Interview: John Rentoul

John Rentoul is one of the most experienced and astute political commentators of our age, currently occupying the role of The Independent on Sunday’s chief political commentator. Total Politics gave him what many would consider a backhanded compliment, saying “his column in The Independent on Sunday has become one of the last bastions of pure, unadulterated Blairism”, while at the same time ranking him as the 3rd most important political journalist in Britain. He is perhaps best known for his humorous series of ‘Questions to Which the Answer is No’, which is a collection of absurd and hyperbolic media headlines and includes gems such as “‘Is Spongebob Squarepants the new Che Guevara?” and “ ‘Is this proof the Virgin Queen was an imposter in drag’”. He has continued this as a campaign of sorts against sensationalism in journalism.

But he is most notable as a biographer and chronicler of Tony Blair’s administration. Rentoul professes that so much of his writing has been related to Blair that “when Tony Blair stood down, I thought I was going to be out of a job, because so much of my profession had been made on knowing more about Tony Blair than anyone else!”

We begin by discussing Blair’s early years, as well as how his political style changed while he was in office.

“He matured very fast, matured in opposition as well. Before he became leader he was very good, but he was very inexperienced, you had the sensation soon after he became leader that the wheels are going to fall off this train, he doesn’t have the experience. But he proved to have such a good natural political judgement. He never made the same mistake twice. He learnt and grew amazingly quickly. The Clause 4 debate was one thing where he thought, here’s a big risk we could pull off, and it was spectacularly successful. It was after this that we saw a politician grow to take up virtually all available space in British politics. We forget it now, but there was a period of several years where he was just so dominant.”

Considering the gulf between popular opinion of Tony Blair and Rentoul’s view, I wonder what the most common public misconceptions of the man and his administration are, both at the time and now. “There were so many who projected their personal progressive hopes and expectations onto Blair. Expectations were high and contradictory. Everyone thought they voted for him to do what they wanted. That clearly wasn’t possible. There were people who voted for him because they wanted him to be pro-European and to join the Euro, people who wanted Proportional Representation in voting, people who wanted a rapprochement with Liberals, and all those things were just not going to be realizable. One of the most remarkable things was that he was able to put off the day of reckoning where people were disappointed in him for such a long time.”
But did it come harder once it came? “Yes, because he was able to put off the contradictions for so long that it became quite so vicious.

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“A lot of the ‘Blair Rage’ phenomenon that I bang on about was a result of this but”, he pauses; “obviously Iraq was also a very important issue that people felt strongly about.

“I’ve been waiting for Blair revisionism to kick in but he seems to be getting more and more unpopular since he’s left.”

“He behaves in such a way that let people think that he doesn’t particularly care what they think. He swans around the world giving consultancy to what we consider unpopular governments. Also giving vast amounts of money away to charity, and raising money for good cause’s .This is all very un-British and people find it abhorrent that he should have the temerity to do this. Rather he should live on the isles of Scilly and live in sackcloth’s and ashes and do penance for getting the Iraq War wrong
“I’m afraid Iraq has poisoned the well sufficiently that historians will have a hard time looking at his administration objectively.”

We move onto the topic of the most controversial aspect of the Blair years, concerning his interventionist foreign policy and the invasion of Iraq. I ask if early successes, such as in the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone or Afghanistan, contributed to a sense of overconfidence in Blair about how easy the invasion of Iraq would be.

“Yes, that is definitely true, Kosovo in particular. It was an extraordinary achievement; people forget how hard it was now to persuade an extremely reluctant POTUS and 18 members of NATO who had to vote with unanimity. You had to persuade Greece and Germany; Germany with its recent history of pacifism, Greece with its problems with Macedonia on the border. And yet Tony Blair managed to do all that, managed to rally the international community behind the idea of interventionism, and it worked so well that within a year Milosevic was deposed in Serbia, so that clearly gave him far too much confidence in his own judgement.

“He should possibly have paid more attention to the fact that people back home gave him no credit for it whatsoever, they were just not interested. People were not interested in their PM swanning around solving the world’s problems.”

After this, Tony Blair’s world view came under a profound shift with the terrorist attacks of September 11. “I don’t agree with Tony Blair regarding the importance of 9/11. I wrote an article for The Independent a week after it happened saying that despite being a great atrocity it didn’t matter very much, and we shouldn’t take Islamic terrorism particularly seriously, which is not Blair’s view.”

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He continues, talking about the question of how Blair’s premiership affected Britain’s international standing “The legacy of Iraq certainly had a negative effect on Britain’s international standing, although I still think it was the right decision considering the information we had at the time.”
“As soon as Blair came along he was one of the key players on the international stage in a very short time. But then of course Iraq did quite quickly erode this.”

One major criticism of New Labour was that it was a capitulation to Thatcherism; Blair said that after the 1980s the “battleground of politics is now over efficacy, not ideology” and I put this quote to Rentoul. “That’s one of Tony Blair’s classic phrases where he dresses up something completely banal as some kind of profound insight. He does himself a disservice with this. The idea that Blairism is some kind of continuation of Thatcherism is completely wrong.

“She did do some necessary things in turning around the economy and curtailing the power of the trade unions, but at the cost of huge social divisions. I think New Labour helped to repair those divisions, and towards making Britain a more social democratic country. But she did say the country would be safe in Tony Blair’s hands. Admired him on both a personal and political level. She was very solid on Kosovo for instance, and saw Blair as a necessary reaction to the soft appeasement of the Major government.”

We end by talking about the changing future of media, and I ask him his opinion on those frequently predicting the doom of professional journalism. “Getting paid for journalism is not dying but it is certainly shrinking. The idea of going into journalism as a career where you have a steady job for decades, that’s not really around anymore. The basics haven’t changed. If you’re interested in how things work and communicating that to other people, there is still a job for you somewhere I think Twitter has really transformed journalism in the last 5 years.

“By mistake The Independent’s people put me on Twitter and they put the blog on Twitter and it sort of exploded from there. If you’re not on Twitter as a journalist you are invisible, you don’t make the connections you need to. When I worked for the New Statesman a few years ago, the editor took someone out for lunch and just said, ‘don’t’. But I think if you want it badly enough; you’ll probably succeed in some form. These days you have to be on Twitter, you have to write and blog for nothing. The great thing is how democratic it is. I’ve seen several young people get into mainstream journalism just through being picked up like that. Talent will always shine through, and the only difference is you can spot it so much more easily now.”