Anonymous sources make the case for work on Blair
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