The Thick of It


Thursday, September 02, 2010

Tony Blair's Richard Bacon interview

I've been following the media reaction to the launch of Tony Blair's book with interest and some incredulity. According to today's Telegraph the "revelations" in his book have caused a "war" in the Labour Party. I'm sure the Telegraph would like there to be a war, though I've not seen any evidence of it (this story is no longer on the Telegraph site otherwise I'd link to it).

Blair is still big news and the book has been selling fast. I'm looking forward to receiving my own copy shortly. Not because I expect to learn anything new from it, most of the highlights have been heavily covered in the media already or have appeared in other books, such as those by Andrew Rawnsley, Chris Mullin and Peter Mandelson. I'm looking forward to understanding more about Blair and to remind myself, for sentimental reasons, what Labour in power achieved.

I listened to his interview today with Five Live's Richard Bacon. The focus was predictable: Iraq, Northern Ireland and Gordon Brown. On Iraq Blair expressed a human regret for the bloodshed but stood by his decision to go to war. Nobody could expect anything else. He also reminded us of how dreadful Iraq was when Saddam was in power. That is often overlooked in the revisionist analysis of the chaos in the aftermath. Listening also took me back to 9-11 and 7-7. When thinking about Afghanistan is is also often forgotten about the context and terrifying events that led to that war. Northern Ireland is undoubtedly Blair's biggest and most lasting achievement domestically. Iraq often buries it as the focus of this interview showed.

Much of the media coverage has focused on Gordon Brown. Today Blair said:

  • "Gordon could be extremely difficult"
  • "He was also somebody who made an enormous contribution to government" 
  • "He is also brilliant" 
  • "His personality is out of line with 21st century politics" 

The media has focused on the negatives, but in the book and in his interviews Blair should be credited for admitting his troubles on working with Brown but also for painting a balanced picture. He was careful to meet every negative with a positive.

What I thought was very telling and quite revealing was that he strongly felt that Brown and his team didn't have the right answers to govern. He said to Bacon that he had no problem with people who think their plans are the right thing for the country to seek power. He had a problem with these ideas in the first place. I find that a little harsh because to suggest that Brown added nothing of value when PM would be wrong. The criticism that there was no clear agenda for reforming public services is valid.

Rather than focus on the negatives, which should be left to the media to fight over, Labour needs to remember how much progress was made with Blair as leader. While it is wrong to apply the same tactics and arguments that were successful in 1997 to 2010, it would also be wrong to forget what worked too. Listening to Blair and reading his book should provide support and guidance. He shouldn't be forgotten.

What does this mean for his legacy? It should serve as a reminder, as Alistair Campbell said today far better than I ever could:

How do you think that history will judge him? More kindly than most of the commentary in the UK. He was a winner, serving longer in office than any Labour leader by far … he presided over a decade of growth and prosperity, turned round investment in public services, got crime down, delivered on a major programme of devolution, the minimum wage … I could go on and on … and whilst many people like to pretend Iraq is his only legacy, don’t forget Kosovo, Sierra Leone, the leadership he showed after 9/11, Northern Ireland. He was without doubt one of the major reforming Prime Ministers in our history.

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