John Howard and Tony Blair both came to the prime ministership in landslides, Howard in 1996, Blair in 1997. They were on opposite sides of the traditional political divide, Howard leading a Liberal Party opposed to Australian Labor and Blair leading the British Labour Party. But both rebadged their parties, Blair as New Labour and Howard as Conservative. New Labour and Conservative meet in their concern for society’s health, though the two leaders don’t acknowledge this. They did become open allies as supporters of the war in Iraq. According to Howard, the two have maintained their friendship now that they are out of office. Within a few months of each other, they have published their memoirs, both big books over seven hundred pages long.
Blair’s book is titled A Journey because its theme is how he changed intellectually and personally in the top job. His great policy achievement before he took office was to persuade the Labour Party to drop Clause IV in its platform, which provided for the nationalising of industry, and replace it with this aim:
To create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many and not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.
It has been criticised as vacuous. Blair complained that some of his ministers did not understand it or know how to apply it, which was why so much policy had to be run from his office. But better for social democracy to reach for a new explicit purpose when its old one has been abandoned. Though Labor governments in Australia have privatised the state instrumentalities that early Labor governments created, the socialisation of production, distribution, and exchange remains in Labor’s platform, albeit hidden away.
Blair’s interest in social solidarity meant he took seriously the widespread fears of crime and of illegal immigrants (especially in working-class communities), which were not to be treated as bogeys conjured up by Tories for electoral purposes. The famous New Labour slogan was ‘Tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’. After years in office, Blair changed his mind on this; he now thinks social inequalities and disadvantage in the broad are not the sole causes of crime; there is a small sub-group which causes most of the trouble. Policy must be directed to getting a grip on them – which both major parties in Australia have begun to do with the quarantining of welfare.
Howard was the first Australian prime minister to call himself a conservative. He does not notice this novelty and, though he insists politics was for him always the battle of ideas, there is very little discussion of ideas in the book. His social policies are treated seriatim in one grab-all chapter, without any general analysis of why conservatism is now the proper prescription. His well-known claim that ‘the times would suit him’ – which is an answer of sorts – is not mentioned. His book supports the view that he was an instinctive, not a considered, conservative, and indeed instinct is the term he frequently reaches for. He does not record having read Edmund Burke; he cites him in support of his ‘instinct’ to preserve the monarchy without seemingly being aware of the Burkean obligation on conservatives to know when change is needed and to manage it properly. He records that the president of the Liberal Party urged him to lead Australia to a republic, which was Australia’s destiny, and so gain
a place in history for himself and his party. His reply was that he could not possibly do that because he did not believe in a republic. That reveals his strength as a politician and his shortcomings as a statesman.
There is more detail and more passion in his accounts of his economic reforms: the waterfront, the GST, industrial relations, selling Telstra. It is frequently said that the two major parties have agreed on economic reform since the 1980s. But as Howard justly complains, he supported Labor’s reforms from opposition; Labor in opposition opposed his. So he had a real battle, and showed a boldness and determination sadly lacking in his successors. Now that he is gone, the quality of his leadership begins to be more widely acknowledged. So long as economic rationalism continues to deliver, Howard will have a place in the pantheon.
He was not among the first of the economic rationalists in the Liberal Party. He speaks of an epiphany bringing him to this position, but its intellectual sources are not revealed, again a strange omission in a self-proclaimed ideas man. His biographers suggest that one attraction of economic rationalism for Howard was that it allowed him to differentiate himself from, first Malcolm Fraser, and then Andrew Peacock. So he is a user of ideas rather than a thinker.
Blair did not want to duplicate the many accounts already written of his prime ministership; his aim was to record his personal experience and reflections. Howard, by contrast, is a great duplicator. If you followed his career in the quality press, still more if you have read the biography John Winston Howard: The Definitive Biography (2007), by Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen (for which Howard was a source), there is very little novelty in Lazarus Rising. On some matters, the biography tells you more about Howard than he does himself (for instance, that he came to regret the Liberals’ blocking supply in 1975). Much of Howard’s book is a political chronicle of the ups and downs of governments and oppositions as they ‘slump’ or ‘get a lift’ or ‘gain momentum’, as measured by the unrelenting polls and by-election swings. Howard was a master at this game, what he refers to as political scrapping and ‘the darker political arts’, but not all his readers will be engrossed. I found most revealing the chapter on his dealings with the Chinese, where he is optimistic but cautious; he thinks Fraser and Bob Hawke were too enthralled by China. In the final chapter on industrial relations, when the government was on the ropes over WorkChoices, there is more detail on cabinet deliberations and divisions than previously.
Blair’s book contains much more reflection on the processes of government: the role of the media, cabinet ministers versus the advisers in the prime minister’s office, the inertia of bureaucracy, the need ‘to conceal the full truth, to bend it and even distort it’. Don’t be too disturbed by this, he warns; we all do it in our business and personal lives. The passage of most significance is Blair’s distillation into ten points of the approach he used to bring peace to Northern Ireland, which he offers as a guide for the settlement of all intractable conflicts.
Blair and Howard defend at length their decision to invade Iraq, the cause that brought them together. Both remind us that everyone agreed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction; the issue was whether the time had come to enforce the demands of the United Nations that Saddam had defied (Blair cites a list of these). Howard insists that Australia can’t be bound by the vagaries of France and Russia in the Security Council in enforcing UN resolutions. Blair argues that, though he would have preferred a final resolution endorsing force, the existing ones were enough. Here and elsewhere he is the more persuasive because he concedes that his critics had a case; what he challenges them to do is ponder the consequences of inaction, the consideration that presses so heavily on those who actually have to make difficult decisions.
Howard, oddly for a conservative, agrees with Paul Keating that if you change the government you change the country. But only superficially, surely. On the next page, Howard gives his best account of the conservative mentality: ‘Successive generations have given Australia a good enough vision and a sense of identity … good leadership interprets and applies the received values of a nation.’ Blair, having thought deeply about the gap between what a government intends and what it achieves, concludes that a new prime minister is not a new owner of the governmental apparatus, but a new tenant.
Those who think that the party label of the government in office determines the political agenda should note how similar are the issues preoccupying the two prime ministers: welfare dependency, inadequate state schools, the fear of crime, asylum seekers, the cost of health, clumsy and unresponsive bureaucracies. Blair notes the commonality across the political divide, where parties now disagree only about means.
Both leaders had troubled relations with their presumed successors. Nothing they say – and they say a lot – can hide the fact that, as long-serving, successful prime ministers, they failed in their duty to contrive an orderly transition in the leadership of their party. Blair acknowledges the danger of hubris without fully applying the term to himself. Howard, though he doubted Costello’s personal qualities, knew that he would continue his policies. Blair told Gordon Brown that he would go only when Brown made it clear that he would follow the principles of New Labour. The effect of this demand was to drive Brown into the hands of all those opposed to New Labour in order to be rid of its architect.
Blair immediately delivers on his promise to make his account personal by recording how terrified he was upon winning office. On election night, the more euphoric his supporters became, the more he knew he was bound to disappoint them. Howard does not take us far into the private man. When he records locating the spot where his father and grandfather met when they were soldiers serving in France, he relies on the words of a journalist, who observed him at a distance, to convey what he felt. The lowpoint in his life was when the party refused to reinstate him as leader after the failure of John Hewson. It looked as if his ambition to be prime minister was never to be realised. Howard offers only two words on his feelings, ‘completely deflated’. But what exactly did that entail? It could mean breaking down, hiding away, or thinking of giving up. Howard is not telling. Most likely it meant much less and the life was as undisturbed as the prose. The book tells us no more about the person than we already know: that he is preternaturally resilient, reserved, conscientious, driven though calm and measured, and, as far as the darker arts allow, decent and considerate.
As to the origins of the drive, the book gives only this clue: that this slight boy, the fourth son in a respectable Methodist home, was enthralled by boxing.