At some point in the early 1880s, Karl Marx visited France and recoiled in horror at the spectre of political parties actually applying his ideas in their most pure and literal form.
He told a French leader, in a line that would be repeated for years: “Ce qu’il y a de certain c’est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste.” One thing is for sure: I am not a Marxist.
I’m reminded of that line as I read Tony Blair’s new memoir and his interview this week with my colleague Konrad Yakabuski. I had hoped they could answer one of the world’s more beguiling questions: What on earth happened to Tony Blair?
A decade ago, Mr. Blair was the most important and influential political leader in the world, and the system of government and centre-left ideology he spawned, Blairism, was the template the world wanted to follow.
Yet after leaving office in 2007, Mr. Blair has fallen off the map and plunged himself into irrelevance. His key role, as the Middle East envoy for the group of major powers known as the Quartet, has achieved little; this week’s move toward renewed peace talks has had nothing to do with him. His other initiative, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, has been singularly ineffective. He has become extremely wealthy in the private sector, but his visibility and influence in world affairs has withered.
After reading the memoir, A Journey, it’s more clear. Mr. Blair may well have subtitled it “Ce qu’il y a de certain c’est que moi, je ne suis pas blairiste.” It is the story, really, of his break with Blairism.
I had to haul out Mr. Blair’s first book, New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country (1996) to remember what it was all about. His was a project to draw on the fruits of a relatively free and unfettered economy to deliver the values of the left. Over his first five years in office, he did so with great success: Britain’s schools and hospitals improved dramatically, its poverty levels plunged.
We now know that it was Gordon Brown, from his perch in the Treasury, who guided much of this – something that is abundantly clear in the pages of A Journey, despite Mr. Blair’s leitmotif of vitriol against his former friend.
It was Mr. Brown who managed the great legerdemain of keeping public debt below 40 per cent of GDP while sharply boosting spending on education and health, and channelling funds to poverty relief (rather than to the middle class). Mr. Blair managed the political triangulation with genius, but was largely illiterate in the world of policy (and Mr. Brown, as we later learned, was similarly lost in the world of politics).
The break occurred around Iraq. Not the war itself – which began as a Blairite effort to repeat the moral successes of Kosovo and Sierra Leone. What changed Mr. Blair was his shift to unpopularity: Suddenly, he found he didn’t need to listen to opinion polls, to his party, or, fatefully, to Gordon Brown.
After that, his focus was singularly on reducing the size of the state, not building institutions; on cutting taxes, even if the economy demanded otherwise; on a worldview increasingly animated by a belief in the myth of a clash of civilizations. Mr. Brown’s efforts to maintain the Blairite project (though not under that name) faced brutal resistance from Mr. Blair, even after Mr. Brown had become prime minister.
No longer was he interested in Blairism – just in Blair. When Israel attacked Lebanon in 2006, months before he left office, he was almost alone among world leaders in refusing to criticize Israel’s excesses – in fact, he defended them. “That event, and my reaction to it, probably did me more damage than anything since Iraq. It showed how far I had swung from the mainstream … my own political problem was now very acute; terminal, in fact,” he confesses.
But if he had acted differently, “it would have undermined the world view I had come to hold passionately.”
That world view has become increasingly acute. He believes, against the conclusions of the world’s best economists, that fiscal stimulus should have ended in 2009 and that more tax cuts were the solution to the debt crisis. He believes that Iran today should be seen the way Iraq was in 2003. He is happy, in these pages, to refer to “the Bush/Blair position,” turning his greatest error into his defining belief.
His eponymous philosophy lives on in moderate governments – you can argue that Britain’s current Liberal-Conservative coalition is practising a version. But he has shorn himself of Blairism, leaving a barren philosophy that suits only Tony, alone.(The Globe and Mail)