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Review: A Journey by Tony Blair

Tony Blair’s autobiography gives a real and detailed insight into what it’s like to be Prime Minister: the stresses and how he coped with them, the challenges and how he tried to overcome them, the successes, the failures, the balancing of family life with political life and statesmanship. It really is quite fascinating.

Politically, there’s little in here that we haven’t heard before, but the detail and explanation of how and why decisions were reached seemed interesting to me. The “behind the scenes” detail of the huge events that occurred under Tony Blair’s leadership provided genuine insight, if not new information – Diana’s death, 9/11, 7/7, the Hutton Inquiry, and Iraq to name just a few.

Yet, it’s taken me the best part of two years to plough through this tome. That’s mainly due to what Ben MacIntire of The Times described as a “congenial style peppered with slang and gossipy asides”. I’d describe it as a style resembling transcribed speech, and it frequently becomes very thick and frustrating.

Let me pepper this review with some examples. When talking about the themes underpinning his leadership (something he does frequently, citing different themes each time), the following sentence appears: “Perhaps above all, an emphasis bordering on the religious on what counts to be what works.”

It’s not a crime against humanity, but it is a verbless sentence that doesn’t really scan very well. It’s the sort of sentence you have to re-read a couple of times to get the message. In a paragraph of prose, it’s a frustrating sentence that should have been edited. And these are little throughout the book.

Here’s another example. Read this sentence aloud: “I wondered – as did some of the newer and more radical faces in my Policy Unit, although this was still heresy in the party, not least among most of my ministers – whether we had been right to dismantle wholesale GP commissioning in the NHS and grant-maintained schools in education, instead of adapting these concepts of local self-govenment to spread decentralised management across the state health and education systems, but without the inequity inherent in the underfunded Tory reforms we inherited.”

Again, the message is clear, but it isn’t an easy read. A decent editor would surely have added some more punctuation, or cut this down into several sentences.

And, since we’re on a roll, let’s play “count the subclauses” in this example: “Precisely because the roots of this wider struggle were deep, precisely because it was a visceral life-or-death battle between modernisers and reactionaries, precisely because what was – and is – at stake was no less than the whole future of Islam – the nature of its faith, its narrative about itself, and its sense of its place in the twenty-first century – precisely because of all this, there was no way the forces opposed to modernisation, and therefore to us, were going to relinquish their territory easily.”

I think these examples demonstrate the message that this book is not an easy bedtime read. Yet, within a few sentences of passages like those above, Blair tells us about Alistair Campbell’s “clanking great balls”, describes Iraq as “a basket case”, PMQs as “a girls’ school playground” and relates that “I like to have time and comfort in the loo.”

And then, occasionally, Blair becomes suddenly coy: he didn’t want to discuss his son’s vaccination status “for private reasons the family was sensitive about issues to do with.” Note, again, that this hardly scans well.

The constant juxtaposition of long badly written passages of political prose and puerile descriptions of characters and situations wore me out. I couldn’t read more than a couple of chapters of this at once.

I think this demonstrates that I found this book a difficult read, which makes it difficult to rate. On the one hand, much of the content is five-star – well worth reading, whichever side of the political fence one occupies. On the other, the form of expression is risible, bordering at times on unreadable. This is a book that badly needs a revised and edited edition under the guidance of a decent editor! Until then, I can’t in good conscience give it more than three stars.

A Journey is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.

This 1,794th post was filed under: Book Reviews, Politics, , .

For the good of Labour, Brown should battle on

Several MPs, ministers, and political commentators appear to want Gordon Brown to resign as leader of the Labour Party. God knows why: These lefties seem to think that sacking Brown would be good for Labour when, in reality, it would be anything but.

Labour cannot win the next election. Barring the hugely unexpected, Labour is now by far the most damaged political party, and the Conservatives are well into an inexorable resurgence. The political wind in the country, stirred up by Big Bad Blair, is now circling Downing Street and will huff, puff, and blow down Labour’s house with surety.

Labour’s popularity is in its boots as it is, and whilst Mr Brown is hardly boosting it, it is most certainly the party which is damaged now, not the leadership, and it cannot win the next election until it has undergone a Cameronesque detoxification. And,as Carol Voderman will tell you, you can’t detoxify when under the pressure of Government.

As if that weren’t enough, governments undoubtedly live and die through economic cycles. Few governments could hope to survive the present economic downturn, and both Labour and Brown – who have previously sung so enthusiastically about how they control the economy – have dug their own graves. Taking credit for the upward economic stroke has now left their popularity careering head-first down the slippery slope of economic downturn.

Of course, Brown’s fervent support for the merger of HBOS and Lloyds TSB this week is a further mistake: He’s backing a process which he doesn’t entirely control, and any regulatory hurdles the process stumbles at will be painted as Brown losing his influence. There’s a reason why back-room deals and discussions should stay in the back room.

But still, he shouldn’t resign. Labour failing under Brown is infinitely better for the Party than Labour failing under two leaders. Labour can’t win the next general election, but with a new leader, a lick of paint, and some enthusiastic party unity, they can purge themselves back into power reasonably quickly – and that’s where minds should be focussed.

To elect another leader now and yet still lose the next election will damage the Party far more: Failure under one leader can be painted as the failure of a bad apple, fail under two consecutive leaders and the country thinks whole orchard is rotten. Allegiance is switched to pears.

Of course, such is the nature of politics, few Labour MPs genuinely care about the long-term future of the party. The career politicians in marginal seats would desperately like to keep their jobs at the next election, and see Brown as damaging the Party. They want to chuck him out to give themselves a flicker of hope of avoiding their P45 for another Parliamentary term. Frankly, they’d stand a better chance if they crossed the floor.

This Labour government is undoubtedly moribund. There are no heroes in the wings waiting to swoop in a resuscitate their chances. The only sensible thing to hope for now is a dignified death, in the hope that the rebirth can be swift.

Brown simply must not go.

This 1,371st post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, , , , .

Overt government racism over London Olympics

ElephantCast your mind back, if you will, to 1999.

Almost a decade ago, the shiny new(ish) Labour Government decided it was important to celebrate the Millennium, and that an appropriate way to do this would be to build a nice big white tent in Greenwich.

And oh, it was a lovely white tent. So strong, it’s still there to this day. So monumental, it has its own tube station. So loved by the nation, it’s in the Eastenders title sequence.

Yet they had a problem: What to put inside the tent. Ideas were flowing, for everything from a Festival of Britain for the modern age, to a theme park. So many choices, so many options, so many decisions.

So, in the end, they went with an elephant: A big white elephant, to be precise.

Tony Blair thought the elephant and it’s dome would be “a beacon to the world”. I was more cynical: I’d not been a fan of elephants for some years, since an unfortunate collision between an elephant’s trunk and a particularly sensitive part of my anatomy.

For once, it seemed the public agreed with me, leaving the elephant unvisited and the government red-faced.

This left Tony’s team scrambling to regain any sense that they were “in touch” with the people. So, in a masterpiece of spin, they simply denied that the dome contained a white elephant. They told us it contained all sorts of fun treats, that the public would really, really like to see.

When that didn’t seem to be working, they brought in a frog to feature alongside the elephant, a strategy that brought in about six-and-a-half million visitors, yet still continued to deny the primarily elephantine contents of the dome.

“It’s great!”, they told us. “Come visit the dome and see the special treats within! It’s fun for all the family! It’s not a white elephant, it’s a rip-roaring smorgasbord of good natured wholesome British fun!”

Even once the dome closed, they still protested that the contents had been “really good”, and certainly in no-way elephant related.

That is, it seems, until last week.

In an extraordinary interview with LBC, Tessa Jowell not only admitted the existence of the white elephant, but – unbelievably – insisted that white elephants were to be banned from the Olympics, since the white elephant in the dome had been such an embarrassment for all.

Is it really fair to blame this failure of Government competence on the white elephant itself? What happened to ministerial responsibility? I’m quite sure the elephant did its best to entertain people, but was placed in a rather impossible position by this Labour Government.

And, more pertinently, why are all white elephants being tarred with the same brush and being banned from the Olympics?

I very much doubt this would happen with Indian or African elephants – no, that would be racist – but it’s perfectly fine to discriminate against the hard-working, white, middle-class elephant families of these British Isles, whilst allowing any foreign elephants to just wander into the Olympics as they see fit.

It’s absolutely sickening that the respectable white elephants of this country should be treated this way by an incompetent government. When the government starts prioritising the Olympic dreams of other country’s elephants above our own, surely the whole country is going to hell in a handcart.

It’s disgusting.

» Image Credit: Original image by Aaron Logan, modified and published under licence

This 1,347th post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, , , , , , .

Of by-elections and discrimination

Harriet HarmanIn Tony Blair’s day, New Labour were the masters of spin – at their most effective when they did it so convincingly that we didn’t even realise the facts were being spun, or else we were led to believe that we could see through the spinning, when in fact that presentation was the intention all along.

Now, it seems, that’s all gone. Yet, oddly, it hasn’t been replaced by the honesty and straightforwardness we were promised – an honesty many would say was incompatible with politics – but rather by terrible attempts at spinning.

Take the Henley by-election: Instead of pointing out that this is a Conservative seat and virtually ignoring electoral defeat, the omnipresent ‘Party Sources’ are mumbling about victory being secured if Labour keep their deposit. They’re saying that anything over 5% is some kind of win. Oh, brother.

And all the while, Harriet Harman is squeezing out plans to support ‘positive discrimination’ – another bizarre New Labour oxymoron. Discrimination is discrimination is discrimination – whether or not it’s positive or negative depends on your standpoint. Is selecting a member of an ethnic minority to balance out a sea of white faces still ‘positive discrimination’ if you’re a serial killer, or does this only apply when we’re handing out things perceived as rewards?

The same propsals also, apparently, ‘ban ageism’ – the government pretended to do back in October 2006, as covered on this very site. I note that Ms Harman is bounding about stating that doctors should only refuse treatment to elderly patients on clinical grounds – not on the basis of age. Three points: Firstly, doctors are already required to do their best for patients, regardless of age. Secondly, is age not part of the clinical picture any more? Thirdly, does this mean that twelve year olds should be openly prescribed the contraceptive pill? We wouldn’t want to be discriminating purely on the basis of age.

Ageism goes two ways. Why is it that this government consistently pretends that ageism only represents discrimination against the old, just as they pretend that racial discrimination only represents discrimination against ethnic minorities?

And let’s not forget that much of the economic policy underlying the NHS is based on QALYs – Quality Adjusted Life Years. That is to say that if an operation costs £30,000 but will lengthen someone’s life by 30 years then the cost per year gained is £1,000. Such measures in and of themselves discriminate against older people – an 80 year-old’s life far less likely to be extended by 30 years than a 20 year-old’s.  The same treatment is less likely to be cost effective in the 80 year-old purely because of their age. Is this to be overlooked in future? How is NHS rationing to take place now?

I sincerely hope that this is a crappy proposal put forward to distract us all from Labour’s impending Henley hammering. It’s not the best of ideas, because it shows Labour in a bad light, but perhaps not quite such a bad light as being deeply unpopular.

On the other hand, if this is a serious attempt at law-making, then we’re all clearly doomed.

» Image Credit: Original image created by Graham Richardson, modified under licence

This 1,340th post was filed under: Health, News and Comment, Politics, , , , , , , .

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