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Tony Blair's Memoir: Hostile Reaction, Strong Sales Are Signs of a Complicated Legacy

5 years ago
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Lots of ex-politicians write memoirs. But few are subjected to the sort of reaction that's greeted Tony Blair in the past week as he hawks his memoir, "A Journey." As Britain's former prime minister navigates his way through the world's most disastrous book tour, there's reason to think that his legacy may be a good deal more complicated than his detractors would suggest.

At first blush, things would appear to be going from bad to worse for Tony Blair. On Sunday, he was pelted by eggs -- and shoes -- during his first public book signing in Dublin. On Monday, he announced that he was canceling a book signing at a high-profile book store in central London because of planned protests. And on Wednesday, a book launch party at the swank Tate Modern museum was also canceled, again due to anticipated protests.

Oh, yes. And there's now a Facebook page -- 8,000-plus members strong -- for those who'd like to see Blair's book shelved in the "Crime" section at bookstores.


Tony BlairCritical reaction to the book has been nearly as harsh. Writing in The Guardian, columnist Polly Toynbee describes the timing of the release as a "historic act of treachery to his party." (Blair's Labour Party is slated to meet later this month to elect a new leader.) In The Daily Mail, Andrew Alexander concurs: In laying bare the extent of the rivalry and animosity between Blair and his successor, Gordon Brown, Blair has labeled Labour the "nasty party given to loathing and betrayal." According to Alexander, shedding that label will be an uphill battle for any future party leader to overcome.

Toynbee's Guardian colleague, Tom Clark, attacks Blair's memoir on policy grounds. Voicing a familiar complaint, he says that Blair has "forgotten what Center-Left means," and that the book only confirms that the ex-prime minister was always more concerned about "political market share . . . than he was about principle." But the overall reaction to Blair's memoirs are perhaps best summed up on The Evening Standard's op-ed page, which describes Blair as "a large, if flawed, figure who still has the ability to unsettle British politics."

And how.

There's no denying that Tony Blair is one of the most fascinating characters to emerge in British politics since Margaret Thatcher reinvented the Conservative Party. He's a devout (converted) Catholic in a country largely full of in-name-only Protestants. He's an unapologetic hawk in a country where even the Conservatives tilt dove-ish. (Blair still defends his decision to invade Iraq.) And he's unabashedly pro-American in a country where we Yanks are still often viewed as a distant -- and, at times, embarrassing -- cousin.

In a recent interview with The Daily Telegraph, Blair allowed that he would like to return to British politics, because at heart he is "a public service guy." But elsewhere he has acknowledged that British politics has probably "finished with me" rather than the other way around.

Public reaction to Blair's decision to donate all proceeds from his memoir to the Royal British Legion (Britain's principal charity for ex-service members) suggests that he may be right on this point. In some circles -- most notably families of the more than 500 soldiers who died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while he was in office -- that donation has been decried as a "blood money" and a "PR stunt."

Still, despite all the opprobrium in his home country, Blair may have the last laugh.

He is, for starters, fabulously wealthy. He has built a lucrative career outside of politics as a highly paid celebrity speaker and consultant to American, European and Middle Eastern banks and financial houses. According to the article in The Telegraph, his estimated net worth is upwards of £20 million ($31 million). (He took a £2.5 million salary from JP Morgan Chase and a reported £2 million from Zurich Financial Services.)

In the political realm, even his critics concede that Blair fundamentally altered the face of British politics. Specifically, as his biographer John Rentoul points out, Blair succeeded in finally making the Labour Party electable. Say what you will, but the man "got" politics.

Blair also continues to be a force in international peace-making. He was, in many ways, the linchpin behind the Northern Ireland peace process. And he continues this role as Middle East envoy for The Quartet (the U.N., U.S., E.U. and Russia), most recently with a front-and-center seat at the peace negotiations launched last week in Washington.

Finally -- and not trivially -- his book is a huge hit. "A Journey" shot to No. 1 on Amazon (UK)'s bestseller list on its first day in print. According to Nielsen BookScan, it sold 92,060 copies in its first four days on sale last week -- the best-ever opening week sale for an autobiography since the BookScan began keeping track in 1998.

Still, it's hard to watch Tony Blair and not feel that you are experiencing more of a phenomenon than a real person.

And perhaps that's his biggest legacy of all.

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How do you figure that strong sales are signs of a complicated legacy? Blair stood by his decisions. It shows me he has principles. Right or wrong in the end doesn't matter and it certainly doesn't matter that some people didn't agree with those decisions. Because he made tough decisions and soldiers were killed, doesn't mean that because of those decisions he enjoyed seeing these soldiers die or that he shouldn't have made the decisions he made. He feels bad, like any decent human being and has the opportunity to help the families. That's pretty siimple.

September 10 2010 at 2:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
dc walker a book let freedom of speech live.

September 10 2010 at 1:20 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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