James Humpish interviews Francis Beckett, writer of Blair Inc: The Man Behind the Mask. A review of the York Union event that Beckett spoke at can be found here.
The book examines Tony Blair’s career after leaving office, and the financial advantages that he has pursued. It was co-written with David Hencke and Nick Kochan.
JH: You’ve written a lot about both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown the two most iconic New Labour figures. I wanted to ask whether in 2015 Tony Blair’s legacy still resonates within the Labour Party?
FB: I think it’s absolutely central. Without Tony Blair there would be no Jeremy Corbyn. The Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon is entirely created by the fact that Tony Blair made ‘pragmatism’ sound grubby. Years and years ago I was an old Kinnockite and we all thought ‘yes, the Labour Party has changed – yes let us be pragmatic – there has to be some kind of change.’ And pragmatism was born. There’s nothing wrong with pragmatism. But Tony Blair made pragmatism sound grubby.
Corbyn was always a man who put principle before achievement. Years ago I would have opposed him
Neil Kinnock was accused of betraying Labour principles when what he was actually trying to do was sell out some principles that were necessary to sell out for the sake of power. Tony Blair sold them for fun because he never believed them in the first place and that legacy meant that whilst thirty, ten…even five years ago the Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon would have been completely impossible.
It is made possible because Corbyn was always a man who put principle before achievement. Years ago I would have opposed him. Years ago we would have all thought that it is worth compromising principles for achievement.
It’s not a big secret that Tony Blair was one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal opposers…
Well yes, of course. Neil Kinnock also opposed but didn’t say in such crass language as Tony Blair. But in the Labour Party, Labour voters would have taken Kinnock seriously. With Blair, every time Blair opened his mouth to denounce Jeremy Corbyn, it was increasingly seen as hysterical. He garnered more votes for Jeremy Corbyn.
Do you think that now there’s no place for Tony Blair in the Labour Party?
That’s up to Tony Blair.
Whilst Blair was the leader of the Labour Party how would you evaluate his ability to keep party discipline?
Well, at the beginning he had the most extraordinary successful run. Generations of Labour leaders would have loved to have done but either couldn’t do or wouldn’t do. Clause IV was a very big deal and Hugh Gaitskill had fought for that for years back in the fifties and failed. With Tony Blair the battlements seemed to already fall by the time his tanks got there. What had happened was that all the things that had to be done in order to make Labour electable had been done under Neil Kinnock and John Smith. Labour had been softened up as it were to believe that it had to abandon all its principles in order to obtain power. In fact it only needed to abandon some of them.
the price came when Blair was forced out in the most humiliating circumstances
What is perfectly clear than just before Tony Blair became leader, whilst John Smith was alive, Tony Blair was pushing for John Smith to compromise much further than Smith was prepared to go. The opinion polls prove that that was not the case. In fact if John Smith had lived, he would have won the 1997 general election with a small majority but a perfectly working one. Probably with a majority of around 90 instead of 190. All the battlements seemed to crumble around Tony Blair at first.
But there is a price to pay for everything and the price came when Blair was forced out in the most humiliating circumstances and that he now he couldn’t be elected as minute-taker for the little Sudbury-led constituency Labour Party.
Do you think he cares about his reputation?
Desperately. He cares desperately. He doesn’t understand – he is now utterly divorced from reality. He does not understand what he has done. He does not understand why he is not a popular figure. What is a problem is that his small group of acolytes that surround him don’t understand why he is not popular either. The Charles Clarkes and the Jack Straws – the people who were close to him like Matthew Taylor. I talked to Matthew often – he’s a decent man – but he genuinely can’t understand why Tony Blair isn’t a hero to me as he is to him.
One of the big things Blair has done since 2007 is amassed a fortune of millions. What do you think his trick is?
There isn’t a trick to it. If you’ve been Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for ten years, you’ve got the reputation and unless you’ve made a complete fuck-up then you’ve got the reputation and the contacts to do it if you want to do it. And he’s not the first Prime Minister to make a fortune on the back of being Prime Minister – Margaret Thatcher did it and John Major did it. The difference between what they did and what Tony Blair did was that they just did it in order to make money.
Which Tony Blair did they think they were meeting?
Tony Blair wanted to be a figure on the international stage as well. He wanted a big international job. The trouble with that is that it inevitably leads to conflicts of interest or certainly the appearance of conflicts of interests. One has to be a little careful about talking about this but all we can say is that there have been a number of meetings at which Tony Blair was present but at the end the people he was meeting did not know whether they were meeting the Principal of Tony Blair Associates in the hope that they were going to be a client, or the Patron of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation in the hope of making a donation, or if they were meeting the Middle East Peace Envoy.
Which Tony Blair did they think they were meeting? Perhaps they thought they were meeting all three of these distinguished gentlemen. I suspect in some cases they were. I suspect that the introduction had been made because he was the Middle East Peace Envoy. I suspect the Emir of Kuwait for example though he was meeting the Middle East Peace Envoy but in the end makes a £20 million contract with Tony Blair Associates.
So coming for one Tony and staying for another?
Yes, exactly. That’s what makes it so toxic – more toxic than it ever was for Thatcher or Major.
With Tony Blair I don’t think there is a core belief.
Is Blair Machiavellian?
Well, yes of course he is. But most politicians are. It’s just that most politicians, or a lot of politicians, there is a core belief in something. With Tony Blair I don’t think there is a core belief. I don’t think there’s any fundamental core.
Clement Attlee was my political hero – he knew exactly how he wanted to change the world. He wanted a different sort of world. So did Margaret Thatcher. So in his own odd way does David Cameron. The way in which he wants to change the world I think is appalling but he’s also genuine. There’s a core of belief in David Cameron. He wants something – something I think is utterly destructive – but he wants something. I don’t think Tony Blair ever had that. I think that core of belief in the sort of world that he wanted to leave behind was ever within him. Yes, he is Machiavellian but I don’t mind that .You don’t get to the top of politics unless you are a bit Machiavellian. What I mind is there isn’t that core.