Tony Blair’s A Journey: 3 reasons I’m impressed without having read a single page

by Stephen Tall on September 1, 2010

No, I haven’t read Tony Blair’s A Journey yet (though it should be waiting for me at home). I haven’t even had time to read more than a handful of the preview articles, such as The Guardian’s trailer. With that confesion of near-total ignorance of A Journey established, I think there are three points worth making…

1. It’s an Event.

The decision that Mr Blair’s book would not be serialised (apparently modelled on the strategy for Alastair Campbell’s diaries) has made publication day much more of an Event-with-a-capital-E, the political anoraks’ equivalent of a release of a new Harry Potter. We have grown used to newspapers filleting the best bits (or at least the most controversial bits), so that by the time the book hits the shops we feel sated, it feels old hat. But A Journey has been lobbed like a hand grenade into today’s news media, with everyone scrabbling to cherry-pick their way through the index to spot the most explosive quote. Somehow it seems more democratic, more fun, more exciting.

2. It’s authentic.

The book – like it or loathe it – is very clearly Tony Blair’s own work: no Ghost-writer for him. As a result there are some jaw-droppingly clunking phrases, such as his, erm, interesting description of the Middle East peace process:

The biggest problem with the Middle East peace process is that no one has ever gripped it long enough or firmly enough. The gripping is intermittent, and intermittent won’t do. It doesn’t work. If it was gripped, it could be solved.

Mr Blair, meet Herr Freud.

But, ultimately, so what? True, the book seems to lack the literary elegance of Roy Jenkins’ memoirs, or the heavyweight analysis of Nigel Lawson’s — but that the book has been written personally by Mr Blair, in longhand, means it has an authenticity too many polished-to-glib-perfection autobiographies lack. Jim Pickard, in today’s FT, loftily suggests that Mr Blair’s “grating” style will kaibosh his publisher’s hopes of re-couping their £4m investment… as though Dan Brown needed to win a Nobel Prize for Literature before he could shift any copies [/irony]. Personally, I think Random House are onto a winner.

3. It’s personal.

Most importantly of all, it seems Mr Blair is willing to be as candid as it’s reasonable to expect a public figure ever openly to be. He has spilled the beans on his rows with Gordon Brown — including the frankly extraordinary revelation that the Chancellor was willing to blackmail him over pensions reform — openly critiquing both his strengths and his weaknesses. He has freely confessed his wife Cherie made mistakes in her dealings with the press. Even close confidantes like Alastair Campbell are not hagiographed. And while there has been some laddish dissing of his disclosure that he began to use alcohol as a prop (“a G&T and half a bottle of wine, what’s that? Typical southern wuss.”), his point is not unreasonable: middle-class Brits cheerfully exceed the maximum recommended intake behind closed doors, and think ourselves morally superior to the binge-drinkers sprawling around our city centres.

None of which alters my opinion of Tony Blair. As I wrote a fortnight ago, “in foreign policy, Mr Blair was an unmitigated disaster, the most incompetent post-war Prime Minister bar none”.

But part of the reason, I think, for the visceral reaction to Mr Blair’s A Journey is that he somehow ‘got away with it all’, that there was no closure on the mistakes he made. Had he been defeated at the polls, even just once, then it would have counted as some sort of comeuppance. As it was, he won three elections before disappearing into the sunset, after 10 years at the top, to make his millions.

A showman to the last, he secured a standing ovation from the House of Commons — including from sworn enemies on both sides of the chamber — for his PMQs’ swansong. Small wonder that he could compare himself without any real hubris to Diana, Princess of Wales: “We were both, in our own way, manipulators — good at grasping the feelings of others and instinctively playing on them.” There is shrewd self-perception here; and for that, if for little else, and perhaps for only one day, we can allow ourselves to be impressed by Tony Blair.