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'WSJ' Editor Takes The Wraps Off Tony Blair's Book

Tony Blair outside TV studios in London on September 6 as part of his promotional appearances for his new book, "A Journey"

Tony Blair outside TV studios in London on September 6 as part of his promotional appearances for his new book, "A Journey"

Iain Martin, deputy editor of "The Wall Street Journal Europe" and longtime observer of British politics, weighs in on the attention generated by the release of former Prime Minister Tony Blair's book, "A Journey." Protesters hurled eggs, bottles, and shoes at Blair at a promotional event at a Dublin bookstore over the weekend, and threatened protests today prompted organizers to postpone a second Blair appearance, in central London.

The interview was conducted by RFE/RL Executive Editor John O'Sullivan.

LISTEN: To the interview in its entirety. (Also here)

RFE/RL: Iain Martin, you're a long-standing observer of politics in Britain, first as the editor of "The Scotsman," from Scotland, secondly as the deputy editor of "The Daily Telegraph" from London, and now, from Europe as a whole, as the deputy editor of "The Wall Street Journal Europe." As a longtime observer of, among other people, Tony Blair, the recent British prime minister, how do you explain the fact that the publication of his book is really an international phenomenon taking place in Britain, obviously, but also in the United States and other countries? What explains this enormous international interest in Tony Blair?

Iain Martin: Well, I think Blair is a political superstar, and I think even his enemies would concede that. He's a huge figure. And particularly in North America, he's identified with standing shoulder-to-shoulder after 9/11 with an American president. And even if various decisions were taken in the wake of that that didn't turn out to be the very best decisions, Blair is identified as someone who was absolutely, 100-percent resolute in his support of America and the American interests. So, understandably Americans across the political spectrum view him as a figure to be admired, as someone who showed strength in a very difficult time.

Elsewhere, in Europe, he's fascinating because he did precisely that. And Europeans, particularly the European political elites, had expected Blair to be a different kind of British leader, and had expected him to be incredibly pro-European, which he would argue that he is, and certainly not to be the kind of British leader who would be so determined to support America in a series of wars. So I think there is this fascination, and disappointment, in Europe with the kind of leader he turned out to be. And he's also, let's no forget, he's an extraordinary political success. There aren't many leaders who win as convincingly as he did -- three large victories and straddling the world's stage for such a long period.

RFE/RL: As the riots in Dublin showed, he's not as popular in the British Isles, and particularly in Britain, as he is abroad. His book performances had to be canceled in London because of security threats. Why is he seen so much less attractively in Britain, and what explains the roots of what is quite a strong anti-Blair sentiment?

Martin: The anti-Blair sentiment is really rooted in the decisions that he took around the Iraq War and a feeling which runs across parts of the left and the right, that he somehow lied and took Britain into an illegal war. So there's a coalition of interests ranged against him which is very powerful. It is, though, sometimes overstated, and it's never been more overstated than it has been in the past week. If you listen to allegedly smart metropolitan opinion in London, much of it would tell you that Blair is a war criminal and the most hated man in Britain. Well, his book sales are doing pretty well, if that's the case.
As a character, [Blair's] an enigma. He is ideologically very difficult to pin down, obsessed with presentation and spin, and he's a fascinating, fascinating figure, almost a character created from a novel.

I think if you look at some of the polling and surveys that have been done, I think the public takes a more nuanced and actually sophisticated view of Blair the leader than the political and media elites. I think there was a poll out this weekend in London that showed, I think, that slightly more than half the British public viewed Blair as, on the whole, broadly, a good prime minister. So it's more complicated than the entirety of Britain loathing this man. He is seen as a big figure, a superstar, still relatively young with possibly other things to do.

He's also, as a character, an enigma. He is ideologically very difficult to pin down, obsessed with presentation and spin, and he's a fascinating, fascinating figure, almost a character created from a novel, which is precisely why Robert Harris wrote "The Ghost," which is an attempt to get inside that extraordinary psychodrama going on in Blair's head.

Blair's International Reputation

RFE/RL: Is there anything inside the book itself that's likely to change the verdict, either of Britain as a whole or the British public elite? Does his reputation emerge stronger or weaker from it?

Martin: I think Blair is one of those politicians who is...a Marmite politician, as people would say in Britain -- meaning either love him or you hate him, or you certainly have a strong view about Blair. I'm not sure that the book will change that, and it's probably too early actually. I was talking to a couple of Blair-ites a couple of days ago and they were saying that it was too early for full-scale rehabilitation and for Blair to have his legacy calmly discussed.

I think it's a very -- a hugely entertaining book. It's conflicted and strangely written in all sorts of ways. But it is, like Blair the political phenomenon, massively intriguing and entertaining. It, as I indicated, has a very strange style, but it manages to be very, very readable. He tells, in the book, interesting and amusing anecdotes and stories against himself. His pen portraits of his colleagues in the Labour Party are absolutely brilliant and devastatingly good, and you get a glimpse of why he managed to, with one exception, Gordon Brown, see them all off, and survive for so long. He clearly had a great gut-instinct understanding of what motivated his rivals and his colleagues, and it is for that reason an odd book but a very, very interesting one to read.

RFE/RL: Now, Mrs. Thatcher, who was probably the other great postwar British prime minister, left behind a fairly clear set of ideas called Thatcherism: free-market capitalism, strong anticommunism, rule of law and democracy, responsible nationalism, and so on. Is there any such thing as Blairism? What does he leave behind in terms of that kind of legacy?

Martin: It's a very good question, and I don't think there is such a thing as Blairism. I mean, let's define what we mean, firstly. What did Blair stand for beyond winning? Well he, as he developed in office, as he came to have an understanding of why, public services in Britain -- which were very often largely a state monopoly as you know, weren't functioning properly -- he started to develop ideas related to the market and choice, and started to grasp that consumer choice was required if services were going to be compelled to improve. Now, so that was the focus of, apart from the Iraq War, the second half of his premiership. He did try and, in some cases succeeded, but also was blocked by his party.
I don't think there is such a thing as Blairism. I mean, let's define what we mean, firstly. What did Blair stand for beyond winning?

[Blair] embarked on a pretty interesting set of reforms in the areas of education and health, which the Cameron government is picking up on. And Cameron -- once famously, in private -- referred to himself as the heir to Blair, which didn't go down particularly well with his own party; but there is a strain of thought on public-sector reform which it's possible to pick out a line of continuity between what Blair was trying to do in the second half of his premiership and what Cameron is trying to do now. You could argue, as his supporters do in the Labour Party, that he was someone who realized that the Left needed essentially to reconcile itself to markets after the end of the Cold War, and that he did that and that put his party on the side of the aspirational, the strivers, in Britain -- certainly his parliamentary majority suggests that that's the case, that he did identify the aspirationalism [President Ronald] Reagan did in the U.S. and [Prime Minister] John Howard did in Australia, and Margaret Thatcher instinctively had a connection with those people.

Blair realized that those were the people that if you persuaded enough of them you could govern. Whether or not he did well by them in power, is a very different question. But I think what he was trying to do, other than win and stay in power, was to shift British politics quite substantially to the left; and I think he worked out very early on that he had to borrow the language of the center-right on wealth creation, on aspiration, on opportunity and social mobility, that he had to borrow that language, and under that cloak, actually he did some pretty left-wing things. I think he would probably even -- he would deny that -- but culturally Britain is certainly a more left-wing place than it was 10 or 15 years ago, and I think the Left actually owes him a greater debt than it realizes. I don't think it's quite worked out that he culturally -- particularly in terms of political correctness and shifting the institutions in Britain -- I think he did more than people realize.

...And His Foreign Affairs Legacy

RFE/RL: So if Blair in a sense moved Britain, or solidified Britain on economic questions, on the center-right, and moved it substantially to the left on social and constitutional questions, what's his legacy and any distinctive ideas he has on foreign policy?

Martin: Well, on foreign policy I suspect that his analysis will, with the benefit of viewed far more positively. His analysis was that of a liberal interventionist, and his view remains to this day that there could be no compromise with those who want to destroy Western liberal democracy and that the West has to choose its battlegrounds and fight. It's possible to argue that while that intellectual analysis was correct, the West chose some of the wrong battlefields and didn't fight those wars as well, or prepare for them as well, in the aftermath particularly, as it should have done. And that, I think, is for me the most damning thing about his legacy, as a prime minister, is that he didn't -- he had a very limited understanding of how. He understood how to gain power and how to hold on to it, but he certainly didn't understand diplomacy and how to wield influence in a way that Margaret Thatcher did.
He understood how to gain power and how to hold on to it, but he certainly didn't understand diplomacy and how to wield influence in a way that Margaret Thatcher did.

And some of those inside the [Blair] administration at the time will admit that and Chris Meyer, the ambassador to Washington at the time of the Iraq War, has written extensively about this and I've spoken to him extensively on it. If Blair had decided that he was going to bang the table a bit with Bush in the run-up to the war, there would have been a war, of course; but it's perfectly possible that Britain could have demanded certain conditions about the aftermath, about the structure of the governing authority in Iraq, and could have wrested some of the control of post-Iraq, post-war Iraq, away from the Pentagon and back toward State [Department]. That is the kind of political maneuvering and big-game playing that Thatcher was very, very good at. She didn't always win, she didn't always mange to shift American opinion, but she was taken very, very seriously.

Blair's...loyalty was appreciated by the Bush administration, but...I can't think of a single example in which the British, by argument or, as I say, banging the table -- or Margaret Thatcher would have used a handbag to do so -- I can't think of a single example in which the British, under Blair, managed to shift the Americans one jot, either on Afghan policy or Iraq. And I think that is going to have a long tail. That means that British governments are going to be very, very wary of any involvement, partly for financial reasons, but the British policy-making establishment in the Foreign Office and around Number 10, in the operationals of the civil services and the diplomatic services, and the intelligence and security services, is so scarred by the Iraq experience that Britain -- unintentionally his legacy may be that Britain enters a period of something close to, if not isolationism, than certainly prosecuting its foreign policy very much on a narrow, national self-interest.

RFE/RL: Blair of course is fighting against this, and one recommendation is in his book -- namely, the suggestion that we may very well, that the West may very well have to launch an attack on Iran if it looks like it is getting nuclear weapons.

Martin: Well, this difficulty is that because of the mistakes made from 2003 onwards, it is very, very difficult to see how Western government can assemble anything like enough of a coalition of public opinion to endorse -- to get backing for -- action against Iran. The policy failures in Iraq, and to a lesser extent Afghanistan, mean that public opinion is such that I don't think voters in Britain or in American would countenance any kind of allied involvement. Those mistakes have made the job in regard to Iran more difficult, much more difficult rather than easier.

'President Of The World'

RFE/RL: One reviewer, Fraser Nelson in "The Spectator," explained the book as a kind of manifesto for Tony Blair as a world statesman uncoupled from any single country, a kind of leader of the new globalized elite in charge of institutions like the UN, the European Union, the International Criminal Court, and other global bodies. Do you think this is either true or, if true, realistic in any way, as a future for Blair?

Martin: I think it's a very interesting observation, and I think there is a great deal in it. It's certainly how Blair sees himself. And one of the most attractive things about it is that it decouples him from the need to actually seek votes and win elections. He's probably exhausted that...side of his life.

Yes, I think he sees himself as a global citizen. One of Blair's friends said to me, "Oh, Tony and Peter Mandelson" -- one of [Blair's] best friends and one of his sort of eminences grises -- "they both love 'The Wall Street Journal,'" -- the paper for which I work, and they so should, it's a brilliant newspaper. But this Blair-ite said to me, "You see, they regard themselves as citizens of the world and they regard 'The Wall Street Journal' as their local newspaper." And I think they do. Blair is very happy flitting around from continent to continent, doing all sorts of deals and positioning himself.
Even if the job of 'President of the World' is available, I'm not sure that other countries would be keen for Blair to have it.

I think where it slightly comes apart, as a thesis, is that Britain is much less important than it was. It's still an important country, but I'm not sure that other countries are going to be happy to see Britain take a leading role in the global institutions that you suggested. For example, Blair was very, very keen -- something he doesn't mention in his memoirs -- he was very keen to become to the de facto president of the European Union, the role for which [Herman] Van Rompuy eventually applied and was successful in getting. Now, it was obvious to all but the British press that there was absolutely no way that Tony Blair was going to get that job. There was no way that the Germans and the French -- that the big powers in Europe other than Britain, dominated at that point by center-right governments -- there was no way that they were going to appoint someone from a left-wing party, and also someone with, on mainland continental Europe, a reputation which is primarily rooted in the mistakes around the Iraq War. So for about two or three months, this great speculation ran in Britain on what Blair would do when he was the president of the European Union, and what a great challenge this would be to whoever was in Number 10 in London. But you examine the basic politics of it and it was never going to happen. So there is a possibility that Blair will sort of flit around from continent to continent, offering financial advice, doing speeches, doing the occasional global roll. But I don't think, even if the job of "President of the World" is available, I'm not sure that other countries would be keen for Blair to have it.

RFE/RL: So Tony Blair is a global superstar who has lost a country but not yet found a role. Is that our final conclusion?

Martin: That is a very, very, very good analysis, yes.

RFE/RL: Iain Martin, thank you very much indeed.