Tony Blair: The Making of a World Leaderby Philip Stephens
On March 27, 2003, President George W. Bush said, “America has learned a lot about Tony Blair over the last weeks . . . and we're proud to have him as a friend.” Despite the President's assertion, the average American knows little about Tony Blair except that he remained one of America's strongest allies in the war on terror and, ultimately, in the war against Iraq. But why? What is Blair's agenda? Is he just trying to further England's cause or his own? And how has this man, the youngest British prime minister in centuries, kept strong ties with such fundamentally different presidents as Clinton and Bush?
Philip Stephenseditor of the UK edition of the Financial Times and a man who has known Blair since the beginning of his careeranswers for the first time these questions for the American public. Stephens follows the emerging world leader from his boyhood to his leadership of the Labor party and, along the way, exposes his beliefs, his personality, his shortcomings and contradictions, and his role in shaping a new international order.
Author Biography: Philip Stephens is a senior editor of the UK edition of the Financial Times and writes a column on political and economic affairs in Britain and Europe. He is the 2002 winner of the David Watt Prize for outstanding political journalism.
The most interesting part of the book, however, is devoted to Blair's foreign policy. Stephens sees him as a pragmatic Europeanist, eager to be the hinge between the United States and the continent. He thus partnered with French President Jacques Chirac to promote a European security force but was driven by his transatlantic fervor to support Washington in Iraq, heeding Clinton's advice to make himself President George W. Bush's best friend to "be the guy he turns to." Of course, Blair's influence over the Bush administration turned out to be very limited, but Stephens points out that Blair also believed that overthrowing Saddam Hussein was "the right thing to do." The war, Stephens asserts, "has united Tony Blair in all his different characters." The courage and eloquence that Stephens recognizes in Blair are undeniable; his limitlessself-confidence, however, has led to imprudence and embarrassment.
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ON MARCH 18, 2003, the atmosphere in the ornate wood-paneled chamber of Britain’s House of Commons crackled with electricity. The green leather benches of the nation’s legislative chamber were packed to overflowing. Tony Blair was preparing to take his country to war alongside George W. Bush. Confounded, exhausted, and dismayed by the diplomatic failures at the United Nations during the previous few weeks, the British prime minister had set his course. The mood of Britain, though, was against risking the lives of its soldiers to topple Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. In his own left-of-center Labour Party, intense hostility to a Republican president in the White House was combined with genuine doubts about the justification for war. Even as British troops gathered on the Kuwait-Iraq border, Blair faced a mounting rebellion among his supporters. One senior member of his government, the former foreign secretary Robin Cook, had already resigned. Other ministers were preparing to quit. Scores of Labour members of Parliament (MPs) had resolved to vote against their own government. Beyond the political village of Westminster once-warm relationships with key allies in Europe lay badly broken.
Tony Blair was unmoved. Ending Saddam’s defiance of the international community was, in the phrase he had used over and again, “the right thing to do.” That was his decision, he told colleagues in the British cabinet, whatever the cost. Government officials made contingency plans should he be forced to resign after the votes had been counted. On that overcast March morning the prime minister was sure of a majority in Parliament because the opposition Conservative Party backed a war to topple the Baghdad regime. The risk he faced, however, was that more than half of his own supporters would rebel. In such circumstances, his premiership would be unsustainable. Britain and the rest of the world were being introduced to a leader they had not properly met. Blair had already transformed his party’s electoral fortunes and had many times proved himself an accomplished politician. This, though, was the politics of conviction.
He had everything to lose. Six years earlier, a few days before his forty-fourth birthday, Anthony Charles Lynton Blair had become the youngest British prime minister since the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century. Three years later, he was the first prime minister in more than 150 years to father a child while in 10 Downing Street. In June 2001 he had won a second landslide election victory against the Conservatives, seemingly assuring himself a place in the record books as the longest-serving Labour prime minister in history. More than that, he had remade the landscape of British politics, wrenching the party he had rechristened New Labour from the barren socialist left into the fertile center ground. While his policies and campaign techniques had been borrowed from Bill Clinton’s New Democrats, Blair had always been a politician impatiently dismissive of the old ideological divides between right and left. They owed their place, he thought, to an age that had passed with the fall of the Berlin Wall. He embraced the values of progressive politics while discarding the accumulation of sacred socialist texts that had locked his party out of government for nearly two decades. Most politicians start from a set of traditional political positions; Blair started from the values he had imbibed with his Christian faith. His political heroes were the leaders of the centrist Liberal Party, which had ruled Britain during much of the nineteenth century, rather than the giants of the Labour movement that he now led. The product of a privileged private education and the son of a Conservative lawyer, he had always been at something of a distance from his own party. To the discomfort of many of his colleagues he saw himself as a national, rather than a partisan, leader, even though he had succeeded in exiling the Conservatives, the dominant political force in Britain for most of the twentieth century, to the frozen margins of politics. But, as British troops moved to the “start line” in Kuwait, all this was now imperiled.
During the weeks and months before the crucial debate, the prime minister had emerged as the most articulate and passionate advocate of decisive action to force Saddam into compliance with the United Nations resolutions passed at the end of the 1991 Gulf War. His speeches and interviews resonated well beyond Britain’s shores. The strong rapport he had forged with George W. Bush in the wake of the terrorist attacks on America on September 11, 2001, had become the fulcrum of the West’s response to the new threats to its security posed by so-called rogue states and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. But this relationship between prime minister and president was one replete with puzzles and paradoxes. Blair was a politician of the center-left, a leader who still counted former president Bill Clinton among his closest political allies and friends. The prime minister once said that Clinton was the most brilliant politician he had ever met—a judgment from which he never resiled. Bush was the Republican from Texas, the president whom most European leaders of the center-left had come to scorn and, sometimes, despise. Throughout the Iraq crisis, Blair sought Clinton’s private counsel. Most recently, on the very morning of that House of Commons vote Clinton had been enlisted to help his old friend. The former president wrote an article for the Guardian, the newspaper of choice of Labour members of Parliament, urging them to back their leader. “Trust Tony’s Judgement,” the headline declared. For one extraordinary moment on that March day, it was almost as if Bush, Blair, and Clinton were standing side by side.
The prime minister was unapologetic about his relationship with Bush, judging it in his country’s vital strategic interests to stay close to Washington regardless of who occupied the White House. He saw Britain’s role as that of a “pivotal” power, the essential hinge of the transatlantic alliance between Europe and the United States that had kept the peace since 1945. He shared many of the president’s fears—more so than most other European leaders—about the new security threats of the twenty-first century. The destruction of New York’s twin towers in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, had exposed a perilous threat that had to be met with military resolve. But the menace could be effectively countered only if the United States and Europe stood together. The attack on New York, the prime minister would often say, had “changed the psychology of America,” though “it should have changed the psychology of the world.” While the end of the cold war had seemed for a time to rob the transatlantic alliance of its raison d’être, Blair believed that the terrorism of Al Qaeda, the defiance of Saddam, and the growing number of failed and failing states around the world were reasons to rebuild it. Befriending a Republican president was a matter of temperament as well as realpolitik. For all that he had worked with Bill Clinton to create a Third Way movement of the center-left, Blair has never been a tribal politician. His relationships in Europe saw him closer to Spain’s center-right prime minister José María Aznar than to the French socialist Lionel Jospin.
Yet Tony Blair’s war against Iraq differed in many respects from the one fought by George W. Bush. Beyond the common purpose of the expulsion of Saddam Hussein, Washington and London seemed to have divergent designs for the world. The driving motivation within the U.S. administration seemed to be the removal of a defiant enemy—a demonstration to the world that America would deploy all of its military might to defend itself. America had to assert its primacy, to fulfill its role as the world’s sole superpower. Richard Cheney, the vice president, and Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon were briskly dismissive of talk in Downing Street of a new multilateral order hinged on a partnership between the United States and Europe. Blair wanted to build just such a new international system. For all his instinctive Atlanticism, he is a multilateralist—convinced that the West’s security depends on an effective international alliance. In his analysis, September 11, 2001, was a tragic demonstration of the inescapable interdependence of the modern world. Even a nation as uniquely powerful as the United States could not alone secure itself against the dangers beyond its shores. Blair believes, too, in “nation-building,” the responsibility of the West to make and safeguard peace as well as, when necessary, to wage war. In this he has something in common with American neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz, but nothing at all with assertive nationalists like Cheney and Rumsfeld. The price of his support for President Bush in the war against Saddam Hussein was that the administration first give the United Nations a last chance to secure Iraqi compliance. The second pledge he sought of the president on every occasion they met was that the United States give impetus to peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Terrorism, he told Bush more times than he could remember, would only be tamed when a durable peace agreement had been secured in the Middle East.
There are echoes of an earlier age in Tony Blair’s premiership. His approach to foreign policy has its roots in the interventionism of the nineteenth-century Liberal British prime minister William Gladstone. Like his distinguished predecessor, he is impatient of the strategic doctrines that say governments should turn their backs on tyranny and injustice in the world unless their narrow national interests are in imminent danger. His politics—and a deep Christian faith—tell him that civilized nations have the right and duty to confront suffering beyond their boundaries; in the medium to long term, such intervention is a matter of enlightened self-interest. Even before the events of September 11, Blair had emerged as the most outspoken advocate of military action to end Slobodan Milosevic’s tyranny in Kosovo, and had sent British troops to end the civil war raging in the West African state of Sierra Leone. In the spring of 1999, during the Kosovo war, he enunciated a new “doctrine of international community.” Tyrants, he declared, could no longer be permitted to shield behind the United Nations charter in pursuit of the oppression of their own peoples. The NATO military campaign against Serbia was “a just war based not in territorial ambitions but on values.” But it was also a matter of self-interest: “If we let an evil dictator range unchallenged, we will have to spill infinitely more blood and treasure to stop him later.”
For all his idealism, Tony Blair bears the blemishes of his profession. No one would ever accuse him of lacking personal ambition. And, though he prefers to make friends rather than enemies in politics, he has never lacked the ruthlessness required of politicians to reach the top. A friend and admirer in Blair’s own cabinet states quite simply, “He is the most ruthless leader I know. He is very unsentimental about doing tough things.” The high moral tone of a political message infused with Christian belief has often jostled with the low politics he has employed to win and retain power. The unshakable conviction that has marked his foreign policy has often stood in contrast with a curious timidity and hesitancy in his domestic agenda. As an opposition leader, Blair remade the Labour Party in his own image, destroying the assumptions of British postwar politics. He placed himself between the Conservatives’ Margaret Thatcher and the far-left leaders of his own party. The old left, he often said, had stressed social rights to the exclusion of individual responsibilities, while Thatcherism emphasized individual economic rights to the exclusion of social responsibility. New Labour joined rights and responsibilities. Yet sometimes it seemed that the guiding purpose of Blair’s domestic politics was simply to win a second term. Early on he was held in thrall by the focus-group and opinion-polling obsessions imported from Bill Clinton’s White House. His political skills—he is the most fluent and persuasive communicator in British politics—are not matched by a natural mastery of the cumbersome machinery of government. Yet his gifts as one of politics’ great persuaders rest upon a foundation of staunch self-belief. In Northern Ireland, where six years of patient peacemaking ended a bloody terrorist war against the British state, he deployed a genius for convincing unreasonable people to do reasonable things to brilliant effect. At other times, he seemed to think that stirring rhetoric was sufficient to make the world a better place. More than once he has learned that vision is a poor substitute for the hard choices demanded of those in power.
For all such flaws, the aftermath of September 11 and of the conflict in Iraq marked out Tony Blair as a different sort of leader. The gifted thespian had met the conviction politician. In the months after the attacks on America he traveled many tens of thousands of miles and met dozens of world leaders as the most eloquent spokesman for a new coalition behind America’s fight against terrorism. Right or wrong on the best way to deal with Saddam Hussein, his approach was rooted in principle and carried through with courage. This was a personal as much as a political watershed. The war told Britain and the wider world where the prime minister came from as a politician and where he intended to go. There were many reasons—the realpolitik of the Anglo-American relationship high on the list—why he might have decided to go to war against Iraq. And, doubtless, matters of strategic interest played a central part. But the moral certainty that prompted Blair to risk everything on the war came from the conviction that the world would be a better place once it was rid of Saddam Hussein. If this Manichaean outlook unsettles even some of his close supporters, a willingness to gamble all distinguishes him as a man who is in politics to change things. He was sanguine about the idea that the venture might cost him his career, because if he could not do the things he believed to be right in his position, he saw little purpose in staying. The heavy irony of the furor after the Iraq war over whether Saddam’s regime really did have weapons of mass destruction is that Blair would have liked from the start to frame the war in a different context. For him, removing a dangerous and murderous tyrant was as compelling a moral cause as a hunt for weapons of mass destruction. Blair’s Christian faith is open-minded, tolerant of human frailties, and respectful of Jewish and Muslim teaching. But Christianity—and the concept that he draws from it of the world as a place of interdependent individuals and communities—informs and infuses all his political thinking.
Tony Blair’s response to the attacks on America on September 11, 2001, turned a politician who was strong at home and well known in Europe into a leading figure on the world stage. The support he offered to George W. Bush—first to fight terrorism and then to remove Iraq’s Saddam Hussein—gave him a public profile in the United States unmatched by most postwar British prime ministers. Only Margaret Thatcher could claim the same sort of recognition among Americans and, arguably, Blair did more even than the “Iron Lady” to establish Britain as Washington’s staunchest ally. He did so, however, at substantial cost to his popularity and reputation at home.
The prime minister won the vote for war on March 18. While some 139, or about a third, of his own MPs in the House of Commons rebelled, it was enough that Blair had carried the support of more than half of his party. Ten days later, when the British and American leaders met in Washington, George W. Bush offered his now-famous tribute: “America has learned a lot about Tony Blair over the last weeks,” the president said. “We’ve learned that he’s a man of his word. We’ve learned that he’s a man of courage, that he’s a man of vision. And we’re proud to have him as a friend.” But for both men, the peace would bring many more problems than the war.
A few months later, in early August, Blair passed another political milestone when his government became the longest continuously serving administration in Labour’s history. Yet while Britain now had a prime minister who had changed the political weather in Britain and emerged as a powerful leader on the international stage, the nation was hardly in a grateful mood. The war had ended in Iraq but left a bloody and chaotic peace. Failure to find Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction in the months after the war badly damaged trust in Blair’s leadership. So, too, did a loud public controversy over whether the British government had deliberately exaggerated the extent of the threat posed by the Iraqi leader. In his determination to fight at America’s side Blair had put too much emphasis on the immediate danger. During the summer of 2003, a public inquiry into the suicide of a distinguished British weapons scientist revealed the flaws in the intelligence reports that had been presented as cause for war—and shone a harsh light on the way that Blair’s office had sought to play up the potential threat. Many questioned whether Blair had put his determination to preserve a “special relationship” with Washington above all other judgments. Perhaps, as Winston Churchill discovered when he was voted out of office at the end of World War II, it is the fate of British leaders to be admired abroad and mistrusted at home. In any event, when he reflected on all this in an interview at the end of July 2003, the voice of the nineteenth-century moral missionary in Tony Blair was as clear as it had ever been that toppling Saddam had been “the right thing to do.”
I first met Tony Blair during the 1980s, when he was a junior Treasury spokesman for the Labour Party and I was an economics reporter for the Financial Times. Subsequently, I followed his career as the newspaper’s political editor, as a columnist, and as UK editor. I have spoken to and interviewed him on dozens of occasions, watching and charting the rise of the young, determined politician as he first became leader of his party, then Britain’s prime minister, and ultimately a politician determined to make an impact on the world well beyond Britain’s shores. Many of these encounters became interviews published in the Financial Times; others provided the basis for columns in the newspaper. I have drawn on all of them, as well as many more conversations with his friends, his political allies and aides, and his opponents, in writing this biography. In late July 2003, Blair also agreed to give a lengthy on-the-record interview specifically for this book, in which he spoke candidly about the early influences on his political life, as well as of his thoughts on presidents Clinton and Bush and on the war against Iraq.
Tony Blair is a remarkable politician. His achievements, at home in Britain and abroad, have belied his youth and inexperience. He is a leader willing to take risks in pursuit of conviction. But this is a biography, not a hagiography. Blair’s admirers have long been confounded by the ruthless political gamesmanship that sits alongside the conviction; his critics are disarmed by the principles that lie behind the constant quest for popular acclaim. My intention is to provide a portrait that allows readers to make their own judgments.
1. Steeples and Spires
TONY BLAIR GREW UP on a journey through the pages of British history. The nation’s future prime minister lived his early life among the church steeples, ancient clock towers, and medieval quadrangles that are the childhood playgrounds of England’s affluent middle classes. The Chorister School, attached to the ancient cathedral in the English city of Durham, was his stepping-stone to Fettes College, Scotland’s most renowned public (what Americans know as “private”) school. From there the road led to St. John’s, one of the richest colleges amid the dreaming spires of the University of Oxford; and then, as a prelude for a young man seeking a career in the law, to the Inns of Court, the London home to the elaborate wigs and flowing gowns of the English legal establishment. When Blair finally arrived as a member of Parliament at the Palace of Westminster in 1983, the Gothic splendor of the nation’s seat of democracy seemed all of a piece with the cloisters of his youth.
Somewhere along the way, though, his path had veered. The august institutions of his early life were the conventional route to a career on the right, or Conservative, wing of British politics. No one would have been surprised if Blair had risen quickly through the ranks of the Conservative Party. After all, his own father, Leo, before he had fallen victim to ill health, had harbored serious hopes himself of becoming a Tory MP. But the son chose the politics of the left, membership in a Labour Party that, even as he joined it, seemed to be facing inexorable decline. The roots of the young Tony Blair’s political outlook, his moral conviction and the internationalism that would cast him as a formidable actor on the world stage, were thus located beyond the ornamented architecture of his youth: in Christian faith, in experience forged by family tragedy, in a set of values borrowed from another age, in unshakable self-belief, and, as ever in politics, in personal ambition. Many times in his later political career, Blair would remind his audiences that he was a Labour politician by choice. Others had been born to the party of the left, their beliefs nurtured by family tradition, by childhood deprivation, or by tribal class loyalties. Tony Blair was different. Even as its leader and as prime minister, he maintained a degree of detachment from his party.
Anthony Charles Lynton Blair was born in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh on May 6, 1953. His father, Leo, was a university lecturer in law, a career that took the family during the children’s earliest years to Adelaide, Australia. By the time the future prime minister had reached the age of five, they had returned to England, where Leo combined a blossoming career as a lawyer with his teaching. Their base was the northeastern city of Durham, which boasted contemporary prosperity and an illustrious past. Home to a prominent university, it was also a place where Leo could build a flourishing practice as a senior courtroom lawyer—in the British term, a barrister—on England’s northern judicial circuit. Young Tony, the second of three children, enjoyed a world of comfortable privilege. His father was scarcely rich, but he was prosperous enough to opt out of the state-funded schools system and himself pay for the children’s education. Leo was a man who had made his own luck in life. He was ambitious for himself, and equally so for his two sons and daughter.
Affluence had not come easily. Born to parents who led the peripatetic life of music hall performers, Leo Blair had been all but abandoned as a child to a foster family in Glasgow, the city that was then at the industrial heart of Scotland. He did keep one link, though, to his parents: his son Tony’s middle names, Lynton and Charles, were borrowed from Leo’s natural father—one was the music hall performer’s given name, the other his stage name. Leo’s escape route from the grim tenement blocks of his childhood was service in the army during World War II. Before the war he had been forced to leave school at the age of fourteen to take a job as a clerk, but he rose quickly through the junior ranks of the military to become an officer. Once the war was over he returned to full-time education and a career, eventually, in the law. Like many in a generation that had had to struggle, he determined that his children would have better. His politics had also changed. As a teenager from a deprived background Leo had flirted with the politics of the extreme left; as an army officer about to take up a career in the law, he decided to join the Conservatives.
Tony’s mother, Hazel, was of a different character. Where Leo was ambitious and gregarious, she was gentle and quiet. Born in Ireland—in her famous son’s description, “in the flat above her grandmother’s hardware shop on the main street of Ballyshannon in Donegal”—she had moved to Glasgow when her father had died, and there had met and married Leo. The family kept its ties with Ireland. When Tony Blair became the first British prime minister to address the Irish parliament, he recalled fondly that as a schoolboy he had spent almost every summer vacation in Donegal: “It was there in the seas off the Irish coast that I learned to swim, there that my father took me to my first pub, a remote little house in the country, for a Guinness.” Lacking the career ambitions of her husband, Hazel looked after the house and raised the family. She was “almost painfully shy,” her son said many years later. “She was entirely without malice. I don’t think I ever heard her say a bad word about anyone.” She steered the family through not just her husband’s recovery from a sudden stroke but also the illness of her daughter, Sarah, the youngest of the three children. At the age of eight Sarah had developed Still’s disease, a form of rheumatoid arthritis. Hazel moved on from nursing her husband to caring for her daughter. Sarah recovered, but only after intensive treatment that required long spells in the hospital and unpleasant side effects from the prescribed drug treatment.
Durham Chorister School, which Tony attended from the age of eight (he followed in the footsteps of his elder brother, William), had been founded several centuries earlier to educate the boys who sang in the city’s ancient cathedral choir. In the 1950s the traditions of the church school still lived on, but it had a broader intake, serving as one of the quintessentially English preparatory or “prep” schools, to which the middle classes sent their children to begin a formal education. Later the prime minister would recall of these early experiences an age and an education in which the premium was on good manners, values that were reinforced by his parents. What mattered, Blair remembered in newspaper interviews, was “respect for others, courtesy, giving up your seat for the elderly, saying please and then thank you.” If he was told off at school, he recalled, his mother would apologize on his behalf to the teacher. Tony Blair carried Hazel’s admonitions into political life. The young politician made his way in the Labour Party as a “modernizer,” a leader eager to discard the past. But his personal manners, almost Victorian in their studied politeness, harked back to gentler times. Whatever his faults, Blair is an unfailingly courteous politician, one rarely heard to raise his voice in anger, one who always dispatches a note of thanks in response to a kindness or courtesy.
His time at Fettes College, to which he traveled at the age of thirteen, was an unhappy interlude. His father’s choice of Scotland’s foremost public school in part spoke to his own roots in Scotland. But it was primarily a statement of social intent. In the mind of a father who had struggled to succeed, Tony and his siblings were destined for the upper ranks of British society. Perched on the edge of Edinburgh and built in a chaos of architectural styles that somehow manage to combine the Scottish baronial with the French Gothic, Fettes was established in 1870 as a boarding school for Scotland’s rich merchant classes. The school’s founding ambition was to produce the educated young men who would go out into the world in pursuit of the nation’s commercial fortunes and in service of the British Empire. It was organized from the start on the English public school principle that said rigorous discipline and austerity would build what the English call “character” in the children of the wealthy. This was the world, harsh and often calculatedly cruel, immortalized by Thomas Hughes in the classic 1857 novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays.
Nearly a century on, the vast empire the school once served had dissolved. But the atmosphere at Fettes was still austere, the discipline rigorous and often illogical. Ian MacIntosh, the headmaster, would have been happier in an earlier century. A staunch traditionalist and disciplinarian, his ambition at Fettes was to preserve the past. But the times were against him, for the 1960s were a period of social upheaval. The age of deference was passing, to be replaced by rock music, long hair, and satirical irreverence. MacIntosh refused to acknowledge the thirst for modernity, and to those who complained he would reply, “I’d like to hear everything you say—before I say, ‘No.’” When the boys grew their hair longer, he ordered it cut. The young Tony Blair was one of the victims. The school’s official history records that Blair found himself marched to the barber’s shop by the headmaster: “He took him straight in and stood there, unrelenting, as the cherished mop was trimmed.” Blair would remember his years there as a difficult time. Much later, when he was asked as prime minister to write the foreword to the school history, he felt obliged to agree. But there was no warmth of memory in the published words.
The young Blair rebelled against Fettes’s petty regulations and archaic ordinances. The bulging book of rules extended even to the number of blazer buttons the boys (the school finally decided to admit girls only in his final year there) were required to keep closed at all times. Seniority gave prefects the right to flog younger boys with a cane, the beatings sometimes taking the form of public rituals to humiliate as well as hurt the victims. The hierarchy required younger boys to polish the seniors’ boots, clean their sports kits, and run errands for them. The shared dormitories—MacIntosh thought private rooms even for senior boys would soon have become “dens of iniquity”—were spartan, the showers cold. Blair found the environment suffocating. More than once he was caught escaping over the school walls to evade the ban on excursions into Edinburgh’s city center. He left at the age of eighteen with a clutch of unhappy memories and a reputation among the school’s masters as a rebel, albeit one whose misdemeanors were rarely grave. Yet Fettes had left its mark. Later, friends and acquaintances would comment that Blair showed in later life the very respect for authority against which he had rebelled at school.
Though he could scarcely have known it at the time, Tony Blair took something else from this stifling world behind high walls. As he began to prosper in politics it was soon obvious that he was a remarkable actor. He stood out as a natural communicator, a young man with an instinctive ability to empathize with audiences, to strike just the right pose and cadence at just the right moment. Blair gave no hint at Fettes of the political career to come, for the ambition had yet to form. “No, you could not tell that he was going to be prime minister, nor even a politician. There was no sense of divine purpose about him,” one of his oldest and closest friends told me. But equally, it was obvious from an early age that Blair was entranced by the footlights. “You have to remember that he’s an actor, no, a performer, he’s exuberant....He still gets nervous beforehand but he loves it,” this friend added, commenting on Blair’s prime ministerial performances.
One senior master at Fettes could claim some of the credit for Blair’s later seemingly effortless command of the national mood. Eric Anderson was among the few authority figures at the school with whom the rebellious schoolboy established a rapport. Later he would say privately that the young Blair was “difficult.” Anderson was often exasperated by his student’s habit of questioning every rule—“Why” was his favorite word—yet he quite admired Blair’s ability to charm himself out of awkward binds. Anderson, who went on to become headmaster of Eton, England’s most famous public school, encouraged the future prime minister to channel some of this precocious energy into school drama. Early on, Blair was cast as Mark Anthony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. When his pupil became leader of the Labour Party, Anderson recounted, “He did the ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ speech brilliantly, and I wonder if that gave him a taste for politics.” A more challenging role followed as Captain Stanhope in Journey’s End, a play by R. C. Sherriff that was popular at the time because of its depiction of the futility of war. Blair’s portrayal of the army officer tormented by the bloody, hopeless battles between British and German soldiers across the trenches of World War I was widely acclaimed by his peers at Fettes and attracted a glowing review in the school magazine. Blair remembered this particular stage role well when more than three decades later he was leading Britain into war against Iraq. There were more parts in plays and reviews at Fettes and later at Oxford. David Kennedy, another of his teachers, was less kind than Anderson when he spoke to one of Blair’s early biographers: “He [Blair] has always been conscious of how he appears to other people. The façade is always there. He is very intelligent and calculating. Don’t forget that he was a superb actor.”
The politician never lost his care with words, phrases, and presentation. Though as prime minister he could call on battalions of aides to draft his speeches, he preferred to craft them himself. In another nod to an earlier age, he composed them in longhand with a fountain pen rather than tap the keys of a personal computer. The meticulous care Blair takes with his personal appearance is another, albeit unconscious, legacy of his school days. Jeans and a polo shirt are fine when the prime minister is relaxing with his family, but once in the public eye, his suits, shirts, and ties are chosen with great care, his shoes always brightly polished. In the slightly barbed observation of one close adviser, “He’s a politician who can never pass a mirror without looking into it.” Vanity no doubt plays its part, and the performer still has a starring role in Blair’s political persona. But the attention to detail also reflects that very English childhood.
Blair’s theatrical gifts would be shown in their most brilliant light many years later in the aftermath of the death of Diana, the Princess of Wales. He had been prime minister for only a few months when the former wife of the Prince of Wales and heir to the throne died in a terrible car accident in Paris. Filmed against the backdrop of the local church in his Sedgefield constituency on that extraordinary Sunday morning in August 1997, Blair’s televised response to the nation was a performance worthy of the most celebrated of thespians. “I feel like everyone else in this country today. I am utterly devastated,” the prime minister began. Diana had been liked and loved by the whole nation. She was, Blair said in one brilliantly evocative phrase, “the People’s Princess,” and “that is how she will stay, how she will remain in our hearts and memories forever.” The words were perfectly delivered, the voice breaking at precisely the right moment, the grief etched on the prime minister’s face. Those who watched the appearance were sure they could see a tear in the corner of his eye. To the nation it seemed that this lament for “the People’s Princess” was as real as her sudden death had been incredible. The initial reaction of the Queen and Prince Charles to the death of the estranged princess had been cold and distant, and it was left to the prime minister to speak for the nation at a time of tragedy. At Diana’s funeral in Westminster Abbey, watched by hundreds of millions of people across the world, Blair delivered the famous passage from Corinthians—“When I was a child, I spoke like a child”—with the same emotional intensity. Within weeks his personal rating had soared off the opinion pollsters’ scales. These were the most brilliantly accomplished of the many performances that marked out Blair’s political ascent. They signaled a style of politics unfamiliar in Britain, but one that fitted his personality and his political ambition in equal measure. Eric Anderson could be proud of his handiwork.
Inevitably, such performances raised questions about Blair’s political leadership. Where did the actor end and the real Tony Blair begin? For political opponents, the love of the stage was proof of a “phony” Tony. It’s all an act, they would charge, and a deeply cynical one at that. Friends, too, sometimes wondered whether the prime minister was a touch too eager to apply the greasepaint. But by the time he reached 10 Downing Street the politician and the performer could no longer be separated. Those who knew Blair well insisted with convincing certainty that he had been genuinely upset by the death of Diana. He had met her privately on a number of occasions and, like many others, had been won over by her tragic charm. But yes, he also understood instinctively that her death offered an opportunity to cast himself as more than a mere politician, more even than a prime minister. When Alistair Campbell, his communications director, suggested the phrase “People’s Princess,” Blair instantly understood its unifying force. As prime minister, he practiced the politics of inclusion. The death of Diana offered a moment to bring the entire nation into the New Labour tent. If that required a few dramatic flourishes for the television cameras, so be it.
Soon after his election as Labour leader, Tony Blair was asked the question now put to every politician of the baby boom generation. Had he ever smoked dope? His reply blended wit with innocence. “No, but if I had, I would have inhaled.” Here was a gentle tease at the expense of Bill Clinton, who had been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford a few years before Blair arrived at the university. (When pressed about his youthful acquaintance with cannabis, Clinton had said, rather lamely, that, yes, he had taken a puff or two while sitting around with fellow students, but he had never actually inhaled.) Blair’s response seemed spontaneously clever; people laughed, and the question went away. In fact, this small, unimportant episode betrayed the strenuous efforts that Blair took to guard his image and reputation. As soon as he had become the leader of his party in 1994, his political aides had hit the telephones. They knew the media would be digging into his past. Anyone and everyone who had befriended Blair in his earlier life was contacted by his office. Were they aware of any skeletons in the closets of his past? Were they prepared to be discreet? Oh, and by the way, they should know that when the cannabis question was asked of the new Labour leader he would respond with a quip at Clinton’s expense. In truth, although there were no great scandals to be uncovered, Blair’s past would henceforth be choreographed as carefully as his political future.
When Blair arrived at St. John’s at Oxford in 1972, the university was scarcely a hotbed of student revolution. The most it could muster in the way of activism was a few noisy demonstrations against the policies of the then Conservative government and a short occupation of the university’s examination buildings in protest at the school’s medieval statutes. But cannabis was cheap and ubiquitous. Most of Blair’s crowd smoked it—by their own accounts, often in his presence. So had Tony really said no every time a joint was passed around during those long nights of rock music and earnest conversation about the dismal state of society? For someone of Blair’s class and generation it would almost be stranger if he had not experimented. After all, the head of Britain’s criminal prosecution service, who was an Oxford contemporary, has a conviction for cannabis possession. If youthful encounters with the drug were a bar to high office, the present generation of politicians would be eerily small. More interesting, perhaps, than whether Blair had actually experimented with cannabis was the concern that not even the smallest transgression should be allowed to sully his record. He was a diligent student at Oxford. His three-year degree course saw him following in his father’s and his elder brother’s footsteps in law. The young Blair found plenty of time for rock music and girlfriends, but he also worked hard to secure a good, if not greatly distinguished, degree. In other words, his was the normal student life in the Britain of the 1970s. If he pushed against the boundaries of college discipline, as at Fettes, the rebelliousness had limits. Friends recall that he spent more than the requisite number of hours pouring over the detail of arcane legal precedents in the college library. The most risqué story told by a contemporary concerns an evening spent playing “strip poker”—with Blair and a female friend duly paying the required forfeit in full when the cards went against them. True to his love of the stage, he was lead singer for a rock band. His role model was the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger—who else in the early 1970s? He also played at playing guitar. Those who saw Ugly Rumours (the band’s name was taken from the cover of a Grateful Dead album) at student concerts recall the music as energetic but pretty dire. Blair dressed in the student uniform of the age—shoulder-length hair, multicolored T-shirts, cotton trousers tight at the waist and flared at the ankles. Folklore has it he added platform shoes to the ensemble. The lead singer’s gyrations, friends remember, served him well as far as meeting girls was concerned, but Ugly Rumours struggled to find paying audiences. “It’s true that they did not play very often...but they practiced a lot,” jokes one friend. Like the quip about cannabis, the band became part of the official narrative of the Labour leader’s early life. A rock-star youth fitted the image of a rising young politician. And as prime minister, Blair did start paying serious attention to playing the guitar, which he found helped relieve the stress.
One friend recalls that at school and university Blair was indeed a natural leader—in organizing social excursions: “He was always the one saying let’s go to this party or that concert...the rest of us followed along.” But if he enjoyed the rock-star image and honing his acting talents in college revues, Blair eschewed the traditional playgrounds of student politics. He took no interest in the Oxford Union, the debating society that through the generations has nurtured and polished the oratorical skills of scores of Britain’s most distinguished politicians. He did participate in one or two student demonstrations, but belonged to neither the Conservative nor Labour party clubs. “The fact that he became leader of the Labour Party surprised and puzzled lots of people,” recalled one of his contemporaries at St. John’s. “It didn’t surprise us that he turned into an earnest young man, nor probably that he chose politics as his way of making a difference. But it was a surprise that he reached the top.” Other contemporaries thought he would continue to follow in the footsteps of his father and elder brother and turn out to be a successful lawyer. The stage was good practice, after all, for the courtroom. Perhaps, at a stretch, he would become an impresario, or something else in the entertainment business—he had spent much of the “gap” year between leaving school and starting university as a would-be promoter of up-and-coming rock bands in London. No one thought they had made friends with a future prime minister.
In later life, members of Blair’s university set would join the worlds of business, banking, public service, and journalism, as well as politics. Several, including the future Australian politician Geoff Gallop and another Australian, a priest by the name of Peter Thomson, remained friends with the future prime minister. One in particular, though, stood out. Anji Hunter, two years younger than Blair, had first met him when he was at Fettes and she at a nearby boarding school for girls. This was not an early romance—or so at least both parties have always insisted. But Hunter arrived in Oxford to finish her schooling while he was at St. John’s. Their friendship thrived and was to endure well beyond their student days. During the late 1980s Hunter served as the manager of Blair’s Westminster office and was soon one of his indispensable aides. After his election victory in 1997 she was appointed special assistant to the prime minister—friend, confidante, and political fixer rolled into one.
Looking back, there were one or two clues as to the direction of Blair’s own future. The rock and roll and the long spells in the library grappling with case law still left time during Oxford evenings for deep philosophical discussions about the nature of man, the future of society, and the dismal condition of politics in its broad sense. The world of the early 1970s was a turbulent place, and the mood of young university students correspondingly restless. The Vietnam War was just drawing to its close, the cold war ever present; the OPEC oil price rises had shocked the West out of its economic complacency; the world’s poor seemed to be getting poorer. Closer to home, Edward Heath’s Conservative government was embroiled in a titanic struggle with the trade unions, and in Northern Ireland the British army was fighting in the streets against Irish Republicans. This was more than enough to worry and intrigue a group of intelligent young people interested in the nature of the society they would join. In the shifting circle of four or five, sometimes six or seven, undergraduates of which Blair was part, the political and philosophical works of Marx, Engels, and Gramsci were the subject of earnest discussion. The group included a young Ugandan, Olaro Otunno, who went on to become his country’s foreign minister, as well as Geoff Gallop.
Philosophy, politics, and religion were all part of the discourse. Friday afternoons at St. John’s were given over to public debate among the college’s students. At one such event the young Blair offered a rather dry analysis of Marx’s philosophical manuscripts. More important, though, his mind was open to fresh ideas. Speaking in the summer of 2003, he recalled that, in spite of all those spires and cloisters, he never felt any great weight of tradition. Because his family had moved around when he was young, and his father was a foster child, “I couldn’t trace my family back three centuries. My parents had worked their way up and they came from different backgrounds. I have always therefore accepted people pretty much as they are rather than [in relation to] where they have come from.” That did not mean he lacked roots, but rather that “they were very much in the ideas you formed rather than in a particular sort of traditional upbringing.”
The memories etched most deeply on the mind of the young Tony Blair were not those of brushes with authority at school, wrestling with Marx’s dialectic, or playing in a rock band. For all the material comforts of his childhood, his formative moments were those of family misfortune and spiritual awakening. The first shock to the comfortable assumptions of youth came at the age of eleven when he was woken one morning by his mother to be told his father had suffered a sudden stroke. For a short time it seemed that Leo, still only forty and in the prime of a successful career, might not survive. Much later Blair recalled the event as “the day my childhood ended.” His father pulled through, but he had lost his speech and much of his movement, leaving him effectively bedridden for months. Hazel nursed him back to health, but it was an agonizingly slow process, and several years passed before Leo recovered sufficiently to return to work. The family remained financially secure, but without the room to spare of earlier years. Gradually, Leo was able to rebuild his legal career, but the burgeoning ambitions for a life in Conservative politics—he had by now become the chairman of the party’s local association and was looking for a seat in Parliament—had to be abandoned. More than two decades afterward, Tony spoke movingly about this period during a speech to the Labour Party’s annual conference. His father’s illness, he said, “taught me the value of the family, because my mother worked for three years to help him walk and talk again.” He also learned the worth of community. The fair-weather friends disappeared, “but the real friends, the true friends, they stayed with us...they stuck with us for no other reason than that it was the right thing to do.” “I don’t pretend to you,” Blair told a now-hushed audience, “that I had a deprived childhood. I didn’t. But I learned a sense of values in my childhood.”
As he finished his studies at Oxford, the twenty-two-year-old learned that now his mother was desperately ill, having been diagnosed a few years earlier with cancer of the thyroid. Surgery had removed the growth, and for a time there were hopes of a remission. But the disease had taken hold. Returning home from Oxford after his final examinations in the summer of 1975, Blair found that the worst had been kept from him for fear it might disrupt his studies. His mother had only a short time left. During her last days in the hospital, Hazel saw each of her three children in turn and, as Tony put it, “went through things with us.” Then, at the age of only fifty-two, she was gone. The loss of a mother is the most painful moment in the life of a son. After the illnesses of his father and sister, the effect on the young Tony Blair was devastating. Some thirty years later, when Tony was in 10 Downing Street, his brother, William, recalled their mother’s death. “The effect of our father’s stroke on Tony has often been analyzed,” he said in a newspaper interview. “Many people say the ambition of the father was transferred to the son. But it was more complicated than that....I think people have tended to underestimate the role my mother played in forming Tony’s view of life.”
As the prime minister himself explained further in July 2003, his father’s illness had been a tremendous blow “because the family’s security disappeared overnight....And when I look back, I think that was very important.” Then, just as he crossed the threshold into adulthood, came his mother’s death. “I remember when my father told me that my mother was dying, and she was going to die. I remember the shock of it absolutely. You thought that these things just didn’t happen.” As with his father’s illness, he said, it was as if the family had been robbed of its security. He found it a deeply sobering as well as a sad time. There had been moments, he said, when he could have gone off and “done something wild....I definitely had that part in me to be like that.” His father’s stroke had pulled him back from such adventures. Now, after the death of his mother, he approached everything “with a lot more focus and determination, which I suppose is natural.”
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