The Elusive Mr Blair

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Book Review:
The Unfulfilled Prime Minister
By Peter Riddell
Politicos, ISBN 1 84275 113 1, £15.99

Craig Ryan finds little illumination in Peter Ridell’s disection of Tony Blair’s disappointing premiership.

Peter Riddell’s bookshelf already groans with 20 books on the significance of New Labour and Tony Blair and ‘few are light reading,’ he says without irony. Now assistant editor of The Times, Riddell has been one of our most respected political commentators for more than a quarter of a century. But he needn’t have burdened that shelf further with this dull and sterile book.

Despite the suggestion of tragic failure in the title (Riddell resisted the urgings of Blair acolytes to insert a question mark at the end), Riddell offers a characteristically balanced and cautious assessment of Blair’s premiership. Setting out to compare Blair’s potential legacy with that of Asquith, Atlee and Thatcher in the UK, and Franklin Roosevelt in the USA, Tony inevitably comes up short. Riddell notes the government’s ‘solid achievements’ and its ‘enviable’ economic record, and sympathises with Blair’s public service reforms, but takes him to task for being ‘muddled in implementation and cavalier in the exercise of power’.

But Riddell’s main arguments are pedestrian. Yes, we know expectations were unreasonably high in 1997, that ministers were inexperienced and early policies were vague. And it is not very revealing either to learn that New Labour was an electoral rather than a governing strategy, or that ministers initially tried to govern as if they were still in opposition, leading to an over-reliance on spin and presentation. And did you realise that public service reform has been hindered by the conflict between Blair’s centralist approach and the need to devolve more autonomy to services? Thought so. There is little here that a moderately attentive newspaper reader won’t have picked up long ago.

The bulk of the book is taken up with a forced march through the bleak terrain of public sector reform and a dry-as-dust assessment of economic policy (which concludes, sort of, that not much changed after 1997). The big questions – for example, whether Blair has governed as a social democrat or a neo-Thatcherite – are ducked or left unresolved. This is fertile ground for a good spat, but Riddell prefers to stodgily reprise the arguments on both sides before concluding that the issue is ‘ambiguous’, ‘unresolved’ or – a particular favourite – ‘elusive’.

Only on foreign policy does Riddell move out of second gear. He is not much interested in the Iraq war itself (‘fully covered elsewhere’), concentrating on the ‘growing stresses and strains’ in Blair’s foreign policy, of which Iraq is only a part. The constant postponing of awkward decisions and the failure to recognise the changed climate in transatlantic relations was ‘a major failure of British foreign policy’ for which Blair must shoulder much of the responsibility. From a government that prided itself on being ‘best when boldest’, Blair’s ‘minimalist and risk-averse’ approach to Europe scuppered his declared intention of joining the euro and led to the disastrous collapse in relations with the rest of Europe in the run-up to the Iraq war.

But The Unfulfilled Prime Minister is itself an unfulfilling book. Without the wit of Andrew Rawnsley’s Servants of the People and with little new or big to say, it is hard to see who it’s aimed at. Writing ‘history’ when events are still unfolding is pointless unless the author is prepared to get stuck in, to take a position, to try to influence events or, if nothing else, offer some tempting gossip you won’t read in the papers. Riddell does none of these things. Towards the end, the book simply peters out in confusion: it is ‘impossible at present’ to deliver a verdict on Tony Blair, ‘any Blairite settlement is still in doubt’, his legacy remains ‘bitterly contested.’ You’re left wondering why Riddell bothered. And especially why now.

© Craig Ryan 2006