The Self-Made Man

Tony Blair
Tony Blair; drawing by David Levine

I have a modest contribution to make to the story of Tony Blair, the leader of the recent May Day Massacre, which left the Conservative Party in Britain with its lowest number of seats since 1832. It is a memory which must date from 1962, when Blair is nine and I am thirteen, and we are at Durham Choristers School, in the playground during morning break. Blair and his friend Ellis come up to me—a bold thing to do, since I am head boy and they are only “day bugs” (day boys) and so much younger, and this is a school which strongly deprecates the casual mixing of older and younger boys. So when they come up to me with their smiling and enthusiastic faces, I know they must have a special purpose. They have. Blair asks me what seems like a very intelligent question, to which I make a noncommittal answer.

For a long time, as Blair emerged as a promising member of Parliament and his career soon began to flourish, I would ask myself whether this modest story might not be improved. What was the seemingly intelligent question, and why did it leave me stuck for a response? Finally I remembered, or seemed to remember. Blair had asked whether we could found a school civics society. This would certainly have left me nonplussed because I would have had no idea what a civics society might be or do. It might be something to be encouraged. It might on the other hand (one could never tell) be something to be severely punished, cracked down on, stamped out as soon as it reared its ugly head.

A friend of mine once announced, during a school mock election, that since all other candidates had been found, he was going to stand as a fascist. It wasn’t that he had any remotely fascist sympathies—I don’t think he had yet had a chance to look up what fascism might involve—he simply thought that it might be original and sophisticated to put the fascist case. And nobody could have been more surprised than he at the horror his announcement caused among the staff, who moved swiftly not only to forbid him but also to hush the incident up, as if it were some outbreak of plague in a fancy resort.

To found a school civics society, where none existed, might possibly be laudable, but I think that, just to be on the safe side, I made some faintly discouraging reply, while carefully concealing my ignorance of what he was talking about. And my reward for this early discouragement is that I must now live in the vast civics society that Blair is going to create.

A year later, according to his biographer Jon Sopel,* Blair was taken by our headmaster, John Grove, into his study, and informed about the implications of the fact that…

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