Journey: My Political Life

Tony Blair’s engaging memoir lauds George W. Bush and defends the difficult decisions that politicians must make.

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Readers interested in British politics might find Journey: My Political Life, the memoir by former Prime Minister Tony Blair, surprising. At times, the 700 pages seem aimed primarily at an American audience, with the primary emphasis looking something like “recent and current US presidents I have known and admired.” Labeled as a political “progressive,” Labour Party leader Blair might be supposed to find much to like in the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama administrations. Blair shatters the stereotype, however, by turning George W. Bush into an approximation of a Greek god.

So, the memoir covering Blair’s 10 years as prime minister (1997-2007) is, on its face, unpredictable. Fortunately, whether readers agree or disagree with Blair’s policies and character assessments, they are unlikely to find the book boring. Blair writes well, practices transparency, and on almost every page explains his decisions in detail. I cannot recall a previous memoir by a head of state that is intellectually and emotionally engaging on so many pages.

The breadth of the book is impressive: the impact of a public life on a family’s private life, including Blair’s wife, Cherie, and their four children; Blair’s efforts to broker peace between warring religious factions in Northern Ireland; his worries about the explosiveness of the Middle East and how far to push Israel toward the negotiating table; questions of what to do about ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia and on the African continent; the best way to find accord with continental nations so that the European Union might function well; seemingly endless debates about British domestic politics/policies; and, always, US-British alliances and divisions, especially during an emotionally charged war on terrorism declared after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.

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The book’s dominant controversy, however, is the invasion of Iraq by the United States and British governments based on the desire to overthrow the brutal Saddam Hussein and to disarm the alleged weapons of mass destruction within Iraq’s borders.

Blair decided to cast his nation’s lot with the US, opening him to charges of warmongering by the normally warmongering Conservative Party politicians, and to companion charges that the obviously brainy Blair had come under the spell of the seemingly not brainy George W. Bush.

Here is how Blair introduces Bush: “The stupidest misconception was that he was stupid.... I have come to admire the simplicity, the directness, almost the boldness of it, finding in it strength and integrity. Sometimes, in the very process of reasoning, we lose sight of the need for a destination.” Bush knew his destinations and pursued them, shunting aside contradictory evidence.

Blair generally praises politicians who must make difficult decisions, no matter the ideological underpinnings of those politicians. The only class of persons Blair seems to fear and disrespect are journalists: “[T]hat the media now works by impact, which leads to sensation, crowds out a sensible debate about policy or ideas. What’s more, the media is 24/7, incredibly powerful and without any proper accountability. When they decide to go for someone, they are ... like feral beasts. But more than that, they are also, partly through the presence of competition, highly partisan in order either to get maximum impact or to put across the views of their proprietors or editors.”

Throughout the memoir, Blair teaches lessons grounded in seemingly low-impact events. For example, while dining with French leader Jacques Chirac at a pub in Blair’s electoral district, the prime minister notices that fox hunters are demonstrating outside. “Fox hunting, now there’s a tale. One of the strangest parts of politics is how you get into situations of unbelievable controversy without ever meaning to or wanting to.”

Whether to ban fox hunting crossed political party lines (Labour versus Conservatives), class lines, and became an animal rights issue for many. Blair’s usually unerring political radar failed him on the fox hunting issue: “And here is a real political lesson. You have to ‘feel it’ to succeed in politics. That’s where instinct comes, the emotional intelligence.... On this one, I had a complete lapse. I didn’t ‘feel it’ either way. I didn’t feel how, for fox hunters, this was part of their way of life. I didn’t feel how, for those wanting a ban, this was fundamentally about cruelty. Result? Disaster.... If I’d proposed solving the pension problem by compulsory euthanasia for every fifth pensioner I’d have got less trouble for it.”

Since leaving the prime ministership, Blair has been traveling the globe trying to make the world a better place according to his values. In a 27-page Postscript, he summarizes his causes. Given the state of the world he documents so unsparingly, he is surprisingly optimistic about the future of humanity.

Steve Weinberg is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Columbia, Mo.

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