A journey with Tony Blair

34
1933

Kenneth Roy

 

Tony Blair’s autobiography, which will be published tomorrow, is called ‘A Journey’. Inevitably the title calls to mind a strange little journey of my own with Mr Blair, close to Christmas 1995, about 18 months before he was swept to power in the great Labour landslide. 
     I remember it was Christmas because Christmas cards – Mr Blair’s – were the motif of the journey. There he was at the adjoining table of a first-class compartment from King’s Cross – he bound for Darlington (and from there to his constituency), I all the way to Glasgow. His young aide, Tim by name, produced the cards – hundreds of them – for signature.

Kenneth Roy

 

Tony Blair’s autobiography, which will be published tomorrow, is called ‘A Journey’. Inevitably the title calls to mind a strange little journey of my own with Mr Blair, close to Christmas 1995, about 18 months before he was swept to power in the great Labour landslide. 
     I remember it was Christmas because Christmas cards – Mr Blair’s – were the motif of the journey. There he was at the adjoining table of a first-class compartment from King’s Cross – he bound for Darlington (and from there to his constituency), I all the way to Glasgow. His young aide, Tim by name, produced the cards – hundreds of them – for signature.

     The first slightly odd thing was that the leader of the Labour Party had no pen in his possession. Can I imagine his successor, Gordon Brown, without a pen on a long train journey? I cannot. Perhaps, however, this is what people called Tim are for. Tim produced a scratchy topless biro, long past its use-by date, and Tony Blair without discernible enthusiasm began the dispiriting task of wishing lots of people a happy Christmas.
     After a few minutes, I could bear this painful spectacle no longer. I fetched a smooth, elegant writer – an Artline – from my jacket pocket and said to Mr Blair that he could have it in a gift in exchange for one of his Christmas cards. He agreed without hesitation.
     The next slightly odd thing was Tony Blair’s special interest in the card for the presenters of GMTV (or whatever the ITV breakfast programme was called in those days). When Tim said that the card would be produced in the studio and fussed over, the Artline pen flew over every inch of the writing surface, Tim rattling off the names of all the on-screen personnel who must be mentioned.
     I could not understand this. I could not visualise the last Labour prime minister, Farmer Jim Callaghan, concerning himself with seasonal felicitations to pretty blonde newsreaders. But you must remember – this was 15 years ago and Tony Blair was ahead of the game. What I was witnessing was nothing less than the birth of the new populism.
     Tony Blair’s eager embrace of breakfast television, his acute sense of its importance to his prospects, would be followed in due course by a holiday on Rupert Murdoch’s yacht and a working arrangement with the Sun, the bullying of the BBC, the ‘People’s Princess’ speech on the morning of Diana’s death and more generally the politics of spin and soundbite. The great care shown over the GMTV Christmas card was merely an early symptom of the profound shift we were about to witness in British political life. Mr Blair was not proposing to make the same mistakes as earlier leaders of his party. The media, or the bits of it that suited his purposes, were there to be flattered and, if possible, controlled.
     Mr Blair made short work of the cards. With a couple of hours to spare before Darlington, what would he do next? The morning papers were spread before him unopened. A book, perhaps? What was Tony Blair reading? But there was no book; just as there had been no pen. Tim busied himself in correspondence while his leader looked out of the window.


Mr Blair seemed to have nothing better to do than survey a flat English landscape. Did he dream during that journey of the new Britain he would create?


     Yes, that is what he did for the rest of the journey. He looked out of the window. I looked too, until I got bored, seeing little of interest. I supposed that Mr Blair must be deep in thought. Occasionally he was interrupted by first-class passengers on their way to the lavatory or who had been alerted to his presence and wished to shake the hand of the most promising man in Britain. What struck me about these well-wishers was that none looked or sounded like a Labour voter. Most of them were businessmen, natural Tory sympathisers. Yet, so deep was the national fatigue after 16 years of Conservative rule, they were clearly in love with the idea of Tony Blair. As, of course, I was.
     But when he was not dealing courteously with his latest admirer, Mr Blair seemed to have nothing better to do than survey a flat English landscape. Did he dream during that journey of the new Britain he would create? Did he dream of social justice, a new concern for the poor, clean politics, a reform of the penal system, reinvigorated cities, investment in the arts, a more idealistic spirit in the land? Did he have some grand plan beyond the getting and keeping of power? Or was he already thinking of his own subsequent self-advancement – of the future Blair network of companies and trusts, the fortune he would make as a speaker and corporate adviser, the glittering portfolio of properties which would one day be within his grasp? Or was his mind simply as blank as his Christmas cards had been – a surface to be written over as chance and expediency demanded?
     When he rose from his seat at Darlington, I noticed that Tony Blair was much taller than I’d imagined, a rather handsome and imposing figure. He was soon gone. I never met him again.
     Some months later, I was having lunch in London with Alan Watkins, the political columnist, and told him of my brief encounter with Mr Blair. I asked Alan Watkins what he thought of him. ‘There’s nothing there,’ he said dismissively and continued drinking. There was a finality about this assessment. Alan Watkins tended to judge all politicians by the intellectual standards of Anthony Crosland; the ‘nothing’ I took to be the absence of a brain. But of course Alan Watkins was wrong. Mr Blair proved to have the sharpest political mind of any politician of the modern era. He was also quite keen on sending young men into battle; Alan Watkins went on to describe him routinely as ‘the young war criminal’.
     None of this could have been remotely foreseen when I handed Tony Blair my Artline pen. I thought I was giving it to someone who would turn out to be a force for good in the world. I wonder what happened to the man on the train that day. I wonder what went wrong.

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.

Caricature by Bob Smith www.bobsmithart.com