The Free Press
(review originally published in the Irish World, 2 July 2004)
A new biography of Tony Blair arrived on my desk last week, and it’s a weighty tome in every sense.
The author, Anthony Seldon, is one of Britain’s top political historians, and has collaborated at one time or another with most of the other people who could lay claim to that title.
The book, entitled simply Blair, consists of 20 chapters on key events in the Prime Minister’s life, alternating with 20 chapters on key individuals.
Irish readers may be tempted to turn to the chapter on the Good Friday Agreement, and the ones either side of it on Jonathan Powell and Bill Clinton.
Seldon emphasises that Blair came late to the issue of Northern Ireland. He dismisses the significance often attributed to Blair’s Irish mother as ‘window dressing’.
According to Seldon, the North became a priority for Blair mainly because it had already moved centre-stage under John Major.
As leader of the opposition, Blair resisted pressure to attack Major’s Northern Ireland policy. His only substantive move was to appoint Mo Mowlam as shadow Northern Ireland Secretary replacing the strongly nationalist Kevin McNamara.
This enabled the incoming Labour government to portray itself as an honest broker between Unionists and Nationalists. However, Seldon argues there was a stronger and more immediate motive for the switch, the need to placate the right-wing press in the run-up to the 1997 election.
Although Seldon claims that Bill Clinton’s significance to the peace process was overstated, he clearly shows his importance in opening Blair’s eyes to the possibilities for progress at this period.
The American connection emerges also in the role of Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell, who has been, behind the scenes, one of the most important figures in the peace process.
Powell was a former First Secretary to the British Embassy in Washington, a job which involved closely monitoring developments in America related to Northern Ireland, and which also enabled him to observe closely the rise of Clinton’s New Democrats.
That background enabled Powell to become an important influence on Northern Ireland policy, more so than several Secretaries of State.
Blair himself did become increasingly interested in Northern Ireland over time. For Seldon, the Good Friday Agreement was “the first of the overtly ‘moral’ episodes of Blair’s premiership.” Ironically, the others, in Iraq and Kosovo, were to be episodes of war rather than peace-making.
Blair’s conduct in relation to Ireland perhaps owed more to immediate circumstances than to any long-term strategy, a recurring feature of his style of government according to Seldon.
Perhaps the most glaring example of this is Europe, an area long seen as central to Blair’s ambitions for his legacy.
On this subject, Seldon produces a telling quote from the late Roy Jenkins. “If you seize the moment, then you can shape events and not have events shape you,” the elder statesman told Blair. “You have to choose between leading in Europe or having Murdoch on your side. You cannot have both.”
That conversation came in October 1997, the very month when, as Seldon recounts, Blair was bounced by newspaper headlines into giving up his best opportunity to join the euro.
Seldon’s analysis makes for compelling reading, especially now that Blair has committed himself to a referendum not on the euro, but on the European Constitution.
That vote, called largely to placate Murdoch, will determine not so much whether Britain’s relationship with Europe is deepened, as whether it continues at all.
Overall, Seldon shows that if Blair has avoided the Old Labour fault of excessive idealism, he has demonstrated that excessive pragmatism has its own dangers.
Even Iraq, for Seldon as for everyone else, the defining issue of Blair’s premiership, could be interpreted in this light given Blair’s over-riding determination to remain close to the Americans.
Seldon states bluntly that Blair has not led the radical reforming government he aspired to in 1997. That may well prove to be the enduring verdict of history.
As for the future, perhaps Seldon’s most telling comment is in the choice of subject for his final chapter, the one devoted to Gordon Brown.