Tony Blair's Economist Essay
June 7, 2007 4:05 AM   Subscribe

EconomistFilter: How much of this fantastic essay did Tony Blair actually write?

I know politicians have speechwriters who primarily compose their speeches and who write a great deal of their correspondence, (along with assistants) but I wonder if the same still applies in a situation as seemingly... unique? as this. (I've not seen the still-active-if-just-barely leader of an industrialized nation actually "write in" to a newspaper at all. Or have an essay featured therein, by invitation or otherwise. Other examples of this get bonus points, too!)

I really liked this essay and truly appreciated reading something in the same paper that was asking "how will history remember him" just a few weeks ago.

I guess my question is: Is it as unlikely as I think that Blair actually penned much of this at all? How does one impart an essay of this specific nature ("what I learned") through a speechwriter? This seems to really be written firsthand, but a good speechwriter would do that well, right?
posted by disillusioned to Grab Bag (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It's not actually that uncommon for this to happen. Every now and again, there's an essay in a broadsheet newspaper by him on a current issue. This on anti-terror legislation, for example. I'm not sure to what extent previous PMs did this, if at all. These articles tend to use "we" rather than "I", and although they're not bad, they do seem to have had spin-doctors' grubby paws all over them.

But Blair's article in the Economist is much more personal than most, and although I'm sure the Mefi cynics brigade will be along to pour scorn, I've no reason to believe it was not originally written by him. It feels authentic, in a way that lots of New Labour press stuff doesn't. Of course PR people will have been consulted, but I'd like to think it's primarily his work.

To get a definitive answer, I'd guess we'll have to wait til he, or someone close to him, publishes diaries. I get the impression from previous political diaries and autobiographies, like Alan Clark's and John Major's, that many ministers and PMs are perfectly capable of writing a decent essay when they want to. (Of course that's what they want you to think, I hear you cry).
posted by Aloysius Bear at 4:23 AM on June 7, 2007

I think it's impossible to know... but Blair is certainly capable of writing this all by his lonesome.
posted by chuckdarwin at 4:25 AM on June 7, 2007

It is pretty hard to tell how much is Blair, but if you want more examples, check out NPQ. They pretty regularly have world leaders and policy makers write for them.
posted by scodger at 4:29 AM on June 7, 2007

The one really jarring thing about it was, "It has to be beaten. Period.", which is absolutely cringe-making to most British ears, although as he says, "This article is for a global audience" so I suppose it may be forgiveable. That apart, I agree that it's a good essay.
posted by Aloysius Bear at 4:32 AM on June 7, 2007

Aloysius: Did "Get real." also strike you as cringeworthy?

I believe he wrote the majority of this article. He did graduate from Oxford after all. Of course as said above, the Downing Street press office have probably had their wicked way with it before letting it out the door.

I wonder if Tony's expenses would cover a $5 registration fee?
posted by knapah at 4:44 AM on June 7, 2007

There is no way that someone as busy as the Prime Minster will write a whole article. At best he may jot out bullet points or similar and then edit a draft written by one of his staff - he may not have even laid down the basic bullets. There are simply too many demands on the time of frontline governing politicians for them not to use their staff for this sort of thing.
posted by prentiz at 4:53 AM on June 7, 2007

I think you're being too idealistic when imagining the authoring process.

What your question should be is: How much of Blair's original material will still be in the piece?

Here's what probably happened. Blair sat down and wrote 1000-2000 words, maybe during a long flight, or in downtime at Chequers. Whatever. I understand he's not a computer-literate guy, so maybe he dictated it and had it typed up later.

Then it will have been reviewed by many of his advisors. They will have chipped in with comments, or edits. They may have rephrased passages. They might have suggested thematic changes, or additional points.

Ultimately I suspect Blair will have control over the finished product, and will have made the revisions himself, but what he originally wrote but probably be pretty different from what eventually gets printed.

That said, Blair is preparing for a life outside of leadership now, and essays like this are going to be sources of epitaph material. They're also advertisements for his services post-PM—a method of laying out the cards so people can see what kind of thing he's going to pursue. So he may well have taken close control over this piece with minimal outside interference.

Earlier pieces published during his rule may well have been written by his advisors but, then again, we're not quite made the complete transition into American politics just yet.
posted by humblepigeon at 5:01 AM on June 7, 2007

Kind of related, this reminds me of the (possibly apocryphal) story about Churchill - reported here.

"After a war-time meeting with Churchill, who had flown home, Franklin Roosevelt and his staff were mulling over what kind of presidential address he should give to report on their deliberations. Then someone switched on the wireless and Churchill’s unmistakable tones resounded over the air waves. He had got his bulletin in first, written, as always, by himself. A White House aide commented: "He rolls his own, Mr President."
posted by Jofus at 5:09 AM on June 7, 2007

The Prime Minister to be has just published a book he's written (or perhaps "written")
posted by patricio at 5:11 AM on June 7, 2007

I have worked for a British central government department.

In my experience, ministerial pieces are either drafted by a civil servant then commented on by the rest of the government machinery before a final sign-off by the minister him/herself OR personally-written pieces about issues they care about. The first category vastly outweighs the second.

Ministers - especially prime ministers - haven't got the time, so contract out much of their thinking to people who are paid to do a credible impression of their style and views.

In this case, I'd suspect a senior foreign policy adviser in No 10 wrote it, with reworking by the PM.
posted by TrashyRambo at 5:20 AM on June 7, 2007

I would guess that Blair gave whoever briefed the writers the basic outline for the first-person stuff in the first paragraph.

The rest of the piece was probably put together either by a tame ex-journalist or a policy-intellectal type from a thinktank, using material from the same reservoir of points and policy positions used by Blair's speechwriters.

Then it would have been run past the Downing Street press people. At some point it was also translated into Economist house style (hence the 'Get real' and so on), probably by Economist editors, though Downing Street would have had final copy approval.

That's how I imagine these things are generated, anyway. There's no way Blair would have time to write these things himself.
posted by Mocata at 5:27 AM on June 7, 2007

A good assistant doesn't write for their boss, they write what their boss would have written, if they had the time. Once you've worked with someone for long enough its your job as a writer to get their tone and style down to the point where you're just an extension of their brain. The writer should/would never take credit. (In the meantime you keep a lot of copies of stuff they wrote themselves before they could afford a large staff as inspiration and research materials.)

Whether he even touched the pen or not it's fair (and acceptable practice) to say that Mr. Blair wrote anything his name is attached to. At the very least he will have approved it.

The exact process will vary from person to person, government to government and even over time, as things get busy, etc.

That said there's no reason to beleive humblepigeon is wrong, but at the same time it could just have easily happened any number of other ways. If you're really curious you should probably see if you can find a biography of Mr. Blair, you might get a sense of his personal style there.
posted by tiamat at 5:31 AM on June 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

A very close friend worked for a Nobel econ prof for several years, and she was hired because of her ability to write. She wrote her bosses articles all the time, wrote his speeches. It was a collaborative process, and the ideas were his (she wasn't the Laureate, after all), but she did the bulk of the writing, the revising, etc. All in consultation with him.

So, the question here really is: How much of Blair's ego is invested in being the actual author of his writings? If it's a lot, then he might have written some substantial portion of the essay. If not, not. Because I have no doubt that as busy as my friend's boss was, Blair is busier.

But, either way, it's Blair's essay. And one of the things that being Blair gets you, as opposed, say, to being GW Bush, is the benefit of the doubt that the ideas are yours even if the writing isn't.
posted by OmieWise at 5:43 AM on June 7, 2007

BTW, kind of eponymisterical.
posted by OmieWise at 5:44 AM on June 7, 2007

Our illustrious president, here in the US, has written in to the Wall Street Journal. And we all know how he is with big words...
posted by iurodivii at 5:59 AM on June 7, 2007

What TrashyRambo and Mocata said. (I too have worked in central government). It is very very unlikely Blair wrote this or even did an original draft. It will have been drafted by a policy adviser - probably in this case a political appointee rather than a career civil servant - and then he'll have asked for various redrafts. He may have supplied some choice phrases but I suspect that's the limit in terms of detailed contribution. The original commission will have been something like "I need a piece on x for the Economist, it should argue y". It will then have shuttled back and forth before being signed off.

Although I've not done anything as high-profile as this, I have helped write trade journal articles and "think-pieces" as well as strategy documents for various Ministers and it's only rarely that you get a Minister who will comprehensively redraft it to put their own mark on it. Ministerial offices will tend to give you "style guides" that help you to find the right tone, length etc for speeches and articles.
posted by greycap at 7:31 AM on June 7, 2007

Kind of related, this reminds me of the (possibly apocryphal) story about Churchill

OT, so forgive me, but you should bear in mind that Churchill was first and foremost an author. Blair, like many politicians, is a lawyer. Churchill's professions were soldier, author and politician, in that order. He wrote because he needed the money.

History has twisted his visage so that we remember him mainly as a politician, but he missed his first opening of Parliament because he was on a book tour in America.

He also won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
posted by humblepigeon at 7:32 AM on June 7, 2007 [2 favorites]

Humblepigeon. Word. And, if proof were needed:

"We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old."

If you can try to read those lines with something approaching objectivity, (and who can?) then you can really appreciate what a grasp of flow the man had.
posted by Jofus at 7:56 AM on June 7, 2007

Martin Amis' account of being "embedded" with Blair as he did part of his fairwell tour might also interest you. He got into Downing Street, the Whitehouse and the Green Zone in Bagdad.

Personally I only made it about half way through the Economist essay. It reads like a committee authorship to me.
posted by rongorongo at 8:44 AM on June 7, 2007

Personally, I have to steadfastly admire anyone who can write a 150+ word run-on-sentence in a way that doesn't make me want to slap them upside the head. Go Churchill.
posted by miss lynnster at 9:11 AM on June 7, 2007

Response by poster: Wow, spot on, everyone.

I usually hate when someone says "best answers all around," but all of you very evenly contributed and gave plenty of background and insight. Thanks so much!
posted by disillusioned at 11:08 AM on June 7, 2007

Why French politicians produce so many books.
“It is almost impossible to be a politician in France and not to publish at least one, and usually several, books,” comments Dominique Reynié, a political scientist at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques. ...

One explanation for all this is cultural. Unlike the British, to whom the word “intellectual” is an insult, the French cherish theirs, inviting them on television talk-shows and clearing space for them on op-ed pages. One poll found 36% of French claiming to read political books, at least occasionally. In Britain or America, politicians pen memoirs only in retirement. Nobody in France asks how a minister has time to write a book. To publish is to exist.

Another explanation is the language. The elite considers the command of written French as an expression of national identity. This also reflects the shadow of de Gaulle, who was a prolific wordsmith before he became a resistance hero and politician. Since his time, every president has tried to follow suit. Pompidou published an anthology of poetry; Mitterrand wrote over 20 books. The most reluctant seems to be Jacques Chirac. According to the Elysée, he has written just five; and one of them is his 1954 student thesis, on “The Development of the Port of New Orleans”.
posted by languagehat at 11:36 AM on June 7, 2007

Just another person chiming into say (from my perspective of having worked for an MP, albeit not one in government) that the process probably went: Blair gives notes and a general structure --> First draft written by one or two staff members from within No 10 --> Run past other policy adviser/press people --> Heads back to Blair who then "personalises" it --> Final pass by all interested parties --> Blair signs off on it, gets published.

The one other thing I'd suggest, though, is that I wouldn't be surprised if similar forms of words start appearing in other things Blair writes and speeches he gives. A lot of it reads like its the core elements of post-Prime Ministership speeches he plans, or an intro to his memoirs, etc. As such, it may both have been worked on for longer than a single magazine article, and may have more of Blair's own words in it than a standard article by Blair (or any other senior government member) would.
posted by flashboy at 12:22 PM on June 7, 2007

I believe he wrote the majority of this article. He did graduate from Oxford after all.

That doesn't mean much. W graduated from Yale and I certainly wouldn't credit him with being able to write well.
posted by Neiltupper at 2:54 PM on June 7, 2007

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