Thursday, January 18, 2007

Tony Blair

I've been reading Blair by Anthony Seldon, and the account of Blair's roots and early life have been a revelation (at least to me, as I didn't know much about it).

Conservatives like to claim that Blair is a "Tory", and they also like to gloss over Cameron's privileged background by claiming that it is "similar to Blair's".

In actuality there's a world of difference. While Cameron is descended from Henry VII and had a large number of influential helping hands to get him started, Blair's roots are more humble.

Leo Blair, Tony Blair's father, was born the illegitimate son of two travelling variety actors, Celia Rideway and Charles Parsons (stage name Jimmy Lynton). Celia was married to another man at the time, and the couple asked Mary and James Blair, a Glasgow couple, to foster the child till they could get sorted. James was a shipyard rigger and during the 20's and 30's depression, employment was scarce and Leo Blair was brought up in a crowded tenemenet with five or six families sharing a toilet. James Blair died young, and Leo Blair went to work at age fifteen for The Daily Worker a communist paper. Mary Blair was a lifelong communist, and under her influence, Leo Blair harboured thoughts too of becoming a Communist MP.

What of his real parents? They married three years after he was born, and tried desperately to get him back. When Leo was thirteen, there was a massive battle, with Mary Blair, deeply attached by now to Leo, and with miscarriages and no children of her own, barricading herself into her home and threatening suicide if Leo was taken from her. Leo's real parents smuggled letters to him, which he stashed in a tin under his bed - but when he went to war in 1942, Mary Blair destroyed the letters, and told Leo's parents that he had died in combat. The letters stopped coming, they went to their graves thinking their son was dead, and Leo thought that his parents had abandoned him. It's at this point that he changes his surname by deed poll to Blair. But he does remember his real parents - his second son Anthony Blair is given the middle names Charles and Lynton, his grandfather's real and stage names.

War changes the young Leo - he sees the world outside Glasgow, develops a taste for aspiration and moves to the right. He works by day at the tax office, starts studying law at night school, gets his degree and then a doctorate, becomes a tutor and goes to Australia to teach. He comes back to a double career teaching at Durham university as well as maintaining a full-time law practice, and starts networking to become a Tory MP, and all this striving results in a stroke at the age of forty. He loses the income from the law practice, but his wife's brother, who owned a butchers shop, steps in to help with the children's school fees, as Leo Blair is determined to make sure they get a good start at the best schools.

And what of Tony Blair? He seems to have decided age fifteen at Fettes, that he was an anti-establishment figure, and makes the lives of his tutors miserable, with his constant challenges against discipline. They thought he was a trouble-maker and a ringleader for the bad apples and were glad to see the back of him. At Oxford in his second year, under the influence of Geoff Gallop, an Australian student, and Peter Thomson, an Australian lecturer, he decides he's a centre-left voter (another instance of his anti-establishment self, rebelling against the father?). But he never actually bothers to join any political party, nor debate politics beyond his immediate friends (Mandelson was at Oxford at the same time, but never met him, as Blair never bothered with official politics).

He joins Labour, just after he leaves Oxford, and before he meets Cherie and Irvine. The reason for joining seems to be simply that he missed the cameraderie of centre-left people - the impetus was emotional/social rather than ambition/ideology. He joins the law on his own merits (his father simply hasn't any connections in London to help him), but he gets bored (he's only become a lawyer to please his father). It's Cherie who persuades Blair to stand for office, and he agrees because he's bored with law - another instance of rebelling against what's expected of him? He has no roots or family connections in Labour - again he is making his way on his own merits. And though anti-Benn from the beginning, it never occurs to him to defect to the SDP - that's what was "expected" of people on the right of Labour at the time, so of course he does the opposite and he sticks it out and reforms Labour from within. And the rest is history.

From where I'm sat, the thread that seems to run all the way through is this instinct to be anti-establishment. It's what makes him rebel at school. It's what makes him decide he's of the left. And once within Labour, he decides of course to rebel again - this time against the Labour establishment. There is nothing "conservative" about the need to rebel. It's a progressive instinct.

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