Story without end

Blair

Anthony Seldon <em>Free Press, 755pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0743232119

The story of new Labour has been told in biographies. This is the fourth of Tony Blair; more are promised for the autumn. Peter Mandelson and Gordon Brown have had two each; Cherie Booth and Alastair Campbell have had one. When Blair replaced John Smith, the personal became political and the biographical approach had much to recommend it. New Labour is best understood as a tight, Leninist group that seized the commanding heights of the old party. Learning about the vanguardists - their rivalries, hopes and demons - was essential, particularly early on, when most members of the public knew next to nothing about the men who would lead Britain.

The war between Brownites and Blair-ites which began then, and shows no sign of abating, is also personal, the violence of the combat being in inverse proportion to the seriousness of the political differences. Most of the biographies have been partisan despatches from the front. And this, too, has had its advantages. Readers have learned that party discipline was strictly for new Labour's rank and file, and that a potentially lethal conflict festered in the heart of the new regime.

Yet even when all the caveats are taken into account, the limitations of the biographical mania remain obvious. Biography isn't history. Except in the hands of a great author, literary, historical and political biographies are the publishing industry's equivalent of the newspaper editor's cry to "keep it breezy and make it personal". Individuals are removed from the events and ideas that mould them, and history is reduced to what Gordon said about Peter when their menage with Tony fell apart. It mattered at the time, and may matter in the future, but competing accounts of these cat fights aren't much help to readers who want to know why Britain is the way it is.

Anthony Seldon is a contemporary historian and his biography of Blair struggles to break the fetters of the genre. Sideswipes at the work of his predecessors betray nervousness about whether there is any need for another biography of Blair; these are unworthy and unnecessary, as his work provides its own justification.

Seldon is a man of conservative disposition, although he is an establishment writer rather than a Tory partisan. His lack of emotional commitment to Labour allows him to write from the perspective of the informed outsider. He knows his modern history and has learned that the personal is not always political. His book radiates sympathy for all modern prime ministers and the problems that they face. He understands the civil service and gives a convincing account of new Labour's failure to work out how to use the bureaucracy to deliver the policies it wanted. Mercifully, he isn't a political correspondent, and does not go through the petty accounts from self-aggrandising hacks of how rudely Alastair Campbell stamped on the delicate flowers of the lobby. His conclusion that Blair wasted too much precious time worrying about the next day's headlines is the more damaging for that. Overall, this is the best account so far of the high politics of the Blair era.

But it remains an establishment account. There is nothing about the relentless assaults on basic liberties which have filled the statute books in new Labour's first two terms. Indeed, Seldon appears to believe that crime rates, rather than plummeting, have increased dramatically, precipitating a social crisis. More seriously, he offers no explanation of the great historical event of the period: the death of democratic socialism in Britain. We are merely told that Blair began as a man of the left, and that he and many around him became revolted by its shamelessness. "I can't understand why people on the left oppose it," Blair said at the time of the Iraq war. "Hasn't the left always opposed injustice in the world?" To explain the collapse of democratic socialist and (perhaps) social democratic thought, and the fall-off in political participation this produced, you would need to mention the long bull market of 1982-2000 and the passionate conviction it fostered among the world's elites that privatisation and deregulation were the best and only paths for parties of the "left" and "right". Seldon does not try. Unable to escape the constraints of his background and of the biographical form, he never manages to put new Labour into context.

The writing isn't memorable, and Seldon has no eye for the telling quotation or revealingly absurd anecdote. But he has a good, plain style that never loses the reader. It isn't a struggle to get through 700 pages to the conclusion that Blair has been a good prime minister and might have been a great one, had he had a coherent idea of what to do with power. As it is, his domestic legacy has not been consolidated and could be overthrown by a Tory successor. His foreign policy will be judged on whether or not there is a "settled regime in Baghdad".

This won't wash. Devolution aside, the Blair government has not broken with Thatcherism. A future Tory administration could live happily with most of what new Labour has done. As for Iraq, Blair saved his premiership by persuading a majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party to vote for a war to destroy Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. The weapons weren't there, and by rights Blair should be forced to resign.

In nearly all the current writing about new Labour, you can feel an aesthetic urge for him to go. It would make for a perfect story. Popular acclaim for the young Prime Minister leads to the Messianic belief that he can convince people to bend to his will. Hubris breeds nemesis and, with classical inevitability, Blair meets the tragic hero's fate when he overreaches himself and spins Britain into war.

Yet the same pundits who think he must go are unanimous in believing that he will win the next election. And in their curious concord you find the last reason why the Blair biographies do not satisfy, even on their own terms: their tough subject has spoiled everything by refusing to give them an ending. His story isn't over yet. He's still there.

Nick Cohen's study of new Labour, Pretty Straight Guys, is out in paperback from Faber & Faber this month