15 June, 2005Issue 4.3EuropeHistoryPolitics & SocietyWorld Politics

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The Second Draft of History?

Lewis Allan

Anthony Selden
Blair: The Biography
The Gree Press, 2005
768 pages
ISBN 0743232127

The genre of political biography contains some of the most predictable and mediocre writing available; it is perhaps only ‘bettered’ by political autobiography in this respect. It is oft-used as a pension fund top-up for political journalists or as a form of indulgence for politicians, allowing them pay tribute to their favourite persons, other politicians. Yet, even if they tend to the formulaic and badly written, they still reach wide readerships, for the lives of successful people continue to fascinate us. They can reassure the insecure by revealing failings in other areas (‘they had the career but not happiness’) or, in a way reminiscent of self-help books, let us learn from the great (‘what would Tony Blair do in this situation?’). Trying to explain success goes down well (‘it was their unhappy upbringing that gave them their ambition’; ‘it was going to Cambridge’), as does simple gossip-mongering (‘inside the inner court’; ‘what they didn’t want you to know’).

But if journalists produce the first draft of history, political biography can seem lacking in giving us a decent second draft, providing at best background information and filler to tide us over until the historians can begin their squabbling. For instance, by early 2004, Tony Blair had already been the subject of three biographies by the journalists John Rentoul, Jon Sopel and Philip Stephens respectively (the Stephens book was written for the American market, a sign of Blair’s place in history in itself ), all following the worn path of a linear narrative hastily sourced from newspaper articles and a handful of interviews, with a few facile predictions of future courses of action thrown in at the end. Thankfully for Blair, a man very much concerned with his place in history, we now have Anthony Seldon, the latest to have his turn and the author of an exceptional new biography. Seldon differs from the rest: he is a respected historian with around twenty-five academic books and numerous journal articles to his name. In an even more unusal twist, Seldon is a progressive headteacher of an independent school by day and historian by night, conjuring the image of a Batman of history dashing from his desk to secretly work in an underground library. Seldon cuts an appropriate figure for a biographer of Blair: both had right-wing fathers, went to fee-paying schools and Oxford, and are deeply concerned with ‘education, education, education’: all profits from Seldon’s writing are donated to educational charities, and he is keen to open up private schools to the less wealthy and disadvantaged.

What concerns us here, though, is Seldon’s approach to the subject matter. Out goes the linear narrative and in comes an analysis of twenty ‘key episodes’ interspersed with descriptions of twenty ‘key personalities’ who have shaped Blair. In the manner of television shows that convey to their viewers the scale of some construction project by reciting statistics (20 miles of girders, 100,000 gallons of water used, etc.), Seldon’s biography impresses with its 768 pages, its 600 interviews, 37 pages of endnotes and a substantial index and bibliography. Rather than spend years compiling the information on his own and running the risk of it becoming outdated by publication, Seldon has cleverly employed three minions who are credited in the book and carried out much of the research. Hence the biography is unique both in its approach and in its breadth and depth.

The beauty of a chapter on an event followed by a chapter on a person followed by another event etc. is that it breaks up the formulaic feel of the linear narrative and gives the reader an unusual element of choice. The ‘forces of conservatism’ may deride this approach as offering bite-sized pieces for our undemanding, postmodern age, but there is plenty of detailed description and analysis in each self-contained episode to keep even an academic content.

How, then, does Seldon judge Blair? A quick answer based on the chapter layouts would be: by Blair’s reaction to certain events and by those he keeps close to him. His reaction to ‘Cheriegate’ (when his wife Cherie purchased two flats in Bristol with the help of a convicted conman) merits a chapter as does the reaction to Princess Diana’s death, alongside more conventional pieces on Iraq, Kosovo and various general election campaigns. Those who have had a formative influence on Blair include Margaret Thatcher and God, as well as the expected Gordon Brown and Alistair Campbell.

What is of little explanatory worth in Seldon’s mind is Blair’s early years. Others have argued that a serious stroke suffered by his father when Blair was eleven drove the young Blair into politics; Seldon does not entertain this view. To his credit, nor does he advance Blair’s superb acting in his secondary school plays as an important indication of his later rhetorical brilliance. Upon reaching Oxford, Seldon characterises him as ‘an impressionable and frivolous young man, lacking both gravitas and settled political or religious views.’ Leaving three years later with a respectable degree in law, little had changed for Blair beyond confirmation into the Anglican church and some signs of an inclination towards Christian community- based socialism. What is picked up on is the passing away of his mother not long after Blair’s leaving Oxford; here Seldon guesses that the ‘steel entered his soul.’

At age twenty-two Blair was a young lawyer in London with little hint of what was to come. And indeed, no dramatic political conversion does come. There is no eureka moment for Blair; instead, his developing relationship with fellow lawyer and Labour activist Cherie gradually leads him into the party. While this may disappoint those looking for a moment of high drama and is unusual in political biography, in which authors wish to emphasise how special and unique their subject is, it does strike a chord of truth. Tony never did get around to really becoming a socialist, and his belief that he can step down and happily take up another career adds weight to Seldon’s portrayal of an accidental politician.

Any notion though that such a late political developer might have an advantage in pursuing a more balanced, less confrontational way of politics, however, is quickly disabused. His relative political naivety is seen as hindrance rather than help, and the most damning criticism made is that Blair just has not been able to handle policy. He is weaker than Gordon Brown: ‘Brown felt himself to be the loser, but from 1997-2005 in terms of policy achievement, it was Blair who lost out far more’, and his own ‘personal agenda remains largely unfulfilled’. Blairism is thus not a ‘substantial and coherent body of policy’ but ‘rhetoric and good intentions’. Seldon appears to like Blair as a person — much is made of his loving relationship with Cherie and their children — but as a Prime Minister, the author seems distinctly underwhelmed.

Would Blair then, be happy with his second draft of history? He is certainly unimpressed by the first, for the predominantly right-wing press have damaged him greatly after a short honeymoon period. Unfortunately for him, the second draft offers little reprieve. In his conclusion, Seldon justifies his unusual structure by arguing that it best suited the man: Blair has no strong ideological leanings and no dramatic early life experiences. Instead he has been moulded by events and by a number of influential people, and it is through these that he is best understood. What is most striking is the way Seldon uses this to show that Blair has constantly learned from those more skillful than he, from Cherie the superior lawyer and activist to Gordon Brown the superior intellect and political strategist, but that he was never able to master these influences and channel them to create a worthwhile legacy. For Seldon, while ‘the verdict on him is still wide open’, this should not be the case after over eight years as Prime Minister, and the second draft looks worryingly final for a man intent on achieving historical greatness.

Lewis Allan is a DPhil student in Economic History at Trinity College, Oxford. His thesis studies the formation of economic policy in 1980s Britain. He has written on politics and economics for The Owl journal and for The Script, a London School of Economics student journal.