Tony Blair ranks high on the list of Britain’s most successful prime ministers, having led his Labour Party to three consecutive majorities. But by the time he left office in 2007, after a decade in power and two major wars, he was also among the country’s most divisive. His new memoir, A Journey, published this week by Knopf Canada, charts the ups and downs of a political life.
Q: A few weeks ago you announced your intention to donate the profits from this memoir, and I gather the advance money as well, to the British Legion to help wounded veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Why?
A: I wanted to honour the commitment and show my respect to people who I think have done the most amazing job. Those from my country, the U.K., the U.S. and Canadian armed forces, all of those who have been in the front line of this battle. I wanted to donate to the Royal British Legion in order to try to help, and in particular prepare, those who have been injured to either go back to front-line service or civilian life. It’s a worthy cause, but I had actually decided to give the money to a charity connected to the armed forces before I had even written the book.
Q: It’s a decision that has been lauded by some, and dismissed as a calculating PR move by others. But in the book, you do refer to the emotional toll the deaths and casualties took on you. How has that burden changed you?
A: You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t feel both a sense of responsibility and a deep sadness for those who have lost their lives. That responsibility stays with me now, and will stay with me for the rest of my life. You know, I came to office as prime minister in 1997, focusing on domestic policy and ended up in four conflicts—Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. And it does change you, and so it should.
Q: The decision that you made to join the war in Iraq is a central part of the book. You still believe you made the right choice. Why?
A: Because I believed then, and still believe, that Saddam was a threat, that the threat had to be dealt with. What I tried to explain in the book is how Sept. 11 changed the calculus of risk for me. The single most important thing is to understand that 3,000 people died in one day in the streets of New York, but had they been able to make it 300,000, they would have. That then changed my whole attitude to the issue of WMD. We know now that Saddam didn’t have an active WMD program at the time we invaded. But we also know from the Iraq Survey Group and other reports that this was because he had put the program into abeyance, not that he had abandoned it. And so the danger was always going to be that he would re-emerge stronger and reconstitute his program. So even on the basis of what we know now, I still think the world is better off and safer without him.
Q: In the book you also say you misunderstood the depth of the challenge the 9/11 attacks posed. Why?
A: I think what happened with 9/11 is that people sort of felt that it came from nowhere. Whereas I think now we understand the roots are very deep. I say it’s like revolutionary Communism, something that is going to have to be knocked out over a very long period of time. This strain of extremism continues to be very strong, whether it’s in Afghanistan, or Somalia or Yemen, or any of these places. After Sept. 11, I don’t think it was so clear that we have to be prepared for the long haul.
Q: That’s another point you raise, how in your opinion militant Islam counts on the West’s desire for short and successful conflicts. Do you have a sense that they understood us better than we understood them?
A: I think what they have understood is that we find it difficult to sustain the commitment and the will. In my experience, our front-line soldiers don’t have that problem, but our public is often tired and somewhat depressed by the length of time it takes. On the other hand, you only have to see what the Taliban did recently—stoning to death a couple who were in love with each other—to realize how wicked this stream of extremism is and how necessary it is to combat it. What I say in the book is that you need a mix of hard and soft power—that’s one of the reasons the Mideast peace process is so important. But you have to understand that these people want to wait us out and we have to be prepared to show them we are committed.
Q: How do we demonstrate that in Afghanistan? There’s a great debate about what the West’s future engagement should be.
A: Obviously it is right that the Afghans take responsibility for their own future in the end, but they need to know and feel that we are there as partners for them if they are prepared to make the necessary changes. But we should be in no doubt as to why we are in Afghanistan. We ended up there because terrorism hatched there erupted thousands of miles away in New York on Sept. 11.
Q: You pledged to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the U.S. after 9/11, and you certainly walked the talk. But were you a bit naive about the political fallout of that decision as well?
A: No. For me, 9/11 was a game changer. It altered my perception of the security threat we faced. I took the position that Britain should be shoulder to shoulder with the U.S. It was a big decision; I didn’t take it lightly, or in ignorance of its consequences. It’s a big commitment for a country to give, but I believed it was the right thing to do.
Q: You’ve written that some of your opponents’ taunts did get to you, being labelled “Bliar” in particular. But how did you feel about the characterizations of your relationship with George W. Bush—the suggestion that you were somehow in this thrall, like his lapdog, or poodle?
A: [Snorts] I’m afraid that’s in the nature of modern politics—it’s as much conducted by abuse as argument. And you’ve just got to shrug that off. The fact of the matter is that there were many issues upon which I profoundly disagreed with George W. Bush. But on this issue—the existential security threat that we had to confront—I agreed with him.
Q: You say that Bush was underestimated. What do his critics fail to grasp?
A: They often distrust the simplicity of his world view. Where sometimes such simplicity does illuminate the choice for us. I find this in the Middle East. There is, in fact, a pretty stark choice: does the region embrace the 21st century or does it go for a kind of religious regression? One of the things that I say in the book is that I’m not asking you to agree with me, but at least open your mind. And there is another point of view about him, frankly.
Q: Do you still talk to him?
A: Sure, from time to time.
Q: He’s got a book coming out as well. Did you consult on your memoirs?
A: Not specifically, but we know each others’ thinking pretty well.
Q: In your 10 years in office, you faced a wide variety of challenges. One of the first was the death of Princess Diana. You pushed the royal family to show a more human reaction. Do you think the fate of the monarchy really did hang in the balance at that point?
A: It felt like it at the time, but whether that’s true or not, I’m not sure. There’s a deep affection and respect for the Queen and the monarchy in the U.K. But Diana was an extraordinary, iconic figure and her death sparked a fierce reaction, part grief and part anger at her being taken away. It was very fraught.
Q: There are some interesting passages about your relationship with the royals. You say they were never quite comfortable with you, perhaps because you didn’t fit the type of what a Labour prime minister should be. What was it you think they found lacking?
A: Actually the royal family were very gracious and good to me. But I also found that the British establishment were never quite sure what to make of me. I was a Labour figure, but I’d come from a very middle-class background. In one sense I offended both traditional right and traditional left. But I thought that was no bad thing.
Q: You’ve also written extensively about the way the media treated you, and you call for a debate about their role. What sort of limits would you like to see placed upon the press?
A: It’s not so much a question of limits, but I think this is a very important debate in all of our countries. There are two outstanding issues in democratic politics these days. One is the relationship with the media, which is now 24/7, and operates with a completely different intensity than even 15 or 20 years ago. How do we have a proper conversation between leaders and country when it’s moderated sometimes in a very partisan and inflammatory way? And the second thing is the effectiveness of our democracy. How do we get the right gene and talent pool in politics? There are big questions about the sort of skills you need in modern government today. You put politicians in charge of billions of dollars with absolutely no training and very little support system around them. It’s an extraordinary thing.
Q: The press were very tough on you, and in particular, your wife, Cheri. Did that have any long-term effects on your family?
A: We are a very strong family and came through it. But I thought the media were completely unbalanced about my wife. Cheri did, and still does, an immense amount of charity work, more than had ever been done in Downing Street before. The trouble is nowadays that parts of the media operate in a very partisan way. There’s no point in complaining about it, that’s the way it is. But let’s be clear, a lot of it is driven by the views of a pretty small number of people, rather than a normal standard of journalism.
Q: You were the first, and so far only, Labour prime minister to secure three majorities in a row. But what do you feel was your greatest policy accomplishment?
A: It was definitely the reforms to the health service, education, law and order, devolution, and welfare. These were big, big changes. We lost the 2010 election, but the one dog that didn’t bark was the health care system. Whereas for my first five elections as a member of Parliament, that was the dominant issue.
Q: What about your biggest mistake? Was it the fox-hunting ban?
A: Lots of people would say it was my foreign policy decisions. But one I acknowledge is fox hunting. Occasionally you just get things wrong. I didn’t quite understand the depths to which fox hunting was profound to the way of life of certain people in the country.
Q: Your difficult relationship with Gordon Brown is a theme in the book as well. When you made the deal with him that you would serve for two terms, then step down, was that a mistake?
A: Well, it was never really a deal like that. I always had an understanding I didn’t want to do more than two terms—I think that’s about all you get in politics these days. But I was also clear the reform program had to be adhered to. In the end, the problem was we disagreed about policy. I was really for “New Labour,” cutting-edge reforms, and he was really against that.
Q: The Sunday Telegraph just had a story claiming your decision to stay was influenced by concerns the White House expressed about Gordon Brown. Did that play into it?
A: Absolutely not. That story is a complete invention. It’s ridiculous.
Q: In the end when you did decide to go for a third mandate, you’ve characterized it mostly as a choice to confront your own fears. I found that a bit curious: if you really had such dread of being defeated, or unloved, why not leave while you were still on top?
A: That was the journey I took. In the end I decided that wasn’t important. What was important was to get the job done for the country and do what was right. I didn’t feel that Gordon would carry on the reform policy, so I had to stay and see it through.
Q: Do you think Labour’s recent defeat could have been avoided?
A: Yeah, this was not an election we had to lose at all. And the fact that the Tories didn’t win an overall majority shows that. My constant refrain before I left was that if Labour wasn’t driving through a strong agenda of change, we would lose traction. And that’s what really happened in the end.
Q: Are you in touch with Gordon Brown?
A: Yes. Even though we had a disagreement that was pretty savage at times, I still have a great respect for the work he did as chancellor [of the exchequer], and also the work he did on the banking crisis at the time he was prime minister. The friendship goes back a long way and hopefully will continue, even though we had a profound disagreement.
Q: What about the far-reaching budget cuts David Cameron’s government is proposing? Do you see any alternative?
A: You’ve got to tackle the deficit, that’s for sure. But how that’s done or when you withdraw the fiscal stimulus are delicate matters of policy. And one of the things that I decided when I left was not to comment on my successors, at least when they are there.
Q: As a Mideast peace envoy, you’ve been trying to bridge the gap between Israel and the Palestinians. In the book, you say the breakthrough in Northern Ireland came when outside parties got a grip on the peace process. Face-to-face negotiations start again in Washington this week. Do you think President Obama and the other people you are working with have the necessary sort of hold now?
A: Yes, I do. The single most important thing is that Obama started this as his presidency began. I think this is probably the most important moment since Oslo. There is a real chance of success. If it fails we’re in deep trouble.
Q: Some people believe a deal between Israel and the Palestinians will be a sort of magic bullet for the West’s problems in the Arab world. Do you share that view?
A: I do believe that if you reach a just and fair settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians it will have a massive influence on countering extremism. Which is not to say that the Israel-Palestinian situation is the source of the problem, but it is very potent fuel.
Q: This memoir offers detailed policy prescriptions for Labour’s future, peacemaking, and the economy. It raises an obvious question: do you ever see yourself making a comeback?
A: The truthful answer is that in British politics, I don’t see that. But you never know what will happen. I might have done the European president’s job last year, but it wasn’t to be. So, I’ve never ruled out the possibility of going back into public service.