Tony Blair emerges from these memoirs as a man of extraordinary intellectual self-confidence. He likes to think for himself, and decide for himself, whatever the issue. He takes this to be one of the key attributes of leadership, and it is why he believes he was cut out for it while other people (you can guess who) were not. But he also puts it down to his training as a barrister at the hands of Derry Irvine, someone he describes as having 'a brain the size of a melon'. From Irvine Blair learned the importance of what he calls 'drilling down' when faced with a seemingly intractable problem. What this means is being willing to go back to first principles, 'behind and beneath the conventional' analysis, and if necessary to look at the problem from a completely new angle. Time and again, when faced with a political difficulty, Blair takes himself away from his advisers and cabinet colleagues in order to sit and think on his own. But he does not limit himself to contemporary politics. He also likes to dig down into the past, looking for the solutions that escaped some of his predecessors. The most arresting example of this comes when Blair finds himself at Chequers one day (he doesn't give a date), 'meandering through the bookcases', and pulls down a volume of Neville Chamberlain's diaries, which includes an account of his meeting with Hitler at Berchtesgaden prior to the Munich conference in 1938. Blair is struck by how unfairly history has treated Chamberlain. 'We are taught that Chamberlain was a dupe; a fool, taken in by Hitler's charm. He wasn't. He was entirely alive to his badness.' Chamberlain knew, according to Blair, that he was dealing with a madman. So why did he try to appease him? How could he get it so right, but get it so wrong?
LRB 7 October 2010 | PDF Download