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The American Blair

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Obama and Blair in London last summer.  

Campbell also points out it’s hardly uncommon for former world leaders to live or spend time abroad (she splits her time between the U.S. and France). Sticking around their own countries can appear unseemly if they’ve lost and antagonizing to their successors if they’ve left on their own terms, and Blair famously had a tense relationship with Brown; surely it’s easier to steer clear of him if he’s at Mory’s in New Haven than Pont de la Tour in London. But it’s still safe to say that America is a more comfortable fit for him right now than his homeland. “Be honest—are you yet another American journalist onto a fawning profile of Tony Blair?” demands Philippe Sands, a barrister and professor of law at University College London, when I phone him. Sands was one of the co-founders of Matrix Chambers, a firm specializing in constitutional and international law, with Cherie Booth Blair, in 2000. He is also the author of the book Lawless World, which is fiercely critical of her husband. “Let’s be clear,” he continues. “For the worship in America, there’s disdain in Britain. When there was some talk that there was going to be some sort of Tony Blair Institute for International Relations at the London School of Economics, people just killed it, because it was such a joke—as someone said to me, it would have been like the Saddam Hussein Institute for Human Rights.”

He pauses, reconsiders. “I mean, to give a balanced view, he did something no previous Labor leader had done,” says Sands. “He won three elections, and that is, by any standard, a remarkable achievement. He put quite a lot of money into primary and secondary schools and the National Health Service. He gave British people the sense they were still relevant on a global stage. And Northern Ireland and Kosovo were also positive.”

Which sounds like quite a long list, actually, a modern-day version of Monty Python’s what-have-the-Romans-ever-done-for-us bit in Life of Brian (“The Aqueduct … and sanitation … and the roads…”). But Sands points out that Blair’s domestic achievements, even in the beginning of his tenure, when he had a huge parliamentary majority behind him, were small and incremental, not profound and transformative. He was too cautious, too poll-driven, just like his counterpart across the Atlantic, Bill Clinton, and he revealed a curious obsession with cozying up to big money. “When I was in the United States a week after the presidential election,” says Sands, “I was asked by a member of Obama’s transition team what they could learn from Tony Blair’s first-term failures.”

I tell him what Blair told me: He believed Obama should pursue an agenda that unifies the world. “Well, that’s just it,” says Sands. “I’d have said Obama should address the issues he cares most about.”

When British prime ministers leave office, they generally don’t have the same profile or perks as former American presidents. They’re asked to leave at once, for one thing—imagine if Bush had been asked to leave the White House on November 5!—and their annual stipends are low, just £84,000, or roughly $130,000 per year. (In 2007, taxpayers paid $386,000 more than that for Bill Clinton’s Harlem rent alone.) The day Blair left office, a government car took him to Buckingham Palace, to formally tender his resignation to the queen, and then to the train station. That was that. He carried his own bag aboard the train back to his Trimdon home. For the next ten months, his family and a handful of advisers helped him plan his next steps. One of the first things they had to do was teach him how to use e-mail.

But Blair, a mere 55, is now hewing as close to an American model of post-political life—Clinton’s specifically—as any former European leader ever has, and his support for the Iraq War hardly seems to be getting in his way. His memoir, to be published by Random House, earned him a reported $9 million advance; he flies hither and yon to speak, reportedly making up to $500,000 per engagement. And ultimately, Blair, like Clinton, hopes to relax into foundation work. The smaller charity he founded, the Tony Blair Sports Foundation, is a modest effort, dedicated to improving the health of those in the northeast of the U.K., where he’s from. (“Whenever he goes back, it’s fantastic,” says Ruth Turner, Blair’s former director of government relations. “He wears a track suit all day.”) But in the long run, the project that will occupy most of his time, he says, and that he hopes will leave a lasting legacy, is his interfaith work at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, dedicated to spotlighting the good that religion can do as the world knits together, and giving material support to already-successful faith groups that fight poverty and disease.


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