There’s no escape. Tony Blair’s memoirs were published this morning and they have dominated the headlines all day. I’ve just been with my son for a curry at the best curry house in the world, the Mirch Masala in Norbury, and even there I could see a billboard with Blair on it.
Those who are convinced Blair is the devil incarnate will not have their view shifted, whatever he might say in his book. And those who think Brown was a disaster won’t have their view changed byanything that doesn’t confirm that judgement. Those to-be-pitied Americans on the telly yesterday who are convinced Obama is both a Muslim and a Communist are not alone in not letting inconvenient facts colour their view of reality.
What interests me about the Blair memoirs, as reported and quoted today, is not all the obvous stuff about Iraq or Gordon Brown or New Labour – was there really anything surprising there at all? – but the question of leadership. He had the chance to fire Gordon Brown some years ago, but, having weighed up the pros and cons for the party, decided not to do so. It is easy in retrospect to say what a mistake that was – a bit like Gordon Brown’s hesitation over whether to call an election shortly after his accession while he was riding high in the polls. Retrospect is easy when you never had to make a decision under pressure in your life.
Anyone who has exercised leadership of any difficult institution or ‘body’ will know that some decisions cannot be taken after the moment has passed. The circumstances – as well as the phenomenological fact that the indecision or decision not to do something (like fire a key colleague) now becomes a factor in the equation and changes the criteria which now render at worst impossible and at best more difficult the action previously denied – mean that the moment has passed and cannot be reclaimed. This is usually obvious afterwards, but it is never absolutely clear at the time. We don’t know how damaging it might have been had Blair fired Brown early on in his premiership – we can only guess.
Leadership is difficult. Not least because many of the people who comment on your leadership have never led anything in their life, have no understanding of the human reality of the experience, and have no comprehension of the personal cost. Judgement is easy from a distance where the decision of a leader can be sneered at without a shred of understanding of how that decision was made. Any leader will affirm that decisions are often made under pressure, with limited information and limited criteria – often without certainty that the decision is the right one.
Blair is a reasonable target for scrutiny – after all, he was elected by people and should be held to account by the people to whom he is accountable. But he was not elected alone or in isolation for others who bear equal responsibility. Iraq was a disaster and based (at worst) on a fabrication. Blair should have fired Brown early on. Easy to say from here and now. As Blair acknowledges, a leader is held to account for decisions made, even if they were made for reasons rooted in integrity. But the judgements from outside should also be made with the reservation that knowledge of one’s own limitations brings. It’s not my job to defend Blair or Brown or anyone else; but, I am loathe to attack them on some grounds from the safety of my study. That would be like the armchair generals from a safe distance sending their troops blindly into battle .
History will tell, but it can’t be written with any confidence just yet.
That said, can anyone tell me why Cherie Blair has had to put up for years with the sheer sneery personal vilification at the hands of the press? And why, oh why, does William Hague have to broadcast the intimate details of his marriage as if it were a public consumer item? Do none of these shabby whisperers and commentators see this through the eyes of his wife? Or is that just too ‘human’? I feel shabby for being part of a culture that makes this sort of thing to be considered necessary.