Robert Harris once began his regular Sunday Times column during the dying years of the Thatcher regime with the following words: “It is a sobering thought to realise that we are being governed by someone who is mad”. Hardly surprising that he embraced Tony Blair and New Labour with enthusiasm. However, the man who is now one of Britain’s most popular novelists (“Fatherland”, “Lustrum”) fell out of love with New Labour, and especially its egocentric leader. In his novel “The Ghost” he damned Tony Blair through fiction. Now, in his Sunday Times book review, he has damned Tony Blair via the former premier’s memoirs. If you haven’t read it in the paper (the ‘Culture’ section), it is worth the pound to read it online. Harris is withering about Blair in every possible way. While politics students and teachers will almost certainly want to read the book for themselves, they can get an (obviously partial) sense of it from Harris’s extraordinary critique.
Despite Blair’s merely passing reference to religion as a “passion” greater than politics, there is no doubting Blair’s belief in his divine destiny. “I felt a growing inner sense of belief, almost of destiny…I could see the opportunity to take hold of the Labour party…I could see it like…an artist suddenly appreciates his own creative genius.” Harris goes on to highlight Blair’s rather chilling and bizarrely frank premonitions of John Smith’s impending death from a heart attack, and his brazen opportunism when that event finally happened.
Discussing Blair’s attitude to the September 11th attacks and the wars which followed, Harris concludes that “One cannot rid oneself of the uneasy feeling that Blair enjoys war – its stark simplicity, its historic drama, its emotion.” He suggests that, for all his denials, Blair really was a neo-conservative in the way he saw the war as an opportunity for western imperialist nation-building. Then Harris is at his most damning when quoting Blair’s vision for war – “ ‘It requires above all a willingness to see the battle as existential and to see it through, to take the time, to spend the treasure, to spend the blood’. All this [says Harris] from a man who can’t bring himself to sign copies of his book in central London in case of protests.” Wow. Not much room for doubt there. Blair is a “crazed millennialist who, not content with one pre-emptive war against Iraq, now blithely advocates a second against Iran.”
Harris writes with the zeal of the de-converted. His disillusion with the Blair Project is deep and seering. He explains this in his review, but he also allows Blair’s own words, and the content of his memoirs, to work against him. It is a brilliant piece of writing, paints a wretched picture of the Labour Party’s most successful ever leader, and demands to be checked or assessed in the light of our own reading of Blair’s mawkish manuscript.