5 June 2019
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch feels the hand of history upon his shoulder.
Except for those politicians lucky enough to be assassinated while in their prime, it is an inescapable fact that, in the words of Enoch Powell, ‘all political careers end in failure’. In modern Britain, this was notably proved twice in 25 years by the ignoble fall of two political giants, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. Both of them dominated British political life for more than a decade, changed the terms of political debate and provoked as much condemnation as admiration.
Of Blair, the BBC’s James Naughtie has said:
Cheered to the echo as he left the Commons chamber for the last time as prime minister in 2007, after ten years of largely untroubled dominance, the tragedy of Iraq quickly ensnared him so completely that by (summer 2016) he admitted he would be a liability in the campaign to keep Britain in the European Union. The old Blair magic had turned to sand.
However, perhaps I can offer Mr Blair a little solace – I may be able to restore his standing among HTBS Types at least by suggesting that he may have rowed while a student at Oxford University.
Anthony Charles Lynton ‘Tony’ Blair (b. 1953) became the leader of the (technically) socialist Labour Party in 1994 after it had lost four general elections in a row. He transformed it into the social democratic ‘New Labour’ and won a landslide victory in the General Election of 1997, becoming Prime Minister for 10 years. He won three General Elections in total, introduced many progressive reforms, presided over a long period of economic prosperity and once achieved a personal approval rating of 93%.
Proceeding all this, Blair had been schooled privately at Edinburgh’s Fettes College, sometimes rather inaccurately described as ‘the Scottish Eton’. It seems that Tony did not like Fettes – and Fettes did not like Tony. Leaving school at 18 in 1971, Blair went to London to find fame as a rock music promoter. In an article in The Atlantic in 2003, David Brooks wrote:
(Blair) went to London, grew his hair shoulder-length, wore a modish fur coat, and hung out with a crowd of hard-partying rich kids, trying to discover the next Rolling Stones. (He) bought a van, gathered some stray musicians into a band called Jaded, set about booking it into pubs, and cruised teen gathering spots handing out leaflets for its gigs. He met a man named Norman Burt, who owned two semi-detached houses in London; Burt let students live in one of them, and he lived in the other. Blair quickly wheedled his way into a room. It wasn’t in the raucous youths’ house, however; he lived in the quieter Burt house, and he helped Burt, who was something of a God-squadder, as a volunteer at Christian youth groups.
After a year, Blair gave up his dreams of making it in the music business and, in 1972, went to Oxford University’s St John’s College (Balliol would not have him) to read for a three-year degree in Jurisprudence.
According to a 2003 article in the Daily Telegraph by Cassandra Jardine titled, “Blair: The Brideshead Years”, he describes his time at St John’s as being ‘pretty uneventful’ and he does not have any nostalgia for the place. He did enough work for a second class degree, performed in some comic reviews, and lightly dabbled in religion and politics. He claims that he briefly flirted with Trotskyism, but a more long-term influence came from a close friend, Peter Thomson, a left-wing evangelical Christian. Most famously, he fronted a student rock band called Ugly Rumours, sporting purple loon pants and a scoop-necked T-shirt, basing his performance on Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. I would have thought that the Eric Clapton fronted supergroup Cream would have appealed more; apart from the fact that widespread graffiti held that ‘Clapton is God’, some of the lyrics of their track “Politician” are appropriate:
Though I’m leaning, leaning to the right
I support the left
Though I’m leaning to the right…
When later interviewed by the Oxford student magazine, Isis, Blair admitted: ‘I am always rather wary about discussing my time at Oxford because it is invariably coupled with a photograph of me with long hair wearing a ridiculous boater … a picture that I wouldn’t mind if I never saw again….’
Typically perhaps, Blair joined the ‘Archery Club’ but did commit himself to wearing its tie or blazer, perhaps another example of him taking a mid-way position.
So far, there is no evidence that Blair tried his hand at rowing. Cassandra Jardine’s Telegraph piece quotes one of his contemporaries as saying ‘Tony would have made a good (rugby) back… although he looked fit and healthy, he didn’t play sport.’ Jardine notes, however, ‘when he (occasionally played) tennis… he was, apparently, both good and highly competitive’. Blair himself says that he played college soccer. However, I have recently acquired a programme for the 1974 Eights’ Week (aka Summer Eights) Oxford’s annual four day series of ‘bumping’ races between college boat club crews. The page listing the St John’s boats is particularly interesting.
Looking down this list of names, the eye is first caught by the name ‘A. Blair’ at ‘3’ in the second eight. Was this the lead singer of Ugly Rumours? Sadly, it seems unlikely. The college put out six boats for Eights’ Week, albeit not all ‘serious’ crews. To get into the second boat would require a reasonable commitment, perhaps rowing several times a week. Had Anthony Charles Lynton Blair put in that amount of time on the river, it would surely be a matter of record, even if later the ambitious ‘man of the people’ politician would want to downplay a previous involvement in a sport widely perceived as ‘elitist’ and ‘posh’. Assuming that the college had about 600 students in 1975, it is a possibility that there was more than one ‘A. Blair’.
There is more promise looking further down the list. In the ‘7’ seat of the Sixth Eight, ‘The Cinaedates’, we find ‘Babyface’ Blair, a more likely candidate to be the future Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury, The Right Honourable Tony Blair MP. It could be that Babyface, Basher, Ratty, Waxy, Sebastian et al. had a good dinner with the Archery Club and, by the time the port was passed, came up with the wheeze of entering a boat in Eights’ Week. How often did they practice? Did they ever make it to the start? If so, how long did it take them to get bumped? Why was Babyface not in the stroke seat? More unanswered questions about Blair, I think Chilcot should investigate.
While I understood ‘New Labour’, I have never really ‘got’ Tony Blair. I think that I would enjoy a night in the pub with his American ideological and chronological counterpart, Bill Clinton, but I somehow imagine that a pint (or, probably a half) with Tony would involve much small talk and glancing at the clock. Perhaps David Brook’s 2003 Atlantic piece articulates why I think this may be:
Although in many ways Blair has lived a quintessential Baby Boomer’s life, there is an air of loneliness and detachment about him. Imagine him as an eighteen-year-old that year in London—wearing the right clothes, apparently popular with the ladies, but passing the bong without ever taking a hit. Picture him handing out concert flyers on Saturday night, which was a fashionable activity, and handing out church announcements on Sunday morning, which was not….
Ideologically he is not clearly aligned with any one group but occupies a point midway between the Thatcherites and the old Labourites…. In Britain (in 2003), although he is seen as the giant of the age, he is appreciated but not loved. He is too earnest in a political culture that is pervasively cynical. He is too straightforwardly ambitious in a country that detests that quality. He has no deep roots in any region or political faction.
Was Blair, typically perhaps, in a boat but not properly in the Boat Club? It should not be an impossible question to answer. However, whether he rowed or not, it is still true to say that ACL Blair had a strong catch but washed out at the finish.