Friday, September 24, 2010

True Conversions No.13: Tony Blair: A Journey

Tony Blair: A Journey: My Political Life
Alfred A. Knopf: New York
718pp., ill. c.2010 $35
ISBN: 978-0-09-192555-0

“I have always been more interested in religion than politics,” writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Tellingly, this comment is made not in the introduction, but rather as part of the postscript of his recently published and quite compelling memoir. Political memoir, that is. It would be foolhardy to engage in a search for “proof texts” in this writing in order to flesh out any treatment of specifically theological/philosophical underpinnings. Missing altogether here is the tale and trajectory of his spiritual journey from childhood in Scotland and Australia, education at Oxford, his quondam association with the Christian Socialist Movement, his recent reception into the Catholic Church, and subsequent establishment of the international and ecumenically-based Faith Foundation. All of this would necessitate a distinct and separate account altogether and is, perhaps, would be better expressed in a biography rather than memoir. Blair’s reporting is more pragmatic, concrete, and action-based-- the self-description of a man in constant motion: “That’s the purpose of life: striving.”

That said, Blair’s career as a key player in both domestic policy and international diplomacy during his decade of leadership (1997-2007) and beyond would appear to manifest an apparent, if not explicitly stated grounding in a set of core values consistent with the Christian tradition.

Tony Blair is first and foremost a politician—more specifically, a politician in the social democratic tradition of his beloved Labour , or rather “New Labour” party, as he might interject. In fact, his media-awareness (and not infrequent aversion), charisma, and international appeal might well put him in the class of his own as probably the most quintessentially “American” politician Britain has yet produced. The social programs of his administration are part and parcel of the social justice legacy of his party, with its roots in the trade union movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Significantly, Blair’s self-avowed predilection is not for ideological consistency or purity-- of a Left over Right-- but rather for an “open” over “closed” worldview. It is this characteristic openness which enables him to appreciate the gifts and perspectives of both people and movements a more ideologically driven leader might otherwise reject out of hand. As a result, he was able to engage and collaborate with President George Bush on issues such as aid to Africa, assistance in combating HIV/AIDS, and the war in Iraq, while parting company with him—without apparent rancor-- on global warming and much of Bush’s domestic agenda. He was able to meet, engage, and at times collaborate with such mercurial world figures as Silvio Berlusconi or Nikolas Sarkozy without losing sight of his own principles: “Personal relationships matter—this is obvious, of course, but is also completely ignored by people who think it’s florid stratagems and mathematical calculations that drive negotiations and compromise. At all levels, but especially at the top, politics is about people. If you like a leader, you try to help them, even if it stretches your own interests.”

Blair readily espouses “an impatience with ideology and a hearty common sense about human nature.” At times he appears to delight in upsetting the conventional wisdom that people ought to operate within the narrow confines of a specified worldview. Does this expose him as a rank opportunist, or conversely, as a more prescient actor with an appreciation of ambiguity, subtlety and nuance? Depends if your are a fan or critic.

It is Blair’s impatience with received narratives and hidebound ideology that impels him (and challenges his readers, as well) to look at some issues with new eyes. During his decade of political power, he was forced to address any number of complex and often frustrating international crises ranging from Kosovo to the Northern Ireland peace accords to the ongoing deadlock of Israeli/ Palestinian relations. Domestically, his administration dealt with significant paradigm shifts in the role of government in areas of health, education, immigration, and criminal justice that have their analogs in every society.

It is not necessary to share Blair’s partisan views on all or even any of these issues. By his own admission, he either erred or even stumbled badly through several of them. What is informative, refreshing, and inspiring is his overall orientation and disposition . He is neither the sanguine moral relativist nor the affectively disengaged policy wonk. Rather, Blair avers over and again that his approach to issues often has its basis moral values rather than pragmatic or technocratic concerns alone. This is reflected most clearly, perhaps, in his insistent and consistent-- almost counterintuitive stance-- in favor of military engagement in Iraq. It is a position which generated widespread controversy both within Britain and internationally at the time. Some critics regard as his signal folly, while Blair has consistently stood what he considers to be his moral ground.

But what moral ground? What specific values? Who and what has shaped this particular world leader’s perspectives, informed his choices, or sustained him in his convictions, especially in the face of widespread public rejection? In this respect, Blair is uncharacteristically silent, making only passing and somewhat scant allusion to either salient formative experiences or any specific spiritual epiphany. Early on, for example, he mentions that he is deeply stirred by a viewing of Schindler’s List—struck by the moral complaisance, the “passive assent” of the guilty bystander to the depredations of Nazi terror. In passing, he makes mention of a seminal figure in his own moral development—his friendship with fellow student and future Anglican priest Peter Thompson, referring with admiration to the latter’s “muscular Christianity.” (a la C.S. Lewis?) In his discussions with Ulster Unionist Ian Paisley, Blair reveals that “we were both fascinated by religious faith as well as being people of faith.” Later on, Blair expresses respect for the ideas of Hans Kung on the nature of changing society and its rules. The Sower and the Seed, he reveals, is his favorite parable. And….?

These hints and passing references to belief and personal moral underpinnings are, unfortunately, both scant and scattered. What is largely unarticulated in this otherwise vast (700 pages) and sometimes overly articulated narrative is a sense of the ideas and convictions that have shaped and sustained the worldview and decision-making of one particular human being strategically located at the decision-making epicenter of some of the most significant and, often controversial issues of our time. Significantly, Blair does not reveal his sources-- at least not in this environment. Yet, clearly he has them. Otherwise, how would he have been able to withstand the unbelievable pressures and stresses of a limelight decade on the world’s stage? Is he just being coy, or is his reticence more deeply rooted in a personal belief system he considers inappropriate to discuss in a public forum? As one of his confederates, Alistair Campbell, indicated early on in Blair’s administration: “We don’t do God.” Really?

Arguably, we live in a contemporary culture deeply affected by a certain moral relativism, but Blair has infrequently a decidedly and often decisively moral stance frequently at odds with that culture—and one certainly not based on the perception of national self-interest alone. He offers, for example, primarily moral arguments for military interventions in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Fine. But one wants him to drill down even further: What are the source and basis of his moral decision making?

The ‘journey’ Blair alludes to in the title of this work is not, then, one of any direct conversion experience, political or otherwise. Rather, it is the description of his growth in public leadership , his decade-long metamorphosis from opposition figure to effective governing agent: “At first we govern with a clear radical instinct but without the knowledge and experience of where that instinct should take us in specific polity terms. In particular, we think it plausible to separate structures from standards… In time, we realize this is wrong; unless you change structures you can’t raise standards more than incrementally.” The call to leadership is a given; its fulfillment depends upon one’s response, rather than reaction to events over time. The arc of this learning curve is long.

Blair concludes this fascinating discourse on his political journey with a curious and oddly ironic remark: “… it has never been entirely clear whether the journey I have undertaken is one of triumph of the person over the politics or of the politics over the person,” he states. It is a subtle, perhaps even humble admission. But one suspects that there’s more to this man. Much much more.

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