Friday, May 6, 2011

A Journey by Tony Blair

A Journey: My Political Life
Tony Blair's autobiographical work, A Journey, is alternately fascinating and tedious. When Blair talks about the events that shaped his stint as Britain's prime minister, the policies and motivations behind the New Labour Party, and his interactions with other world leaders, like Bush, Berlusconi, and Chirac, it's quite interesting. When he goes on and on about the political maneuvering within the party itself and the relative strengths and weaknesses of every member of his staff he ever had, it's enough to put you to sleep.

As a young MP, Blair realized that the traditional Labour Party must change with the times. The last few years of the twentieth century and the early days of the twenty-first would require a government that was able to provide social benefits to those who were truly deserving of them while encouraging creativity, innovation and productivity within the private sector to provide opportunities for those of the less fortunate who were able and willing to work hard to propel their families into the middle class. The transformation he championed led the party into its first victory in forming a new government in many years.

I found him generally quite engaging, occasionally witty, and possessed of strong convictions blended with an uncommon common sense.

Some great quotes:

"a happy protocol is almost invariably the sign of a badly run government."

"I never thought that enjoying life's good things led to indifference to the plight of those who couldn't. For me the opposite was true: what I wanted for myself, I also wanted for others."

"A proper functioning state was obviously necessary to do what only government could do, as was a thriving and competitive private sector to generate the nation's wealth."

Blair worked on reforming the educational system in Britain, trying to provide more opportunity for all students. On education: "The middle class will always find a way to make the system work, or at least answer to them in some form or another. So good schools, comprehensive or not, would be in good neighborhoods."  He also believed that antisocial behavior led to the deterioration of a nation, and was a strong supporter of law and order. One key to that was helping dysfunctional families, whom he describes thusly, "These people at the bottom didn't have dysfunctional working lives. They had dysfunctional lives, full stop. Their children were disruptive at school, if they attended at all. Their parents were often separated or abusive or just plain inadequate."

In a series of novels that I really enjoyed, Allen Cole and Chris Bunch tell the tale of an annual event that the Eternal Emperor holds, an outdoor barbecue. I think the origins of that idea may have come from a British traditional barbecue that Prince Philip cooks. "The royals cook, and serve the guests. They do the washing up...You sit there having eaten, the Queen asks you if you've finished, she stacks the plates up and goes off to the sink." I always thought the royal family was a stodgy lot, but perhaps I was mistaken.

I had a bit of a deja vu moment when he mentioned that during the problems in Sarajevo, the European leaders were "prepared to commit to the necessary expressions of disgust at what was happening and demand that it stop, but were insistent that any military threat should explicitly rule out the use of ground forces." Can you say "Libya"?

He describes the deliberations between Western powers about whether or not to invade Iraq in 2003 as not a time of "rash decisions" but rather of "people straining to get policy right" in a situation that was constantly shifting. He and other leaders were fully convinced that Saddam's regime was in possession of weapons of mass destruction and would have no compunctions about using them against other countries in the region and around the world, especially after having used them on their own people; the Kurds in the north and the Marsh Arabs in the south.

He and others in his government pushed for greater transparency and enacted something similar to the FOIA laws in the U.S. He writes, in retrospect, "Freedom of Information. Three harmless words...You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop...I quake at the imbecility of it." It turned out to be a weapon used by journalists to beat his government about the head and shoulders all too often.

All in all, a most interesting read. There are places where it's a slog, but many of the anecdotes about fellow world leaders make it all worthwhile. It's also a look into the heart of someone who, whether you agree with him or not, was and is still shaping the nature of the world we deal with.

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