London Calling

Tony for President

Outwardly smiling, open, frank, and uncomplicated, he is inwardly complex and unfathomable.

By From the November 2010 issue

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Tony Blair is the great mystery man of British politics. "Is," not "was": for we have not heard the last of him yet. Outwardly smiling, open, frank, and uncomplicated, he is inwardly complex and unfathomable.

His recently published memoir, A Journey, was attacked on all sides long before publication, and its contents gutted in newspaper reports. His decision to give all the profits to military charities was widely condemned as "hypocritical" and "humbug." A London signing session had to be canceled because of terrorist threats. Yet booksellers reported nearly 100,000 copies bought on the day it finally became available.

Blair has, in his day, exercised a popular appeal with few parallels, in Britain or elsewhere. In 1997, never having held office of any kind, he won an unprecedented electoral victory, with a majority of 179 over all the other parties combined. This involved the capture of many Tory seats hitherto regarded as impregnable. He was able to repeat this huge success twice, something no previous Labour prime minis- ter had been able to do even once.

Indeed it is widely believed that if Blair had not generously made way for his disloyal and much-disliked deputy, Gordon Brown, he would have won a fourth election earlier this year. As it was, Brown squandered Labour's massive majority and has now vanished into total obscurity, making way for a coalition of Tories and Liberals.

Blair's popular appeal rested on a combination of two characteristics. First is a total absence of ideological and party commitment, and the sectarian bitterness that goes with it. There is no doubt that the British public now hates party politics and professional party politicians. The basis of Blair's attraction was that he appeared to be above party.

How he became a Labour politician is a mystery. His father was the son of a Glasgow shipyard worker, who made his way upward through service in the wartime army. He entered it a private and emerged a major. Then in the post-war he became a lawyer and a Tory enthusiast. In 1964 he was about to be adopted as the candidate for a safe Tory seat when a stroke ended his political hopes. If Blair senior had entered Parliament as a Conservative MP there is no doubt whatever that Blair junior would have followed him.

As it was his father sent him to a famous private school, Fettes, because it was "the best school in Scotland." There Blair came under the influence of an outstanding teacher, Eric Anderson (later provost of Eton), and his wife, Poppy. Always a superb schoolboy actor, Blair was selected by the Andersons to play the part of Antony in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar when still a junior boy. Poppy, who did the costumes, dressed Brutus and his followers in blue, and Antony and his followers in red. "And that," she relates with glee, "is why Tony became Labour."

Certainly Blair seems entirely at home with basic Conservative principles, such as collective security, the "special relationship" with the United States, the rule of law and the need to enforce it strictly, both at home and internationally. He was a great admirer of Margaret Thatcher, and if he had been a Tory instead of Labour would have been her natural successor.

Blair had, and has, precisely the combination of qualities that has enabled candidates to flourish in U.S. presidential elections -- that is, an absence of sectarian party baggage and superb presentational skills, together with the widest possible appeal. He is, by his nature, a national, not a party, politician. This is his second key characteristic.

BLAIR'S PRO-AMERICANISM ran through all his years of office as Britain's prime minister. He not only got on well with both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, but also liked and admired them. He envied and sought to emulate Clinton’s "extraordinary rapport with ordinary people." He adds in his memoir: "We were less dissimilar than people often thought, but as a political class act, I deferred to the master. He had it all. His superb intellect was often hidden by his manner, but he had incredible analytical ability, was genuinely interested in policy debate -- possibly, occasionally, too much so -- and constantly on the lookout for new ideas."

He liked and admired Bush for quite different reasons: "George had immense simplicity in how he saw the world. Right or wrong, it led to decisive leadership." When they first met, "it was obvious he was a world away from Bill Clinton. But he was also tough and clear and knew exactly what he wanted." He was frank, too. Blair tells a pointed story about Bush at a G8 summit:

George had arrived bang on time...and had not fully said hello to all the participants. He did not know or recognise Guy Verhofstadt, whose advice he listened to with considerable astonishment.

He then turned to me and whispered, "Who is this guy?"

"He is the Prime Minister of Belgium," I said.

"Belgium?" George said, clearly aghast at the possible full extent of his stupidity. "Belgium is not part of the G8."

"No," I said, "But he is here as the President of Europe."

"You got the Belgians running Europe?" He shook his head, now aghast at our stupidity.

Blair was tremendously impressed by Bush’s willingness to take difficult decisions and stick to them. Each man got to admire the other wholeheartedly, and so long as the Bush-Blair axis held, there was nothing unsure and hesitant about the leadership of the West, and the policies followed.

By contrast, Blair is clearly puzzled by Barack Obama, though he will not admit it. There is a paragraph toward the end of his memoir which completely baffled me:

The genius of Barack Obama was precisely that he reached out and over the partisan divisions. He did so explicitly. The desire of some of his present-day critics to drag him back from the centre is absurd. The espousal of centrist politics is not a betrayal. It is what he promised.

I have read this paragraph forward and backward, sideways and upside down. Whatever way, it makes no sense. I think even Blair would have found it hard to work with Obama, not so much because Obama is anti-British -- though he is, fundamentally so -- but because he is also, albeit less obviously, anti-American. And Blair is pro-American, to a fault.

WHEN BLAIR ALLOWED HIMSELF to be pushed out by the Gordon Brown faction he was only in his mid-fifties. He is still a mere 57.

The only comparable example, in British history, of an outstanding politician being retired so young is that of Lloyd George, the victor in World War I, who was pushed out in 1922 at the age of 58, and never came back to power. This waste of talent, indeed genius, during the meager inter-war years is one of the most tragic stories in modern British history. I am not suggesting that Blair is a leader in the Lloyd George class. Far from it. But he is a valuable figure nonetheless, not just in a narrow British context but in the wider picture of Anglo-American relations and the leadership of the West. It is desirable that we should make full use of his qualities: friendliness, absence of party rancor, wide popular appeal, open-minded tolerance, and not least courage.

Happily Blair has not made the mistake of making himself ineligible for a return to active politics by going into the impotence of the House of Lords or the Brussels bureaucracy. He can respond to a summons or an opportunity. Britain seems to be entering an era of coalitions, turning its back on the strict dualism of monolithic parties, and pushing men of all parties toward the center. This is a good climate to give birth to a Second Spring for Blair.

Both Labour and the Liberals will probably split in the near future. Blair is well placed to take over the leadership of a merger of the responsible rumps of both. And this could be the prelude to his assuming the leadership of a much wider merger with the Tories. His temperament, his views, his commitments (including the lack of them), and his enviable capacity to get himself liked all point in this direction. So does his book, if you read between the lines. A Blair revival, it is true, does not fit in with a continued Obama presence in the White House. But nor does any other good news for the West.

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About the Author

Paul Johnson is the author most recently of Churchill (Viking). His books include Modern Times, Intellectuals, and A History of the American People