Never mind the leadership contest — look at me!
That Blair has published his bitchy memoirs at a time when Labour is picking a new leader speaks volumes about the end of grown-up politics.
Never mind his claim about seeing the queen washing dishes after a barbecue at Balmoral. Forget his description of John Prescott’s affair as a ‘silly sex scandal’. Put to the back of your mind his ‘drink problem’. (Half a bottle of wine a night? Quick, someone call AA!) No, the really shocking thing about Tony Blair’s memoirs is that they exist at all, that all this personal crap, all his griping, grimacing and schoolgirl-style hatred of certain Labour colleagues, has been vomited into the public arena at precisely a time when Labour is trying to select a new leader. Such a teenage elevation of the needs of the self above the needs of one’s party speaks volumes about the end of politics and its replacement by the tyranny of therapy.
Blair has not quite succumbed to the levels of emotional sluttishness exhibited by his wife Cherie in her 2008 memoir, Speaking for Myself. Where Cherie abused the reading public with gorno details of childbirth (Euan caused her to suffer a ‘third-degree tear… there was blood all over the place’) and her smuggling of ‘unmentionables’ (ie, contraception) into Balmoral so that she could screw Tony without worrying about getting knocked up, her hubby is comparatively restrained. He writes about his problem with booze. About Euan’s problem with booze when he was 16 (one night a policeman brought home a ‘sorry-assed looking Euan, plainly still the worse for wear’. Later Euan got into bed with his dad and broke into a ‘mournful tirade of apology and then threw up’.) About his taking of sleeping pills to help him cope with Prime Minister’s Questions, aided by fruit: ‘Just before the ordeal began, I would eat a banana to give myself energy.’
Yet between Cherie’s bleeding (she wrote in graphic detail about a miscarriage she suffered in 2002) and Tony’s penchant for bananas and melatonin, we know way, way too much about Britain’s former first couple. And the bizarre thing is that they volunteered all this bloody, boozy rubbish for public consumption, offering it up for analysis and ridicule in the manner of a 15-year-old boy writing ‘I just shot my load’ on Twitter. In the past, a nosy hack might have had to poke around for years in order to discover that a prime minister’s wife miscarried while in Downing Street or that a PM had become dependent on pills. Now the protagonists save them the bother. The Blairs’ mental stripteases join those of John Prescott (who revealed he had an eating disorder), David Blunkett (who revealed he had a working-class chip on his shoulder the size of Sheffield), and Gordon Brown (who welled up on TV and admitted to being hooked on eating nine bananas a day. What is it with New Labour and bananas?)
It would be strange at the best of times for a leading politician to rush out memoirs that reveal the deeply personal as well as the political – but for Blair to do so now, while his party is in the process of choosing a new leader, is extraordinary. Into the kind-of-political but anaemic debate that Labour and its supporters are currently having about whether to choose Miliband Clone No.1 or Miliband Clone No.2, Blair has puked up info about all sorts of political and personal bitchslapping. He reveals that he found Brown ‘maddening’. That he thought Brown would be a ‘disaster’ as PM. He says Brown has zero ‘emotional intelligence’. That might be true – but what’s even more shocking than Brown’s dearth of emotional intelligence is Blair’s disease of emotional incontinence, where he seems utterly incapable of keeping certain family, career and political facts and foibles to himself.
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The alarming scenario where a former PM can behave like an overgrown Adrian Mole is a product of two things. First, the demise and emptying out of the Labour Party. The more Labour lost its connection with its social base and became a hollow shell that was easily taken over by ambitious individuals, the less sense of loyalty or mission there was amongst its leaders and members. No longer bound together by any sense of meaningful mission or in-this-togetherness, Labour became increasingly factionalised, divided along personality-cult lines, to the extent that even the two men responsible for creating New Labour – Peter Mandelson and Blair – could rush out score-settling memoirs within months of the party being turfed out of office. (Mandelson’s The Third Man was published in July.) Blair’s political version of the misery memoir is a testament to Labour’s slow but sure transformation from a party that commanded some measure of loyalty from its members into a PR machine where it is every man (and wife) for himself.
Second, this all reflects the contemporary cult of revelation. In our Oprahite age, when letting it all hang out is seen as a sign of good mental health and keeping it all in is something that only serial killers do, there is a powerful dynamic towards revealing everything. Celebs blab about their breakdowns. Fornicating golfers are forced to submit to the ‘three As’ (‘admit, apologise, advance’). Now even PMs tell us about their pill-popping and their son’s vomiting habits. (The next time Tony or Cherie complain about the media invading their children’s privacy, I will literally go round to their house and shove pages from their memoirs through the letterbox.) It is striking that Blair has desperately tried to invent a quirky addiction. His so-called ‘drinking problem’ was no such thing; a whiskey before dinner and a couple of glasses of wine after is perfectly normal behaviour. Yet Blair instinctively recognises that having a personal weakness, in this case a penchant for booze, is a great selling point in our ‘look at my emotional wounds!’ era. I prefer that drunk Winston Churchill’s attitude to booze over Blair’s phoney alcoholism: ‘Alcohol may be man’s worst enemy, but the Bible says love your enemy.’
Even serious issues like Iraq are now understood entirely through the prism of the personal. In the most ‘emotional chapter’, Blair defends his decision to invade on the basis that it ‘felt’ like the right thing to do. He writes of his ‘anguish’ and ‘stabs of compassion’ as the war went wrong, and says of the angry, anti-war media (adopt a teenage girl’s voice here): ‘Do they really suppose I don’t care, don’t feel, don’t regret…?’ And what is the media’s reaction to this self-pity? To demand that Blair publicly apologise for the war, to help bring about some ‘closure’. In short, far from critiquing his emotional self-exposure, they demand more of it, like drunk truck drivers at a lapdancing club: come on, show us your whole emotional spectrum, they’re effectively saying; flash us a big fat SORRY as well as giving us these tantalising glimpses of regret. Like Blair, they’re so vain they think the war in Iraq is about them and their emotional state of mind.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.