It is by no means a confessional memoir but a brave attempt with only patchy success at self-justification
Among the many pleasures of reading an autobiography, three ought to be mentioned. It is a good way to learn history. A biography may help you rediscover someone you thought you knew well enough. Of course, it often satiates that infinite hunger within all of us for “dirt”. Tony Blair's A Journey is a mixed bag. The 700-page tome contains a lot of contemporary history. Blair ruled Britain at an extraordinary point when the Soviet Union was no more and the United States' decline was still invisible to the naked eye and the shift in the locus of power in world politics was yet to gain traction.
Blair's autobiography encourages those of us who were harsh toward him to recalibrate our mental processes and think of him as yet another politician, warts and all. However, what A Journey is absolutely not is also clear. It is by no means a confessional memoir, revealing inner demons but remains a brave attempt, with only patchy success, at self-justification.
Quite naturally, I rushed to rummage the pages where Blair discusses his fantastic achievement in bringing peace to Northern Ireland — the Good Friday Agreement — which, undoubtedly, will be remembered as the crowning glory of his prime ministership. What lessons can we draw for Kashmir? A “fatigue” had surfaced in Northern Ireland when Blair took office. But essentially, he took strategic advantage of three things. One, he sized up that Ireland, which had internationally become the “butt of jokes, all revolving round stupidity,” had embarked on a remarkable process of self-transformation — “Dublin became a thriving go-ahead European city, and the economy boomed. U2 became one of the world's biggest bands, Bob Geldoff was a hero, Roy Keane became the best footballer of his time. Irish business, Irish art, Irish culture, in short Irish everything took off.”
Evidently, Pakistan has a long way to go. But credit goes to Blair's political mastermind that his first move before plugging into the foray of peacemaking was to put the government in a bipartisan position with the Conservatives. Finally, his entire approach to the exasperating drawn-out negotiations offers a beacon light. Blair writes in one of his best passages: “A great belief of mine is that when you are negotiating with someone, the first thing is to set the atmosphere at ease; signify a little glimmer of human feeling; exchange a few pleasantries; and above all start by saying something utterly unconventional with which disagreement is impossible. Get the other person's head nodding. It's that nod which establishes rapport, and which is an early, tiny sign that all is not lost.” India's United Progressive Alliance government too has a long way to go. Blair's 50-page account titled “Peace in Northern Ireland” should be compulsory reading for our functionaries in North Block. But, from the South Block's point of view, what really merits a close study is the extent to which Britain gained from its transatlantic relationship under a prime minister who came to be known as the “poodle”. What stands out is that expediency cannot be the sole driving force in diplomacy. At the end of the day, sanctions against Iran, drone attacks on Pakistan, and night raids on Afghan homes do have a human dimension. To lose one's voice in condemning crimes against humanity may make expedient politics but it is ultimately difficult to reconcile in a democracy, as Blair finally discovered.
Even for Blair, an equitable, balanced relationship with Washington was not possible to achieve. The United States ultimately acted in self-interest. Helplessly — and rather sheepishly — Blair tagged along. Did Britain gain? As we rush to share the U.S.'s anguish over WikiLeaks disclosures or to secure the “global commons” with Washington, Blair's 140-page account of Britain's role in Afghanistan and Iraq offers a case study of what it means to be a junior partner to a highly self-centred world power.
What is absolutely fascinating is Blair's profile as a politician. Well-educated, cerebral, pragmatic, manipulative, doggedly persevering, competitive, hugely ambitious — Blair was a gifted politician. It was no small matter to wrest the leadership of a seasoned political party at the age of 41 and lead it to power within three years, ending 18 years of rule by the rival party (Conservative Party). A journey begins dramatically — as the results of the elections charting Labour's seismic victory in 1997 were pouring in through the night, Blair took the podium near Waterloo Bridge by the Thames. Bair writes: “Just as I began to speak, the sun made its first appearance and the dawn started to come through with that rather beautiful orange, blue-grey light that heralds a good day.” Such electricity is a striking phenomenon of Britain's parliamentary system wherein the prime minister is invariably an MP with a constituency.
A JOURNEY: Tony Blair; Pub. by Hutchinson, 20, Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SWIV 2SA. £ 25