Like many charismatics, he lived in an eternal present, a land of gestures without consequences, never looking back, always on the look-out for the next big thing. (Ferdinand Mount, To the End of the Line)
But here is something we didn’t know about our Prime Minister:
[That] his admiration for Communism was inseparable from his worship of power. Not for nothing was The Socialist Sixth retitled The Soviet Power for the American market. Nettled by squabbles in the cathedral chapter, he put down the archdeacon by announcing that he was off to Russia because ‘I felt that I ought to use all my spare time for something bigger.’ During the war he consoled Nowell that, if there were an invasion and the Germans were brutal to him, it would be because ‘we stand for something big and Eternal; and it is upon that which is Eternal and upon the Source of all that is big that we can confidently rely.’ Stalin, God and the Dean – that appeared to be the command structure of the Big Battalions, but not necessarily in that order.
Ideologies can often be less important than personalities; especially if the latter are powerful and charismatic; for as Bertrand Russell once wrote, the history of 19th Europe would have been very different if Bismarck had never lived. In such characters ideas become simply tools to be used instrumentally; intensifying their personal power by giving it ideological validity, and by turning personal actions into historical events; investing them with cosmic significance. Suddenly we find that we are disputing not with an ordinary man but with prophets of History. No longer is it Tony Blair an elected politician, but Tony Blair the servant of Globalization; and this makes our task almost impossible - to win we will not only have to unravel the historical process but also take on the future; already determined, at least inside the believer’s mind. For as with all charismatics he knows what the outcome will be: it has been revealed to him in his very being – bad men can be removed by bombs. So like the evangelist who knows the apocalypse is due in 2025 Tony Blair knows that committed democrats will rule in Kabul and Baghdad, once British and American troops have occupied these countries. His religion, that is his self-belief, tells him so.
Of course I am cheating. Ferdinand Mount is writing about the Red Dean, Hewlett Johnson. However, his character is in many ways identical to that of Blair’s; only the religion has changed: American Capitalism and military might have replaced the shooting star of Soviet Communism. And these similarities in personality far outweigh the differences in doctrine (the latter usually overvalued – it is intellectuals who tend towards rigid orthodoxy; quite unlike successful politicians who have to be doctrinally flexible, to adapt to changing circumstances), so that their approach to the world is essentially the same; convincing the world to follow their rather thin and hopelessly naïve beliefs.
What infuriated his critics, from Gollancz on the left to Fisher on the right, was that there was no evidence that Johnson had made any but the most superficial study of the issues that he spouted on with such mellifluous certainty, from famines in the 1930s to germ warfare in Korea. He believed everything his minders in Russia and China told him. It is hard to guess how much Marx or Lenin he had actually read.
Compare with the discussion in my last post about Blair’s lack of interest in the details; and his superficial grasp of a subject, preferring to articulate a position rather than critically understand it. Mount notes the comfortable life Johnson lived, and his propensity to exercise his powerful will; although at the same time he was a decent man who helped the destitute. Living in security, both of wealth and position (he could not be removed as dean), Johnson was free to follow his own desires; never worrying of the consequences, or concerned with doubts about his own certainties. He was right, and he knew it. A powerful man himself, within his own small domain, he idolised the (very) powerful; and would forgive them almost anything – he wouldn’t even blame Stalin for the Nazi-Soviet pact. They were on his side, that is the correct side, of history, and thus could do no wrong; something brilliantly captured by Michael Wood, writing of the pressures on university life in the 1980s:
During the Thatcher years, as during the Reagan years in America, a strong assumption arose that the quarrel was not between right and left or between different opinions and positions, but between those who knew what reality was and those who didn’t. If you didn’t know what reality was – that is, if you disagreed with those who were sure they knew and had the power to implement their views – it didn’t matter whether you were right or wrong, since you were irrelevant anyway. And reality was … whatever you could get a largish number of conservatives (small c) to take seriously. (Must we pay for Sanskrit?)
Mount’s description of Hewlett Johnson is that of our prime minister in the glory days when he seemed invincible; and nothing could stop him from falling in love with the United States; and authorising death on a grand scale – for democracy, freedom and human rights; huge abstractions where murder can be justified as the will of God and only history can judge its subtle nuances. A mode of thought that is intoxicating - Blair drunk on his own personality. Christopher Meyer captures it well:
…Clinton took the Prime Minister to Blair… High School in Maryland. The entire school – in the thousands – was gathered in the sports hall. The noise was thunderous. The High School band was playing at full volume. Clinton and Blair waited in the wings to address the students: two trim, tall, youngish figures in blue suits. I remembered a remark of Peter Mandelson’s: ‘When you see them together, they are like brothers.’
They went on stage. It was President and Prime Minister as rock stars. Give them black pork-pie hats and shades and it would have been the Blues Brothers. The screaming was deafening, the adulation total. ‘How,’ I thought to myself, ‘how can you do this and not let it turn your head?’ (DC Confidential)