How did Tony Blair turn what ought to have been an ignominious retreat – a defeated backward step from power – into a noble and affecting curtain call? I am, again, in awe. The man is the most remarkable political figure of the post-war era. A fascinating, hypnotising, utterly political animal, somehow managing to exist outside or above history, or at least events.
Blair is the first British leader of the 21st Century but also, perhaps, the first truly 21st Century leader anywhere in the world (will Sarkozy be the second?). I know I sound like a fanboy. He’s a story-teller, a weaver of powerful, condensed narratives that motivate and win round. And these stories are subtle and economical – a lot like the compressed narratives of advertising.
They’re all about Britain, about its people, about its place in the world. Rarely about anything else. Even when he’s talking about Sierra Leone or Iraq or Trident or debt relief, he’s painting a picture of Britain – robust, honest, fair-minded, forward-thinking – that’s as powerful and as influential as any prime minister’s before him. Like him or not, his version of Britain is catchy, contemporary – one that will form the template for Brown’s (or Cameron’s) Britain and for those who follow.
I admire Tony Blair enormously, while I hate the mess that Iraq has become and the damage that it’s done to Britain and to Labour and to Blair himself. I think his courage, which is unarguable and instinctive, sets a difficult example for his successors too. Prevarication, absenteeism and avoidance will all be more difficult choices in the post-Blair era. Blair’s Britain will, whether we like it or not, outlive his period in office by many years.