Who Is Tony Blair?

The riddle of Britain’s retiring prime minister.

Tony Blair

He has been called everything from “an inferior Bill Clinton” to “as divisive a figure as Thatcher.” His record in the Middle East has been described as one of “catastrophic failure,” and his mistakes have been attributed to “stupendous moral vanity.” He has been called a success, a failure, lucky, and unfortunate. “Tony Blair: A Modern Tragedy” is the title of the Spectator magazine’s special 36-page end-of-Blair supplement. Yet during the onslaught of political obituaries that have appeared in Britain since his long-awaited resignation speech last week, “You wait, you’ll be sorry when they’re gone” was a sentiment quite frequently expressed about Blair and his wife, Cherie Booth.

And that was just the British press. The French, the Germans, and pretty much everyone else have also spent the last few days puzzling over his legacy. Partly this is because it affects all of them: If nothing else, his transformation of the British Labor Party from a bunch of unelectable semi-Marxists into the slickest political force in Europe has not gone unnoticed by would-be imitators. Britain’s economic success has not gone unnoticed, either, even figuring, briefly, in the recent French election campaign. Nor has anyone failed to observe the deep unpopularity of his decision to go to war in Iraq. Indeed, Blair—the “mendacious, spin-obsessed, manipulating fraudster who lied to take us to war” of one recent caricature—inspires truly stunning outpourings of hatred, particularly from members of his own party.

Still, I am convinced that the real reason people in Britain and elsewhere can’t stop talking about Blair has nothing to do with politics at all. The problem is deeper. Fundamentally, the man’s character is a riddle. On the one hand, he frequently describes himself as a true-conviction politician, a man who sticks to his guns whatever the opinion polls say. Certainly, that’s how he explains his decision to join the invasion of Iraq: “I decided we should stand shoulder to shoulder with our oldest ally,” he stated in his resignation speech. “Hand on heart, I did what I thought was right. I may have been wrong. That’s your call. But believe one thing if nothing else. I did what I thought was right for our country.”

Yet, at the same time, Blair is perhaps the most outstanding contemporary example of the politician who wants to be loved, who dreams of consensus, and who tries at all times to be all things to all people. He speaks the language of the left when he is talking to his own party, dwells on free markets when he addresses businessmen, and, at least for the first few years of his term in office, appeared to believe that getting everyone to agree with him about everything was only a matter of time. During an interview in 2001, he explained this belief to me like this: “If I could get out and explain to people what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, basically they’d support it.”

But since he couldn’t always “get out and explain to people what we’re doing” one-on-one, he invented the British version of the modern media machine. Though “spin” wasn’t unheard of in pre-Blair Britain, it is fair to say that he brought the concept to unheard-of heights, perfecting the arts of the well-aimed leak, the removal of the fingerprints from the evidence, and the careful timing of bad news. On the very day of his resignation speech, the British government quietly revealed that one of Blair’s pet programs was going to cost far more than anticipated—presumably because no one would write about such a lowly subject on a day of bigger news.

Indeed, his fiercest critics claim that even the decision to invade Iraq is not evidence that Blair “did what I thought was right.” On the contrary, they say, he invaded Iraq because he thought it was going to be popular.

Blair’s departure thus leaves unresolved this weird dilemma: Is he deeply moral, a man of conviction? Is he deeply cynical, a man who governs by spin? Or does he use spin to make himself look like a man of conviction? According to one recent poll, some 28 percent of Britons think that Blair “genuinely believes that all of his statements and actions are morally right,” which is actually a pretty high number. Yet 51 percent, or more than half, think “he manages to convince himself that whatever he has decided to do must be morally right,” a statement that, if you think about it, implies that more than half of Britons believe Blair has a loose grip on reality.

Not Iraq, not the health-care system, not the economy, not the (successful) conclusion of the Northern Irish peace process, but this—the gap between Blair’s high-minded language and the often grubby reality—is above all what will occupy Blair’s future biographers, just as it has occupied his contemporaries. Not because the question has political implications anymore, but because it is a genuine mystery.