‘A PRINCE,” Niccolo Machiavelli wrote, “never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise.” Or, indeed, to tell a lie. The bishops call it “mental reservation” and former British prime minister Tony Blair is also candid about the necessity for politicians occasionally to stretch the truth “past breaking point”.
In his autobiography, A Journey, he admits to his own manipulative tendencies and in writing of his engagement in the North to the fact he strayed over the line. “Politicians are obliged,” he writes, “from time to time to conceal the full truth, to bend it and even distort it, when the interests of the bigger strategic goal demand it be done. Without operating with some subtlety at this level, the job would be well-nigh impossible.” Paying tribute to Bertie Ahern he talks admiringly of his “cunning, in the best sense”. Machiavelli, who has also suffered a bad press, would approve but would caution that the trick lies in not being found out.
Blair’s problem is that, little lies notwithstanding, in burnishing his claim in his book to a statesman’s legacy he can’t shake off the Big Iraq Lie that will in the medium-term colour all assessments of him. Some even want him arrested this weekend in Ireland as a war criminal but, whatever one’s views of the legality of the Iraq war, such posturing does nothing but deflect from the difficult pursuit of real perpetrators of genocide.
In the longer term Blair’s apologia pro vita suamay help to restore a kinder view of a man who shaped British and, to an extent, world politics for more than a decade. He restored his party to electability, leading it to three consecutive election victories, successfully fusing Thatcherism with “social justice” in the form of genuinely radical innovation in childcare, tax credits, devolution, the minimum wage, a human rights Act ... all in his first term. Before going into reverse.
And then, of course, there was Northern Ireland, where his doggedness, his clear sense of the long story, his cajoling, his real personal engagement with the party leaders and, as he admits, the odd exercise in mendacity helped bring the ship home safely.
The once-sure political touch, however, can seem strangely blinkered as he continues to apply the old prescriptions. Blair’s insistance in his final chapter that Labour lost the election because it veered from the true path of New Labourism is deeply unconvincing. But, paradoxically, the new coalition in Britain owes more in terms of its programme and ideology to Blair than to Thatcher. The political agenda he rewrote remains.