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Political

Book review: Tony Blair – In His Own Words

This review of Tony Blair: In His Own Words by Tony Blair and Paul Richards (2004) first appeared in 2004. Re-reading it recently, I found there’s still much to inform, amuse, infuriate and puzzle about its contents so here it is again in the hope you too find it hits at least one of those marks.

The collection Tony Blair – In his own words brings together forty-three of Blair’s speeches, articles and similar items stretching from 1982 to 2004.

The quote on the inner flap is typical Blair: “I want us to be a young country again. With a common purpose. With ideals we cherish and live up to. Not resting on past glories. Not fighting old battles.” It has visionary rhetoric, displaying a real verbal oratorical style (so rare in politicians these days) with a sparseness with words and verbs – and not distinctively Labour in content. It has overtones of JFK but with a few small changes could have come from Margaret Thatcher.

Tony Blair: In His Own Words - book coverSome of the speeches are heavily edited, with the extracts thereby losing their coherence and form, but those to suffer most are the conference speeches, which are available elsewhere. And his political CV from 1983 is published in full and untouched, leaving in even the bizarre misspelling by Blair of his own name.

The editor, an ardent new Labour fan, argues that Blair’s values come through the book as consistent and heavily based on his Christian views. There is no room here for criticisms of Blair’s timidity after having won a large Parliamentary majority nor the Women’s Institute speech that, due to its failure, is one of his most famous.

Perhaps the most interesting speech is Blair’s 1982 lecture outlining the state of British politics. Some later themes of Blairism are already clear, including criticism of Tony Benn for divisiveness. Concerns about social exclusion and scepticism of party activists (“the trouble is that they can end up with little or no time for meeting those with whom they disagree”) are here too.

He was even then searching for an alternative to sterile right-left debates, albeit in a rather different form from his later beliefs. In the early 1980s, he was willing to praise the left for generating new thinking. And the 1982 Blair also criticised the Labour right for basking in praise from the Financial Times, The Times and The Guardian. Yet seeking praise from at least the first two would subsequently become an obsession of New Labour.

Other early items also show clearly traits that have become emblematic of Blair. In his 1990 interview with Marxism Today we have the family man changing nappies, a determination verging on insolence and wrapped in self-deprecation. He happily admits – even boasts over – unpopular aspects of his beliefs and background.

Many of the items have dated very little. This reflects Blair’s tendency to talk on larger and more enduring themes rather than on policy detail. It also reflects his failure to deliver on many of them in government – he is still talking about the same issues now because his government has failed to move the debate on.

Blair’s New Statesman article on crime is also here with the “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” approach that made his name as a national politician and helped bring about a major shift in the Labour party’s attitude towards crime. For such an important shift, the article itself is curiously disappointing. It is a fairly banal romp through the horrors of crime with the usual superficial melee of statistics showing crime is worse than ever since Creation. There is no serious analysis of the levels of crime, their trends or their causes. Yet the sound bite helped bring about a substantive shift in Labour’s policies and priorities.

The importance of his religious beliefs comes through in pieces such as his foreword to Reclaiming Socialism: Christianity and Socialism. Here we see how his religious beliefs underpin and give self-justification to his self-righteous stridency and directness on some issues, notably Iraq: “Christianity is a very tough religion … There is right and wrong. There is good and bad … We should not hesitate to make such judgements. And then follow them with determined action.”

The religious tenor appears in many of the speeches and writing which were not aimed for a specifically religious audience, as with his 1996 conference speech and its biblical exhortation over “1,000 days to prepare for a 1,000 years”, the references to Old Testament prophets and the rallying cry – “let us lead [the nation] to our new age.”

His justification of war in Iraq is often couched in similar moralistic tones – “This is a tough choice. But it is also a stark one … I believe we must hold firm … to show at the moment of decision that we have the courage to do the right thing.”

As with any good collection of speeches, there are a few gems of detail to cherish, like Blair’s approving quotation of Lenin on the importance of being willing to compromise.

The Liberals and Liberal Democrats barely feature in the book, despite Blair’s views of the possibility of realignment and deals to entrench an anti-Conservative majority having a major role in much of his political thought for several years.

The production qualities are the usual Politicos mix – good paper and clear print, but sloppiness creeps in during the production process, in this case, evidenced by a rather hit and miss index.

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