Every British Prime Minister I can think of has written his or (in one case only) her memoirs. None have provoked quite the pre-publication antagonism generated in advance of Tony Blair’s autobiography, A Journey, which is out tomorrow.
Stand back from the venom for one moment, and ask yourself: would it not be rather odd if a former Prime Minister did NOT at some time write a memoir? Yet for this particular Prime Minister, we have people, among them artists and authors, who would describe themselves as liberals, and doubtless rush to the barricades whenever freedom of speech is under attack, attacking bookstores who have the temerity to want to stock and sell a book written by a man who won three general elections, one of them after the war in Iraq which is the single biggest contributor to the ‘anger’ which these people say justifies the hatred.
Yesterday I had a call from a friend in Ireland – a country north and south that has benefited hugely from TB’s Premiership – saying that the announcement that he was planning to do a couple of events there had sparked off similarly ott expressions of disgust that he should be writing a book and promoting it in their country. This is a form of madness, I would suggest.
Further alarming symptoms were shown by the response to his decision – on any reckoning a hugely generous one – to donate all the proceeds of his book to the Royal British Legion. Of course he knew that in some quarters of our media, the reaction would be negative, as it is to anything and everything he ever did, does or will do. But as Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times points out in a rare commonsensical piece – rare not for him that is, but rare for the subject of TB – the venom of some was way over the top.
Part of the problem is simply that a media that shouts and shouts and shouts feels it always has to shout louder for anyone to take any notice at all. So hatred becomes a stock in trade, and the expressions of it have to become more and more extreme. The right-wing media hate TB principally because he led Labour to three elections wins and kept the Tories out of power for a long time. Many on the left hate him because he was not in their view left-wing enough, and many in the broadcast media hate him primarily because of Iraq. And a lot of journalists seem to hate him because he won’t just go away.
Polly Toynbee today lumps him together with Peter Mandelson, whose book was of an altogether different nature and whose contribution to the Labour leadership debate yesterday was as unwise as it was unwelcome, and urges both to shut up and bow out. But is she seriously suggesting TB should not write a book? And as an author herself, surely she knows that publication dates are long-planned and never perfect. Does she seriously think TB planned it to coincide with ballot papers going out in the leadership election? Or that his publisher might not have been happier to have him in the UK for the launch rather than in Washington on Middle East envoy business?
What these hatreds mean is that any balance has gone from any assessment that is made. The decade of growth and prosperity, the investment in schools and hospitals and the rising standards in both, devolution, the minimum wage, Sure Start, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Northern Ireland – I can and do regularly make the case that his record can take its place alongside some of the great Prime Ministers. Ah, go the haters, but what about Iraq? – as though merely to ask the question is to deliver a wisdom so clear and powerful that all other points are swept away.
TB writes at length about Iraq in the book, and I don’t imagine for one second that the haters will be persuaded one inch from the position they hold. But every now and then they might reflect that nobody has a monopoly on wisdom, and at least try to understand how he came to make the decision he did.
He writes about a lot of other things too, and I think most who read it will find it fresher, more intimate, more personal and often a lot funnier than most political autobiographies.
It will generate many headlines and a lot of noise. Far more people will hear the noise than read the book, but those who do will get a very good idea of what it is like to be a top flight politician in the modern age.
His own book will take its place with all the others, and with the millions and millions of words that have been spoken and written about his Premiership, and in decades and even centuries to come, a more rounded historical judgement will form. It will in my view bear little relation to the judgement of today’s frenzy-addicted media. It will be closer to the view that concludes Gideon Rachman’s FT piece today … ‘My guess is that, in a few years’ time, the Blair years will be remembered for a lot more than Iraq. They will be seen as a period of prosperity and optimism in Britain – certainly compared with what was to come. In 20 years’ time many Britons may look back on the Blair era with considerable nostalgia.’
And is it too much to expect that today’s journalists will look back and wonder what sort of media we had at the time that suggested there was something wrong in the political figure who most defined the era writing his own account of it?