes helped him secure the leadership. It’s the unleashing in the book’s Postscript of a torrent of unabashedly right wing positions: starting from an analysis of the economic crisis that exonerates the markets and, largely, the banks (thus, by implication, his tenure) and calls not for Keynesian remedies or a reassertion of the role of government, but on the contrary for an acceleration of market deregulation and public sector reform (‘[g]etting value for money in services like health care, opening up competition in areas like education, radically altering welfare’ [669]) accompanied by a reduction of the deficit via an increase in regressive taxation; and moving on to a staggeringly limpid formulation of the neoconservative credo in foreign policy that borders on the fascistic:
We need the suasion in argument of an Obama (or Clinton) and the simplicity in approach of a Bush (or Reagan). We need an intellectual case, brilliantly marshalled, combined with a hard headed ability to confront. Now is the time to do it. [...] In doing this, we should renew confidence in our way of life and the values it represents. [676]

But the single most illuminating line is dropped almost nonchalantly, like a passing afterthought, on page 690 (out of 691): ‘I have always been more interested in religion than politics.’ So this is the twist: Blair was working under instructions not from the CIA, but from God. I am not being entirely flippant: as Lanchester has noted, these religious ideas that supposedly trump Blair’s politics are completely absent from the book. Without them, and in light of this final revelation (at least in the context of the narrative, if not the public record), one feels that what the story needs is another retrospective adjustment, another rewriting that accounts for this fundamental intellectual dimension of a leader that – it must be remembered – had claimed up to that point to have acted exclusively on his own instincts, exercising the closest thing to pure and unmediated political will that a Western democracy will allow.

In another sense it’s as if after governing for over a decade as a closeted Catholic, Blair couldn’t reintegrate this fundamental component of his personality in intelligible form, illustrating how it informed his decision-making in the normal course of his memoir, but could only blurt it out, inappropriately, as if under a compulsion, or due to the exertion of that long interview with himself, and thus had undermined further his case for truth in biography and truth in politics. I hope he shall be given the opportunity to make other confessions, and that the twist again will be in the ending.

Lang's manuscript is carried by the wind in The Ghost Writer

Tony Blair. A Journey. London: Hutchinson, 2010.

John Lanchester. The Which Blair Project'. The New Yorker, 13 September 2010.
David Runciman. 'Preacher on a Tank'. The London Review of Books, September 2010.

[*]Actually, three - see W. Kasper in the comments.