It seemed an unlikely friendship to begin with, yet President Bush and Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair have weathered more than one storm together. In a new book, "American Ally," author Con Coughlin tries to shed light on how and why Blair became America’s staunchest friend in the war on terror. Here’s an excerpt:
The result of the 1997 British election had yet to be declared, but in Washington, President Bill Clinton was excited at the prospect of the imminent victory of his young protégé Tony Blair. With the exit polls suggesting a landslide victory for the New Labour leader, Clinton was pacing the Oval Office wondering when he could telephone his congratulations. The State Department urged caution, pointing out that until the result was officially declared, John Major, the Conservative leader, was still technically Britain's prime minister. Blair, meanwhile, sat in the living room of his house in the northern England constituency of Sedgefield, watching the results on the television with his wife, Cherie.
Jonathan Powell, Blair's chief of staff, called Blair to pass on the message that Clinton was trying to reach him but the State Department would not yet let him. Blair was flattered, but even though all the available information pointed to the biggest election victory in Labour's history, he refused to believe it until the result was official. "What do they know?" Blair asked Cherie as they watched the predictions of the television pollsters.
The result was finally announced several hours later, and Blair was declared the winner with the biggest majority in British postwar politics. Clinton was delighted as the extent of Blair's victory was confirmed to the White House. Clinton had struck up a close relationship with Blair, whom he regarded as a potential political ally, and members of Clinton's successful 1996 campaign team had been brought to Blair's Millbank election headquarters to assist the New Labour Party. Having finally been allowed to phone Blair personally to congratulate him, Clinton issued a glowing tribute to the American press. "I'm looking forward to working with Prime Minister Blair," declared the American president. "He's a very exciting man, a very able man. I like him very much." Clinton's enthusiastic response to Blair's victory was echoed by Sidney Blumenthal, a senior White House aide, who declared: "At last the president has a little brother. Blair is the younger brother Clinton has been yearning for."
This somewhat patronizing attitude toward the new British prime minister was just some of the widespread acclaim that greeted Blair's arrival at 10 Downing Street, the official residence of Britain's prime minister. It is unlikely though that anyone among the crowd that gathered outside 10 Downing Street to cheer Blair's triumph thought they were witnessing the arrival of a man who was to become one of the most important and controversial war-time leaders in British history.
The election campaign that had swept Blair and his New Labour Party to power had been fought predominantly on domestic issues, such as improving the state of Britain's woeful public services. This was reflected in the selection of the pop group D:Ream's song "Things Can Only Get Better" as New Labour's official campaign anthem. The British public, or rather the ever-diminishing percentage of the electorate that actually turned out to vote, wanted better hospitals, schools, and roads. To this end, they had voted Blair into power with an impregnable 179-seat majority in the House of Commons, while the Conservatives had suffered their worst electoral defeat since the Great Reform Act of 1832. After eighteen years of Conservative rule, Britain was ready for a change in direction, and that day appeared to herald the dawn of a new era in British politics.
Tony Blair was four days short of his forty-fourth birthday when he was elected prime minister on May 2, 1997. Born in Edinburgh in 1953, Blair spent most of his childhood in the northern former coal-mining city of Durham. At fourteen, he was sent to the prestigious Fettes College boarding school and from there went to Oxford to study law.
As a young man, Blair gave his contemporaries little indication that he would one day emerge as a leading figure in world politics. To his fellow students, the long-haired Blair, who was usually dressed as a hippie, seemed like a noisy and exuberant public schoolboy rebel who steered clear of the university's intellectual establishment. At school, Blair had played Captain Stanhope, the lead part in R. C. Sheriff's antiwar play Journey's End, and at Oxford, he continued to pursue his thespian interests, playing Matt in a college production of Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera. Blair also maintained a keen interest in rock music. His favorite bands were the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Cream, and in his last year at university, he became the lead singer and bass guitarist of Ugly Rumours. Blair took to the stage in purple pants and a cut-off T-shirt and, according to his fellow band members, did a passable impression of Mick Jagger, "a bit of finger-wagging and punching the air." But despite his exposure to the decadent milieu of rock music, Blair, unlike many of his contemporaries, avoided drugs. In an interview many years later, when there was controversy over whether or not President Clinton had taken drugs at Oxford, Blair was asked if he had ever smoked dope. "No, I haven't," replied Blair. "But if I had, you can be sure I would have inhaled."
Blair showed little active interest in politics at university, although fellow students recall he was an avid supporter of the Labour Party. But while at Oxford, he acquired the deep religious conviction that was to lay the foundations for the moral certainty that would dictate his conduct in later life. In 1972, he befriended Peter Thomson, an Australian Anglican priest, an older student who had a profound influence on Blair's personal development. As a result of many lengthy late-night discussions with Thomson about moral philosophy, Blair became a practicing Christian, and it was as a result of his Christianity that he became actively involved in the Labour Party. As Blair conceded after he had become Labour leader in 1995, "my Christianity and my politics came together at the same time."
Excerpted from "American Ally" by Con Coughlin. Copyright © 2006 by Con Coughlin. All rights reserved. Published by HarperCollins books. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.