Reforms - Not Red Flags

Britain's participation in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars turned Tony Blair from fabulously popular to hated at home. In his memoir, he insists that he never lied and that he did the right thing

"A Journey: My Political Life," by Tony Blair, Alfred A. Knopf, 720 pages, $35

Emil Salman

When Winston Churchill wrote his account of World War II, its six volumes were received, as each appeared, as the authoritative historical account of the era. He ruled that history would judge his actions favorably, and explained, with a wink, that he was certain of this because he had no intention of leaving to historians the task of researching and writing the glorious chapters concerning his leadership and his country's past - he would do it himself. No one dared to question the credibility of the things he wrote or to treat them as a leader's attempt, a natural one, to "come out looking good."

Churchill did, however, cause inestimable damage to historical research, which for a long time stuck to his version of events. Only in recent years have historians begun to discover the weight of the extraneous considerations - some of them blatantly political, a consequence of the times in which the volumes were penned - that guided Churchill in his writing.

Nowadays, happily, no one would ever think of adopting the sundry memoirs of retiring leaders as authentic documents that truly attest to the evolution of the processes and events that they carefully present. That being the case, why are we in such a rush to read them when they come out? The answer, it seems, is very simple: The persona that the retiring or ousted leader is trying to cement is no less interesting than the complex, multi-hued persona that will someday emerge from historians' research and writings.

"Memoirs" do not, therefore, always deal with the past; frequently they have more to teach us about the present. The purpose of these introductory remarks is to warn readers against injudicious skimming.

Tony Blair led the Labour Party to three spectacular victories and headed the British government for a decade (1997-2007 ). His memoirs aroused expectations because, in contrast to other tomes of this sort, Blair did not publish advance excerpts in the press. The announcement of the forthcoming book was accompanied by a declaration from the author that all of the expected proceeds from publication - an impressive 5.5 million pounds sterling ($8.7 million ) - would go to a fund that assists wounded British soldiers, most of them casualties of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The fund that was chosen as the beneficiary of the money was thankful for the generous contribution; not so the representatives of veterans' organizations. These announced that the donation would not atone for the crime of the prime minister who sent Britain's soldiers off to unnecessary, bloody wars.

All of Tony Blair's accomplishments and successes during his 10-year rule cannot change the fact that this prime minister was very unpopular in his country when he left 10 Downing St. Tony Blair knows this. It is evident in his book and in his desperate attempts to explain himself and his decisions.

It should be said at the outset that this talented and likable man changed his country unrecognizably during the years that he stood at the helm. A great many people do not like this vast shift, but they also concede that Blair was a man of his word and kept his promise to voters: to change Britain and orchestrate a process of wholesale modernization.

The internal disagreement within Labour's leadership lends his memoirs a highly dramatic dimension. It becomes apparent in the contested claims to "ownership" of the New Labour idea, which Blair views and presents as the cornerstone of the entire metamorphosis. This will be a matter of great debate for historians. The idea, conceived in the 1990s with the intention of revolutionizing the party's image and offering a new formula for governance, had at least three known progenitors: Peter Mandelson, Gordon Brown and Blair himself. It is not at all clear that Blair was the primary pioneer of the bunch, but it is obvious that he was chosen to spearhead the move, represent it to outsiders and lead the party.

The choice of Blair was motivated by crafty political considerations. The other two, whose abilities and skills nobody doubted, seemed like they would have difficulty luring traditional Tory voters over to Labour. The Scotsman Brown came across as too leftist; Mandelson as one prone to superfluous entanglements. Blair took the reins and secured a big victory.

Over the years, he came to see himself as the great inventor of the formula. He began propagating this view, and emphasized his claim to ownership when Brown demanded insistently that he uphold what the trio had agreed upon at the outset: that after one term in office, the charming and winsome Blair would make way for the more senior and "Labourite" Brown.

When did Tony Blair go from being the leader of the Labour Party to the leader of Britain? Without a doubt, his conduct in the aftermath of Princess Diana's death turned him into a national leader. She was killed in a car wreck in Paris a few months after Blair was elected prime minister, before he had created for himself a unique and proven way to the hearts of the public. The tragic death of Diana, whom he quickly dubbed "the People's Princess," and the scandalous behavior of the Royal House and the queen, made Blair into a popular leader of the people. In this affair, and in all of his conduct in its wake, the young leader (he turned 44 only days after his election ) demonstrated his rare political abilities.

He promised change, but it seems that his notion of change and innovation was evidenced first and foremost in the day-to-day conduct of the institution he headed. Blair recognized that the greatest enemies of New Labour were not the grumbling union folks or the Tories, but rather the press and television. And so he made sure to surround himself with the right people, and placed the task of spokesmanship and press liaison in the hands of people who had come from the tabloids and knew the rules of the game. Blair recounts that when the queen found herself in a tight spot and realized she had to say something about Princess Diana's death, after difficult and troubling deliberation, she turned to him to provide the appropriate wording of the death announcement Buckingham Palace would publish. Blair entrusted that task to his young assistants, foremost among them Alastair Campbell, whose sharp instincts had been honed at the Daily Mirror.

Blair's leadership and public standing took a sharp and traumatic turn after September 11. The change is apparent also in the nature of his writing and the spirit of the book. Until that point, even those in the Old Labour circles could not overlook the public's sympathy and the results at the polling booths. Labour candidates were elected to Parliament in constituencies from which no one on the left had ever been chosen. Everyone was talking about the young man who had entered Downing Street, and was scouring the pages of history for the last time that a child had been born to a sitting prime minister. Change, innovation, reform - these were the enthralling slogans.

Tony Blair came across as the right man to lead Britain into the 21st century.

And then came the attack on the United States. The war on terror began and talk of an Axis of Evil spread. Tony Blair stood, as he said, "shoulder to shoulder" with his partner across the sea, and a fabulous friendship was forged that slowly but surely chipped away at Blair's popularity and the public's sympathy. The first to abandon ship were the veteran Labourites - "sclerotic" in Blair's eyes. Then followed liberals of all stripes, and finally the general public.

When the book reaches these chapters in the protagonist's career, it too loses the charm and humor that marked the writing in the early chapters. The charisma all but disappears, and the lawyer comes out of hiding to lay out the case for the defense. He makes use of documents, cites official reports, and does not refrain from presenting lengthy and stultifying excerpts. Blair's basic argument is that he was not led into this war against his will and in contravention of his promises to voters. In general, George Bush is not the less-than-brilliant leader portrayed in liberals' writings about him. When he conjoined Britain's forces to America's troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Blair was being faithful to his basic concept - and did not betray a single one of his principles.

Blair greatly fears the possibility that the charge of deception will stick to him. He is willing to live with intelligence blunders - as, for example, on the question of the weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein's possession - but he will never admit that he lied to the British people, because he promised one thing and did something completely different. The most he would admit is that today we might say some grave errors were made during the assessment of the intelligence from Baghdad.

As one who fears for the good reputation of his new path, he wishes to rescue New Labour from the mud being slung at it. He therefore tries to mount a new and fascinating depiction of his journey in politics: I was never a zealous ideologue of the left and Old Labour; I did not betray the principles of egalitarianism and socialism - in the areas of ethics or the economy - because when I entered 10 Downing St., I did not seek to raise the red flags again but rather to lead reforms, Blair professes.

And so, somewhat surprisingly, Blair's biggest heroes are not the great historic leaders of British Labour. He does not mention Harold Wilson, nor even Clement Attlee. The leaders he admires are David Lloyd George, a Liberal, and Roy Jenkins, who quit Labour and helped found the Liberal Democrats. When called upon to name the man he most wishes to resemble, Blair points to Bill Clinton. Clinton, for him, is the epitome of the modern leader, the man of thought, but mainly the great pragmatist, who acknowledges reality.

The Israeli-Arab conflict does not merit special attention in the book, and when Blair does recall it, the story never goes beyond the usual platitudes about the need for peace and compromise. One slightly unusual and bewildering matter in this connection is the author's attempt to persuade readers that his support for Israel during the Second Lebanon War sealed his fate among members and fellow leaders of his party.

Prof. Eli Shaltiel is a historian and editor of the "Ofakim" series at Am Oved Publishers.