From the archives: Tony Blair at 50

Valerie Grove / 01 May 2003

In the days leading up to the war in Iraq, Tony Blair faced political rebellion at home and crisis abroad. Yet he found time to discuss what is a minor matter in worldwide affairs but a major moment in his own life: turning fifty. Interview by Valerie Grove

Tony Blair, the most boyish prime minister we have ever had, places his hand on his hips and fixes me with a level gaze: “I must be honest with you. I’ve been dreading 50.” Then, a touch nervously, he turns to the aide sitting with us in his private study and asks, “Is that the wrong thing to say?” We assure him it’s perfectly normal.

“Funnily enough, I don’t feel 50. At all. I suppose people always say this, do they?” Yes they do, I say. But it’s really after 50 that a gradual realisation creeps on you that you will never again be thought of as young.

He might not feel 50 but at the point that I saw him he certainly looked older than ever before. The reasons were obvious: almost a million people were marching in the streets against him, his party was in crisis, the country was divided and he was getting more praise from right-wing commentators and Tory front benchers than from his natural allies. But if he has aged he has also hardened.

In the House of Commons he has become increasingly authoritative as he sticks to his own uncompromising stance. “The honest truth about it all, nowadays, is: don’t let the criticism get you down, and don’t let the praise go to your head, because it switches around with remarkable ease. And what you’ve got to learn in this job is, you cannot please all the people all the time.

“Some people reading this will hate me, and others will support me, and that’s just life: the praise and the criticism can be equally unjustified. In the end, you come to a more mature understanding of the fact that you should try to do what you think is right.”

It is this moral certitude which buoyed him up through the most difficult weeks he had yet faced in his six years as prime minister. And the many lessons he has learned in those years seem to be seeing him through.

“You do harden up and toughen up in this job. You also learn, frankly, that there are parodies of you that simply become the conventional wisdom. I became leader of the Labour Party in a totally unconventional way: by telling the party it had to change fundamentally. On ‘one member one vote’, Clause Four [of the Labour constitution], Kosovo, I was out on the end of a branch by a long way.”

His commitment to confronting Saddam Hussein is of the same instinctive order. Addressing the House, he speaks from the heart and the conscience, and has unfalteringly nailed his political fate to personal conviction. His growing invocation of “rightness” on the big issues has replaced a former tendency to try to please everyone, which used to be seen as a substitute for a core political ideology.

“I don’t fit a traditional Left/Right category,” he says, “which is another thing people find difficult about me. They have a preconception that this means you’ve got no principles. But in fact, that is where most people are today. They may have strong values, but their political directions are far more practical and less ideological than my father’s generation would have been.

“What may appear a lack of principle is simply a lack of adhesion to traditional policy positions associated with Labour or Conservative. That’s going on all around the world. The 20th century was a century of fundamental ideology. Even the Chinese now talk about themselves as a “Socialist market economy.”

Blair’s second landslide victory in June 2001 was the catalyst that appeared to liberate him from the bounds of earlier caution, and into a new boldness. “When people talk about me having suddenly changed, I suppose I have toughened, but there are some issues you believe in strongly that accord with the popular will, and others that don’t.

“When I was young I paid more regard to intellect than judgment. As I’ve got older I pay more regard to judgment than intellect. But I think on any issue to do with war and peace, it’s your duty to tell people what you actually think.”

Once past the anti-war demo outside, and through the solid steel, terrorist-proof front door of 10 Downing Street, I sat in the chintzy waiting-room where an aide told me visitors sometimes catch a glimpse of three-year-old Leo Blair.

Right on cue, a blond, blue-trousered little boy appeared in the doorway, wheeling a suitably downsized supermarket trolley. He showed us with great seriousness what was in it (a selection of toys), politely said “Goodbye, ladies,” and toddled off down the corridor.

Upstairs in Blair’s office, I asked the prime minister if Leo keeps him young. “He certainly does – especially when he wakes us in the night, as he does rather frequently.” Who gets up to him? “Well, with our first three kids that was always my job. I’m afraid, especially recently, I have left it to Cherie.” (Blair once said that the famous photo of Cherie in her nightie at the door of Number 10 was “actually very Cherie. She is not a morning person, which is one of our outstanding incompatibilities.”)

Leo sleeps in the room next to their bedroom. “Children divide into two types – the ones who come into your bed and lie still, and the ones that wriggle. Leo is a wriggler. So once he gets in, you find a foot in your ear. But he’s a fantastic little kid.”

He describes with paternal fondness how Leo had wheeled his little trolley into the office that morning, in the middle of a ministerial meeting about Iraq – and this is only days before our troops went in – announcing, “Look, I’ve brought your fruit.” One can imagine what a defuser of tension that was.

The past few months might have aged him – that day he had already flown home at 3am, met with the Russian Foreign Minister and faced a tough Prime Minister’s Questions in the House – yet he really did look good, loping across the room in his shirt sleeves before sinking into an armchair. Better than in his photographs.

He is every woman’s favourite shape, 6ft tall, good shoulders, lean hips, weighing just under 13 stone, less than he did 10 years ago. “I feel great, physically. I do more exercise today than I’ve done since I was at school. I pay more attention to looking after myself, I watch my diet a bit. But really I find it’s exercise that’s fantastically helpful for coping with stress.”

He works out early in the morning or evening several times a week, uses the running machine in the gym upstairs, and still plays tennis, and football too whenever he can. How often does he assemble a soccer team? “Any time I can – for instance, on holiday. When we took a winter break in Egypt this year, there were a whole lot of Italians in the hotel so we got together for a five-a-side match.”

I was surprised that he hadn’t built a tennis court in the garden of Number 10 (though I could see a badminton net and court chalked out on the lawn). He says there isn’t really room, and besides, he laughs, “It probably wouldn’t have been the right thing to start off with ‘His first delivery target is a tennis court.’

“Actually, the first time I had a sense of impending age,” he says, “was a few years ago when I was playing tennis near Chequers and someone said, ‘You play quite well, you could join our veterans’ club.’ ‘Veterans?’ I said. Apparently you’re a veteran at 45 in tennis.” Another age-indicator is that he now needs reading glasses, which he lives in fear of losing, and constantly does lose. “I once had to give a speech when I realised I didn’t have them with me. ‘Millions’ turned into ‘billions’ and names came out wrong. So my speeches are now written in large type, just in case.”

Blair’s lawyer father, also called Leo, now frail after a second stroke two years ago, will be 80 this year. But if Blair looks back to his parents at the age of 50, the genetic prognosis is not good. Blair senior was only 39 when he suffered his first stroke, and took three years to recover his speech; and although he went back to the Bar, he no longer pursued his (Tory) political ambitions.

The effect of his father’s stroke on the 10-year-old Tony Blair was shattering. “When your security is suddenly removed, it does influence a young person quite acutely, and makes them aware of the hazards of life, and of the importance of family, and also the need to make sure that you do well.” And then Blair’s mother died of throat cancer at the age of 52.

Didn’t this genetic combination make him anxious about his own health? “Yes I suppose so,” he says without conviction, as if heredity had not occurred to him.

Most people take stock at 50 (and 43 per cent of the electorate are past that). How happy is Tony Blair, on a scale of one to 10? “I feel I’m very lucky,” he says. “I’ve got a wonderful wife and family, and a job that I enjoy and find immensely challenging. I don’t know where that puts me on a scale of one to 10.” About 10, I tell him.

Peter Mandelson had been asked about happiness on Radio 4 that week, and said what most mattered was having someone in your life you could relate to. “It’s certainly the foundation, I think,” says Blair, acknowledging his luck in having wife Cherie. When I ask if he has any plans for his birthday on May 6, he says he hasn’t the faintest idea what he will do, but “I expect Cherie will think of something.”

Having a young family, with a toddler underfoot and a resident granny to look after the two remaining teenagers at home while their mother is out at work (“I don’t know how we could ever manage without Gale,” Blair says of his mother-in-law, who’ll be 70 this year) ensures that the prime minister’s domestic life in Downing Street is as near normal as it ever could be, even though the children are subjected to an unnatural degree of protection as well as privilege.

“The children and their friends are so interesting to talk to” he says. “You should never let yourself think that young people don’t have anything to offer.” (When we spoke, he had yet to endure his MTV session with the representatives of youth who berated him about the war – an encounter that proved as uncomfortable as that famous slow-handclapped speech to the Women’s Institute.)

Does it give him pause to think that he will still be doing the school run with Leo at 60? “I do think about that sometimes, yeah.”

Luckily there are lots of elderly fathers these days, I say, consolingly. “‘Elderly fathers’ – That’s what worries me.”

Fatherhood, he says, is great, but quite different later in life. “Our eldest kids [Euan 19, Nicholas 17, Kathryn 15] are always telling us we’re better with Leo than we were with them, but there are events you go to where all the other parents are 18 years younger, and you think, hmm, some mistake, surely.”

Does he see himself soldiering on until the age of 80 as Churchill did, and other former prime ministers (Heath, Callaghan) still do? “In politics? No. But I’m a great believer in having a purpose in life, something that drives and motivates you. I wouldn’t be happy if I didn’t feel there was something out there that I was striving for.” What kind of thing? He must have given some thought to what he might do? “What, after finishing? Yes, I have. But I think I’ll keep that to myself.”

He mentioned Roy Jenkins and the fulfilling post-political life he carved out for himself. “The amazing thing about him was that he was so motivated until the day he died. He was still writing, still looking over the proofs of his book on Roosevelt, and he produced his outstanding Churchill book when he was 80.”

Blair’s professional ambitions “to get done the things I came into politics to do”, are still to be achieved. And he has personal ambitions: “As I get older I think of all the gaps in my knowledge and experience, some of which I’d like to fill eventually. I think back to things I’d like to have done at school, science for instance, at which I was absolutely hopeless, and in which I’ve now become extremely interested.

“One of the good things about being prime minister is getting presentations from scientists about cutting-edge discoveries and technologies, and one thing I will enjoy is trying to fill some of those gaps. I’d also like to speak another language.” His French is “reasonable” (and for a British prime minister, unusually proficient) but he might try Spanish.

He says that even in a crisis he has no difficulty in switching off and relaxing at weekends “with my family, my friends, my tennis, my guitar”. He has played his guitar more in the past few years than for a long time, having taken it up again when some friends invited him to join their band. Like his Oxford rock group, Ugly Rumours? “Ah, Ugly Rumours,” he says, beaming, “those days were great.

“Every so often, I feel I should graduate to classical music, properly. But the truth is, I’m more likely to listen to rock music. I listen to what the kids play.”

It’s odd, he says, that he didn’t act at Oxford (having triumphed as Mark Antony at his school, Fettes College in Edinburgh); it is odder that he didn’t take to the Union, nursery of so many politicians. He once said that he had found the debaters there “a poor pastiche – young people aping great men”. But he says: “I’m more gracious about them now, because I think it’s good that they’re taking an interest.

“In fact I only went to the Union once, to hear Michael Heseltine, probably because of someone I was going out with. That was the first political speech I heard.”

Who has he learnt most from in his life? He mentions his father; Eric Anderson (his housemaster); Peter Thompson (the theologian) and the Lord Chancellor, Derry Irvine. “Derry was important because I’ve always been good at passing exams, but I did them by rote, really: I knew what I had to do to pass the exam. He taught me about analysing intellectually from first principles and working out what you thought, which was an enormous help to me.” This is what underlies his stance on Iraq and underscores his decisiveness.

Does the job ever get to him? “I constantly think, even when the job gets extremely difficult and you’re getting attacked from all sides, well, it’s a privilege to do it,” he says. “And every so often you meet people who set your own problems in perspective.

“I recently met two people with motor neurone disease, raising money for charity, who were so incredibly brave, talking about how their whole life was changing day by day. They were dying, in a very debilitating, painful way. And then you think, what on earth am I complaining about?”

Blair on moral standards

Our readers see a distinct decline in personal and moral standards in community life. Drug use, loutishness, teenage pregnancy, crude television, lax parenthood… How much can you do as a government to arrest this decline?

None of these problems is new and there are, as you suggest, limits to what Government can do. And I think you are right to single out the importance of good parenting. But Government must and will play its full part. Let me give you one example. Antisocial behaviour is a major problem in too many communities. It’s why we are bringing in a bill, with new effective measures and punishments, specifically to tackle it. So, for example, there will be a ban on selling spray paints to those under 18, we are raising the minimum age for possessing air-guns, and local councils will be able to issue fixed penalty fines to people making excessive noise at night.

We already have antisocial behaviour orders which are working well in curbing bad behaviour, and many councils have also set up their own units to tackle these problems. Hooliganism, vandalism and graffiti might be described as petty crime, but it doesn’t seem petty if you are living next door to neighbours from hell or you are terrorised by gangs of youths outside your front door.

Blair on the NHS

Though you’ve spent a lot of money, it is still not producing an NHS of a standard that our readers want. They read and see too much of older people being given second-class care. Can you offer them more than promises that it will get better?

But it is producing a health service which is getting better in lots of ways – including in its treatment of older patients. There are 40,000 more nurses in the NHS, for example, than in 1997.

We are seeing the biggest-ever hospital building programme with 18 new hospitals already open and another 50 on the way.

The number of beds in the NHS has increased by 1,500 over the last two years – the first rise for 30 years. Waiting is coming down on every single indicator. None of this means we haven’t got a long way to go. But despite what you might read in some papers, survey after survey shows that 80 per cent of people who use the NHS believe they are well treated.

We are well aware that older people have in the past suffered discrimination in care and treatment. We are acting to tackle this. So the extra investment we are putting in has increased, for example, the number of cataract operations by 56 per cent since 1997 and the number of knee replacements by 44 per cent. We are also making available up to £1 billion to social service departments so they can cut waiting times for assessments, increase the number of home care packages and provide more respite breaks for carers.

Blair on street crime

David Blunkett says that you have street crime ‘under control’. Yet the police’s own figures say it is rising. Whatever the truth, our readers are convinced that street crime is as prevalent as ever. What can you offer them in terms of more protection?

No, official figures show that the street crime initiative, introduced in those areas where muggings were particularly bad, has dramatically reduced the number of offences over the last year. Just, by the way, as crime overall has fallen since 1997 by 27 per cent. But I fully accept that crime and the fear of crime are still too high and I know that many older people don’t feel safe – and that’s simply not good enough.

We have already provided the extra investment to raise police numbers to a record high and more are on the way. We are also installing more CCTV cameras and introducing community support officers and street wardens across the country to help the police as well as the other measures I’ve already talked about to tackle antisocial behaviour. And, of course, we are rebalancing the whole criminal justice system in favour of the victim and the community as a whole. The criminal justice reforms now going through Parliament will help ensure more criminals are caught, convicted and punished effectively. We are also doing more to seize the assets from career criminals. All of this will make sure we reinforce the message that crime doesn’t pay.

Blair on pension policy

Our postbag is full of letters from people worried about their financial security after years of personal prudence. Now new figures say men will have to work up to age 71 to make up for the collapse in pensions. Your green paper has not allayed our readers’ fears.

Well, the best pension policy is to run a stable and successful economy. With low inflation, high employment and continuing growth, the UK is better placed than many others to help provide financial security for its pensioners. This Government has already helped pensioners through above-inflation increases in the basic state pension, the winter fuel allowance and free TV licences for those aged 75 and over.

There has been more help, too, for the poorest pensioners. In 1997, they had to survive on under £70 a week. Thanks to the Minimum Income Guarantee, no pensioner now need live on less than £100 a week. And the Pension Credit, which comes in this year, will help those who have struggled to put aside a little money and, up to now, have found themselves penalised. We have more to do, but I believe we have made a good start.

The Pensions Green Paper proposed a range of measures including allowing people to keep working past retirement age, if they want - as many do and not just because they want to keep earning. This is not about forcing people to work longer. It’s about making saving more flexible to help people put enough money aside for their retirement, and not forcing people to stop working if they want to carry on.

This article was first published in the May 2003 issue of Saga Magazine. For great articles like this,

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