Tony Blair’s Quiet, Normal Life

According to some opinion polls, he is the most popular prime minister of all time. According to conventional wisdom, he will be re-elected in the coming general election, which will probably be held in June. Yet for someone in full command of his party and his job, Tony Blair, the prime minister of Britain, remains a surprisingly unknown figure. Although often compared to Clinton, he is very un-Clinton-like in his sense of privacy: He doesn’t, in fact, want to share his emotions with us. He hates talking about himself, and in interviews he usually sticks to a particular form of “New Labor” policy rhetoric he has made his own. A recent article he wrote (or someone wrote for him) for the British magazine Prospect was classic: “The third way represents a historic realignment of economic and social policy, at a time when the old boundaries between economy, state and society are breaking down.”  

All of which is why, when I interviewed Blair for a British newspaper a few weeks ago, I decided to ask him to talk a little bit more about his political beliefs. The full interview appeared in the Sunday Telegraph (click here to read it) but, to kick off the British campaign and to distract everyone from the gloomy tale of the foot-and-mouth epidemic in the British countryside, I thought I would mull over a few of the highlights here, for the benefit of Slate’s non-British, non-Blair-following readership.

For one, it is worth noting that meeting Tony Blair is nothing remotely like meeting an American president—or even like meeting Margaret Thatcher in her glory days. His entourage was surprisingly modest, largely female, and not at all intimidating: They really do call him Tony. I had flown to Scotland to see him—the interview took place on the airplane from Inverness to London—and was surprised to find that he travels with a few youngish aides, plus press spokesman, plus security; three cars in all. There was none of the barely suppressed hysteria that I have seen surrounding Bill Clinton and George Bush Sr., no one shouting into telephones, no plainclothes policemen elbowing people out of the way.

This, it seems to me, is deliberate. Indeed, in the early minutes of the interview, Blair alluded to his dogged determination to remain low-key. I had asked him how he felt about combining his work and his family life, which is, with four children and a high-powered working wife, unusual for a British prime minister. It is, he replied, “the biggest problem of the job, balancing family. Just sometimes, you’d love to be able to do things in a very normal way. … The other night I went out to a restaurant with my daughter because it was her birthday, and you’ve still got to go with all the entourage and everything. Sometimes it would be nice to be absolutely normal.”

I asked if he missed being normal. “Yeah,” he said emphatically—but he qualified it. “I am still very normal. I was saying to some children today in the school that I visited, that they are meeting someone who is very well known, but what they don’t realize is that I was just like them, and I feel basically exactly the same as I always do. … And the fact is, we’ll go in and go out, and when I stop being prime minister, people won’t pay any attention to me again.”

It is an odd sentiment, if you think about it: Most people, if they want to preserve their normality, wouldn’t spend most of their lives trying to become prime minister, and what’s more, trying to remain prime minister. But Blair has, which may be part of why British journalists spend so much energy trying to understand him: It seems almost impossible that someone who is so anxious to preserve his ordinariness could voluntarily choose to become prime minister. And many of the expected explanations don’t seem to work. The fame, he told me, “is a mixed blessing,” and “you don’t do it for the money.” The “trappings,” as he put it, don’t interest him either. “I’m not big on status,” he said at one point, and I am inclined to believe him.

All of which means that you have to look elsewhere for his motivations, most of which do seem to lie in the Blair worldview, which has always seemed to me more authentically idealistic than most usually suspect. His language, the examples he uses, the off-hand things he says to fill the occasional silences in the conversation all testify to that deep belief in the possibility of human progress that so many people have mocked. After four years of power, I had expected some of this to wear off, or at least for Blair’s language to have become more muted, his goals more sober. But when I raised it with him, he turned out to be, if anything, more worried by questions of morality in politics now than he ever was in the past: “There is a very interesting debate which I used to study at university—I was not interested in it then but I’m interested in it now—between the concept of natural law and utilitarianism. I’ve shifted far more toward the first, having been for a long time for the second.”

Natural law, for those who don’t remember the argument, is the belief that there is an intrinsic order to the universe and a hierarchy of values: It is perhaps best described as the opposite of moral relativism and is associated with both Catholicism and certain strains of contemporary conservative thought.

“I’m far more of a believer in … the power and the necessity to make judgments about the human condition, as opposed to simply saying, ‘Well, look, what’s good for the greatest number is fine.’ … I’m a great respecter of science and the ability of science to inform our perceptions of the world. But I think there is a danger sometimes that we look at everything just in terms of what its utilitarian value is.”

Unprompted, this conversation about natural law led him directly to the subject of Kosovo, which he said he “can argue was an act of self-interest, in the sense that I think had we not intervened in Kosovo, there would have been serious consequences for Europe as a whole. But if I’m frank about it, that’s not really what motivated me. … To allow racial genocide to happen right on our doorstep and do nothing about it would have been criminal on our part.”

But in truth, the nature of Blair’s idealism best emerges in more concrete contexts. He doesn’t win people over with his philosophy, however much it means to him, but he does win people over with his ability to charm. Indeed, there is a breed of contemporary politician, of whom Blair is one of the most outstanding international examples—Clinton was another—who genuinely believes that no disagreements are fundamental, that if you just keep Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak or David Trimble and Gerry Adams in the same room together for long enough they will eventually make peace—and that all of your detractors can be won over in the end.

Blair has always been very, very good at getting people to like him, and it seemed to me, although he claimed otherwise, that he is still pained when then don’t. It is as if he wrestles constantly with this issue of people liking him, writing nice things about him. On the one hand, he knows they won’t.

“As prime minister you go through a hardening process. … You’ve just got to get used to it, get used to the fact that you will have people out there with placards protesting against you, sometimes asking you for two directly contradictory things—getting very angry with you, having opinions about you, disliking you, some of them hate you.”

On the other hand, at some deep level he believes that if he could only talk to his opponents, he could persuade every one of them to vote for him. “Weird, isn’t it,” he said at one point. “I passed a demonstrator the other day. He was shouting and bawling, and I said, I wonder what he’s like, what he really thinks. Probably you could sit down in a room and have a perfectly rational conversation with him.” Asked if he is looking forward to the election campaign, he said he was looking forward to “the argument”: “If I could get out and explain to people what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, basically they’d support it.”

Indeed at only one moment during the whole conversation did I catch what might have been a hint of genuine self-doubt in connection with failed negotiation. I asked about the worst moment of the past four years, and after joking about “questions you’re never sure really whether you can answer,” he named the Real IRA bomb at Omagh. “Even during the fuel crisis … I didn’t actually doubt that I was doing the right thing. Maybe I was wrong, but I didn’t doubt it. I wasn’t sitting there thinking ‘oh dear,’ I was just handling it. Whereas something like Northern Ireland—the Good Friday agreement was done, that was a real moment of elation. When Omagh happened, it was a real moment of despair.”

I don’t know, I realized afterward, listening again to what he’d said on tape, whether Blair was telling me that he felt despair only because of the people who died, or whether it also came because he doubted—unusually for him—whether he was doing the right thing in Northern Ireland at all. Bombs are, after all, glaring evidence of the failure of negotiation, of dialogue, of the talking that Tony Blair is so good at.

Unusually for a politician, Blair also seems to have a very powerful sense of the fragility of it all, of the fleeting nature of his position, of his luck and of the fact that “when I stop being prime minister, people won’t pay attention any more.” When we talked about last fall’s fuel crisis, the first time he was really and truly unpopular, he said—and again, I believe him—that he had almost welcomed that spot of unpopularity.

“To be frank, I thought it was always going to happen, and in one sense I was quite relieved that it did because it broke the taboo. You can’t expect to be prime minister and go through life pleasing everyone all the time. You shouldn’t do the job if that’s the case. … I was always prepared for that, far more than people ever thought, so when it happened, I thought, well, … that’s what you have to expect.”

But not only does he seem to be psychologically preparing himself for a possible collapse of his lucky streak, he has also clearly thought about other alternatives, other lives he might lead. Although he didn’t say so directly, I sensed that he really has thought about quitting at some point after the next election— perhaps, as rumor has it, handing over to the hungrier Gordon Brown, his chancellor. When I asked him point-blank whether he would serve to the end of his second term, the result was what seemed to me a surprising exchange. Whereas another politician would have swept such a question aside—one imagines Margaret Thatcher slamming her fist on the table and announcing, “I will go on, and on, and on”—Blair replied, “I don’t take anything for granted. … When people say to me, ‘Will you serve a second term?’ I say, I have to get one first.”

I said I couldn’t believe he would want to quit; not after all the effort it took to get there.

“You should stay as long as you’re useful, and go when you’re not.”

I asked when he would cease to be useful.

“I can’t judge that. I still believe very much in what I’m doing now and know I’ve got more to give, but there’s no point in staying in the job for the sake of it.”

And this, in fact, is where he, in a most un-Clinton-like moment, sniffed at the notion that he was in it for the glory. “The trappings are really … I’m not interested by them at all. I’m not big on status.”

“I’m lucky,” he added, “in the sense that I’ll get out before my working life is over. I’ll have time to do something else.”

As the plane started to land, Blair relaxed a little bit, leaned back in his chair. Someone had told me that he once had a fear of flying, and he confessed it was true: “I just made myself fly and fly and fly again until I got out of it.” One of his aides, now listening, said, “Oh, you told us you used to have to drink a lot before getting on a plane.” Blair pulled a face, “Hey, are you my press officer, or are you not?” More laughter. Blair looked in mock horror at my tape recorder: “Is that thing still running?”

I switched it off, and said, “OK, now you can tell me all your secrets.”

“I don’t know any secrets,” he said.