Anony­mous sources make the case for work on Blair

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter van Onse­len

AN­THONY Sel­don has fol­lowed his book Blair ( 2004) with Blair Un­bound , cov­er­ing Tony Blair’s prime min­is­ter­ship from Septem­ber 11, 2001, to his re­tire­ment last year. The de­tail of events con­tained in Blair Un­bound is a re­minder of just how much has hap­pened in­ter­na­tion­ally in re­cent years.

The war in Iraq has dom­i­nated in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics since 2003 and, as Sel­don notes, it dom­i­nated the later part of Blair’s lead­er­ship as well. We are also re­minded of the com­plex­i­ties of the war in Afghanistan and myr­iad prob­lems in the Mid­dle East.

Yet this is not only an in­ter­na­tion­al­ist ac­count of Blair’s stint as prime min­is­ter.

Sel­don ad­vances a range of new in­sights into the do­mes­tic man­age­ment of Blair, in­clud­ing his role in the Lon­don Olympics bid and the con­tro­versy that be­came known as ‘‘ cash for hon­ours’’: the con­nec­tion be­tween po­lit­i­cal do­na­tions and the award­ing of life peer­ages, a sad finale to Blair’s lead­er­ship.

Blair Un­bound is a good book and a worth­while first cut of his­tory, though I doubt it will stand the test of time oth­ers have sug­gested it might, partly be­cause of the large num­ber of un­named sources on whom Sel­don re­lies.

This book is not a light read. At 583 pages the ac­count is as de­tailed as it is in­sight­ful. Sel­don takes a view of Blair very dif­fer­ent from the one he ad­vanced in his ear­lier vol­ume.

More con­fi­dent af­ter suc­ces­sive elec­tion wins in 1997 and 2001, in Blair Un­bound the prime min­is­ter moves out from un­der Gor­don Brown’s shadow and in­creas­ingly pur­sues poli­cies and re­forms he feels strongly about, adding to an al­ready tense re­la­tion­ship with the chan­cel­lor of the ex­che­quer.

Blair Un­bound is cer­tainly a story of power pol­i­tics Bri­tish- style, and the dif­fi­cul­ties the two am­bi­tious men had work­ing to­gether come across clearly. It is hard for an Aus­tralian reader not to think back to sim­i­lar ten­sions be­tween John Howard and his trea­surer Peter Costello. The dif­fer­ence is that Blair and Brown even­tu­ally found a way to plan an or­derly, al­beit tense, han­dover while the Labour Party re­mained in power. Sel­don han­dles the de­tails of how this was done well, in­clud­ing the ex­tent or oth­er­wise of Brown’s in­volve­ment in plots to re­move Blair be­fore, and af­ter, the 2005 elec­tion.

Yet Sel­don is at pains to claim that deep down the pair had a mu­tual love for each other, the rea­son nei­ther man struck to re­move the other from their po­si­tion within the gov­ern­ment. More likely both men, po­lit­i­cal an­i­mals to be sure, un­der­stood the dam­age for­mally chal­leng­ing one an­other might have had ahead of a gen­eral elec­tion. By the time Blair won a third term,

hav­ing promised not to run the full term if he were to win, he was clearly on the way out and Brown sim­ply had no rea­son to strike.

The most frus­trat­ing as­pect of Blair Un­bound is, para­dox­i­cally, also what makes the book such an in­ter­est­ing read.

Of the hun­dreds of in­di­vid­u­als in­ter­viewed and nearly 4000 pieces of source ma­te­rial cited in the foot­notes, al­most half are ‘‘ private in­ter­views’’ with un­named play­ers close to Blair and Brown. While this jour­nal­is­tic de­vice gives Sel­don the op­por­tu­nity to chip down be­low the sur­face of Blair’s gov­ern­ment, and so pro­vide fresh in­sight on the think­ing of the MPs and their ad­vis­ers, it makes it dif­fi­cult for the reader to know what to be­lieve and what to re­ject.

It should be re­mem­bered many of Sel­don’s in­ter­view sub­jects re­main in pol­i­tics to­day and would have had any num­ber of rea­sons to skew re­sponses to sat­isfy vested in­ter­ests.

Nev­er­the­less, I am in­clined to trust the well­cre­den­tialled Sel­don, an au­thor of bi­ogra­phies and books on Bri­tish pol­i­tics dat­ing back to Mar­garet Thatcher’s time. But the lim­its of un­named sources are un­de­ni­able and will likely date the work more quickly than oth­er­wise would have been the case.

A clas­sic ex­am­ple is the un­named source who told Sel­don that in 2004 Brown con­fronted Blair, who had just de­ter­mined he would go on to fight the forth­com­ing gen­eral elec­tion, say­ing: ‘‘ When are you go­ing to f. . k off and give me a date. I want the job now!’’ The quote made head­lines in Bri­tain when the book was re­leased, but with­out at­tri­bu­tion its au­then­tic­ity is im­pos­si­ble to ver­ify.

Sel­don uses his ex­cel­lent turn of phrase as­sid­u­ously when telling the story of the Blair years and he has pro­duced a wor­thy ac­count of the sec­ond half of Blair’s prime min­is­ter­ship. Blair Un­bound is not for the ca­sual ob­server, how­ever, and for Aus­tralians not familiar with Bri­tish pol­i­tics the de­tail will be test­ing at times.

Read­ers who do make it to the end will be well re­warded. The build­ing ten­sions over the war in Iraq and be­tween Blair and Brown over the prime min­is­ter­ship and pol­icy di­rec­tions do­mes­ti­cally get only more and more in­ter­est­ing. Peter van Onse­len is an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor in pol­i­tics and gov­ern­ment at Edith Cowan Univer­sity and co- au­thor of John Win­ston Howard: The Bi­og­ra­phy ( Melbourne Univer­sity Press).

Love- hate re­la­tion­ship: For­mer Bri­tish PM Tony Blair and his suc­ces­sor Gor­don Brown

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