Austen Ivereigh

This fascinating and frustrating memoir by one of the great modern statesmen is full of good things. But there is a great gap in it. “I had always been fortunate,” says Britain’s former prime minister (1997–2007), a Catholic convert and the founder of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, “in having a passion bigger than politics, which is religion.” He says this on p. 663, just before the postscript, having mentioned his faith almost not at all. He says it again a page before the end, where he declares that in the work of his foundation, religion and politics “overlap.” But not so in his memoir. Faith is put in a drawer marked “private.”

This is immensely annoying. Blair spends more time recalling his (inconsequential) supper with French premier Nicolas Sarkozy than his (momentous) visit to Pope Benedict in 2007, when he discussed his forthcoming reception into the church after resigning as prime minister. (“I saw the Pope at the Vatican in the middle of June...it all passed in a bit of a blur.”) His conversion raised many questions, which he has never answered—and which his memoir carefully avoids.

Why did he not convert while in office? Did he wrestle with church teaching on embryonic research or on same-sex partnerships before passing the laws that enabled these? My guess is that this cordon sanitaire is the result of a political calculation: both he and his foundation would have lost from opening up his faith to flack both from conservative Catholics and radical secularists. But the book suffers for this silence—as does, necessarily, our judgment of him. Blair remains, as The Guardian once described him, “a man without a shadow.”

A Journey is, however, highly readable, and as a manual of contemporary politics, insightful. It will stand among the classic political memoirs, rising above self-justification to capture the drama and constraints of contemporary politics and the immense, fateful responsibility of governance in the 21st century. Blair shares the lessons on peacemaking he drew from Northern Ireland and discusses why resentment is so corrosive in politics and why politicians end up in sex scandals. He is dazzlingly intelligent and often witty; and readers quickly see where his leadership qualities lay: he is scanning the far horizon while others remain trapped in ideology or narrow self-interest. He was always an outrider, sitting lightly to party and ideology, alive to the addictions and comforting myths the Left was attached to, weaning his party away from them and on to electoral victory. This is the story of the first few chapters, and it is fascinating.

Blair won a landslide election in 1997 and two more—an unprecedented record for a Labour leader—because of his powerful intuition of where public opinion stood on a range of issues. Blair reached over a news media driven by impact and sensation because, like his mentor Bill Clinton, he had a visceral, even mystical, connection with “the people.”

He was a far better prime minister in 2007, when he stepped down, than he was in 1997. But by then the people were out of love with him. The marriage eventually broke down, by Blair’s account, because over time he intuited better what was right than what was popular.

The falling-out was over Iraq. Blair’s decision to take his country to war—and the carnage that followed, but above all the controversy surrounding the evidence used to justify that decision—led people to stop trusting him. He does not try to persuade the reader that he was right, but to show what was involved in the decision: his reading of history after 9/11; his conviction that removing Sadaam was a moral necessity; the terrifying responsibility—which haunts him still—of sacrificing lives; and the loneliness of a decision of this magnitude, in which decision means division and the loss of many friends.

But he had counted the cost. “At that moment, the fear of history’s judgement was not the fear that came with action, but with inaction,” says Blair of 9/11, like Churchill faced with the Nazis. “How to change the world was a tough challenge to answer; not to answer it, to be paralyzed in indecision, was deemed the greater risk, by a large margin.” As Iraq descended into sectarian carnage—“we had not counted,” confesses Blair, “on the deep hold this extremism could exercise on the imagination, will and way of life of its adherents”—there were “dark moments” when he pondered Jesus’ words about the man proposing to build a tower needing first to consider the cost.

The war made Blair heavier and sadder, put lines in his Peter Pan face, grayed his hair and skin. His life now has an element of atonement. “I cannot, by any expression of regret, bring to life those who died,” he writes. “But I can dedicate a large part of the life left to me to that wider struggle, to try to charge it with meaning, purpose and resolution...in the actions of a life, my life, that continues still.”

The final chapters show Blair most clearly as a reforming politician: expanding and restructuring public services, modernizing the state much as Thatcher had modernized the market. But his increasing isolation within government and from public opinion led him, after his third electoral victory in 2005, to seek a dignified exit. He handed over his post to Gordon Brown in 2007, after 10 years fearing his chancellor would prove disastrous as prime minister (which he was).

The Blair who emerges is unquestionably impressive, not just as a politician but as a figure of moral stature willing to sacrifice his popularity for the sake of what was right. But what was right? What we (and history) make of him will hang on our judgment of where his conviction—that inner core of steely resolve—is rooted. But we never find out. His policy agenda was essentially a liberal, social-democratic one; he never mentions Catholic social teaching or the subsidiarity principle; the star he follows is his own, mildly messianic conviction. He achieved great things, among them peace in Northern Ireland. Yet who Blair is, what drives him, and above all the Catholic Blair, these remain, notwithstanding his relentless candor, out of reach.

Austen Ivereigh is European correspondent for America.