Journey's end

by Toby Manhire / 16 October, 2010
Ed Miliband’s election as leader of the UK Labour Party is the cruellest twist for Tony Blair and his New Labour cohorts Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell.
New Labour is dead. “A new generation has taken charge of Labour,” announced Ed Miliband, just hours after his election as the new leader of the UK Labour Party on September 25. It was what the party faithful wanted to hear. As Miliband had said in campaigning, it was time to “turn the page on New Labour and set out a new approach”.

And there are more than a few pages to turn: the months since Gordon Brown’s defeat have seen three weighty additions to an already bulging canon of insider accounts: the first volume (with three to come) of communications supremo Alastair Campbell’s unexpurgated diaries; a memoir by master of strategy Peter Mandelson; and A Journey, from the man at the centre of it all, Tony Blair.

For more than a decade, New Labour dominated British politics. It washed away 18 years of Labour electoral exile, heralding, in Blair’s words, “a new dawn”. But 13 years later it left a party riven by betrayal and infighting, the nation agonised by unpopular wars abroad, and a rejuvenated Conservative Party in power – albeit in coalition.

New Labour presaged a rightward shift from the Labour tradition: disavowing state socialism, embracing the private sector and the pursuit of wealth. But at root it was a rebranding of a party Blair felt had become “unelectable”, encumbered by “ideological baggage”. Labour had to “change profoundly its modus operandi, its thinking, its programme and above all its attitudes” and build “an electoral machine capable of winning over the people”. Blair had a vision – and he doesn’t mind telling us. “I could see it like I suppose someone in business spots the next great opportunity, or an artist suddenly appreciates his own creative genius.”

If you believe Campbell, he was one of “four architects of New Labour”; Mandelson, never Campbell’s greatest fan, unsurprisingly counts only three progenitors. He, Brown and Blair were “the founding triumvirate”, “like brothers”. But the New Labour story will always be about the two who sought the crown. As young MPs in opposition, says Blair, he and Brown were “a bit like lovers”. Or, as Mandelson puts it: “Constantly batting ideas off each other, positioning and planning, they were like a pair of very close, if unidentical, twins.”

The romance turned psychodrama soon enough, however. The poison of Blair versus Brown permeated everything. Newspapers and airtime were filled with tales of scheming and plotting – all with briefings from unnamed “well-placed sources”. The central question was this: had Blair, as Brown’s camp insisted, broken his promise to stand down?

The picture of Brown drawn by Blair, Campbell and Mandelson is one of an obdurate bull, steam pouring from his nostrils as he stares down the Prime Minister. And yet it’s hard not to feel Brown had reason to fume. Indeed, Blair admits that although there was no explicit deal, it would have been reasonable to infer from their discussions that “I would do two terms and then hand over”. Later, having issued Brown with a clearer assurance, Blair still clung to power, but this, he would have us believe, was because he questioned Brown’s ability to “carry through the agenda” – and so, he adds, with characteristic sleight of hand, to have gone would have been “not selfless but selfish”.
If there were prizes for storytelling, Mandelson would win. Even lacking, as it does, much of the wit and mischief he tenders in person, his account of his role in New Labour, of his forced resignations and subsequent comebacks, makes The Third Man a proper page-turner. Campbell’s diaries are enthralling, too, delivering a testosterone-charged immediacy (he rages at one point against those who would see Labour “go back to being unreconstructed Trot wankers”). The same cannot be said of Blair.

For a man who gained such a reputation as a communicator, Blair’s prose creaks. “He came over either as a lawyer, or as someone who was talking to a classroom full of kids.” So says Campbell in 1994 of Blair’s media appearances, but he might equally have been critiquing A Journey. There are glib declamations (“global challenges require global solutions”, “the limitations natural in any entity containing humanity”) alongside down-with-the-kidsisms (“I thought, blimey, get a life”, politicians “dissing” one another). There is some vapid phrase-making (“back then, I could not foresee the future; I could only try to navigate my way through the present”) and exclamation marks sprayed around with teenage enthusiasm!

Most tellingly, the book is peppered with awkward direct appeals to the reader, most of them apparently to anticipate scepticism. “Don’t misunderstand me”, “don’t get me wrong”, “you can believe this or not, I really don’t mind”, and so on.

If this betrays an innate self-doubt, it isn’t the half of it. Blair is constantly reflecting on his own fear, lack of courage, even cowardice. “As a child you first learn about courage and fear in the playground fight, when the bully bullies and you are scared of being hurt,” he confides. “Finally, at some point, you turn and fight.”

The great internal conflict, the arc even, of Blair’s Journey is precisely this “battle between courage and fear”. Domestically, the bully is presumably Brown. More disturbingly, however, is the sense that his drive to prove he is no coward, twinned with the hint of messianic purpose he attaches to his “mission”, underscored his determination to bind the UK to George W Bush’s America in invading Iraq.

Blair describes at great length the thinking that informed going to war: a doctrine founded in moral cause and enlightened national self-interest. And 9/11 changed everything – the prospect of Islamist terrorists allying with rogue states shifting the calculus of risk. “There was no other course; no other option; no alternative path. It was war. It had to be fought and won.” And he sticks to his guns – there is not an iota of regret (indeed, in his epilogue, he all but calls for war against Iran), or any acceptance that the war might have created the conditions for more terrorist strikes on the West. Instead, he volunteers to take responsibility: “The notion of ‘responsibility’ indicates not a burden discharged but a burden that continues. Regret can seem bound to the past. Responsibility has its present and future tense.”

If that seems to have the whiff of sophistry, try this: “My task is a modest one: not to persuade the reader of the rightness of the cause, but merely to persuade that such a cause can be made out. It is to open the mind.” His case for the war in Iraq has now become an argument that there is an argument to be made.

There is contrition in A Journey. “You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop,” Blair chides himself. “I quake at the imbecility.” This self-flagellation has nothing to do with foreign policy, however, but Freedom of Information legislation.

“History as ever will be the judge,” says Blair. And yes, of course, it will. But when it comes to New Labour, the cruellest twist for the former prime minister, as indeed for Campbell and Mandelson, was played out at last month’s Labour Party conference. All three backed David Miliband, and however much Miliband tried to distance himself – I’m not New Labour, I’m Next Labour – these three books and the publicity that surrounded them showed he had New Labour dye all over his hands. David was beaten to the leadership by his younger brother, Ed (a man who lacked, as Blair himself might put it, the New Labour baggage), by a whisker – just over 1%. And at a stroke, it’s clear these great, vocal proselytisers of New Labour have unwittingly written its epitaph.

A JOURNEY, by Tony Blair (Hutchinson, $75); THE THIRD MAN: LIFE AT THE HEART OF NEW LABOUR, by Peter Mandelson (HarperPress, $39.99); THE ALASTAIR CAMPBELL DIARIES: VOLUME ONE – PRELUDE TO POWER 1994-1997, by Alastair Campbell (Hutchinson, $72).

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