Sunday, 5 September 2010

A Journey, Tony Blair - Part 2

II

What of Blair’s record in office? To a large extent this has become synonymous with the Iraq War and Blair’s fateful decision to go along with it, and it comes as no surprise that Blair is sticking to his guns on the issue. He recognises that there is a widespread belief that the war was a terrible mistake, but he attributes this in part to the rapid and unreflective way in which conventional wisdom is formed these days. “I still believe,” he writes, “that leaving Saddam in power was a bigger risk to our security than removing him”. Saddam may have turned out not to have had WMDs, but he certainly wanted to acquire them and had violated UN sanctions to that end. The dodgy dossier was written by the JIC, not Alastair Campbell, and was not sexed up. Lord Goldsmith wasn’t leant on. Blair didn’t realise that such a bloodbath would follow the invasion, but in any event life in Iraq is better now than it was under Saddam (though Iraqis themselves seem sharply divided on this question).

Blair defends what he did and suggests that he would do the same again even in the knowledge of the bloody and chaotic aftermath. It is noteworthy, however, that he stops short of saying this with absolute confidence. It seems that his self-belief – or arrogance – does know some bounds. It is interesting in this context that he mentions another instance of self-doubt in the context of the Israel-Hezbollah conflict of 2006: “[H]ad I changed, or was I just obstinate? Was it leadership, or just vanity? Having got us into Iraq, was it belief that sustained me, or just the fact I had nowhere else to go? How honest are we ever with ourselves? How hard it is to disentangle our motives from our anxieties, our convictions from our pride.” And with that deep – or perhaps rather shallow – sigh, he moves on to other matters. The questions remain rhetorical.

Blair dismisses as “fatuous” the idea that the war was all about oil. If access to oil had been the issue, he says, it would have been much simpler to cut a quiet deal with Saddam and turn a blind eye to the other aspects of his regime. Blair has a point here – this, after all, is essentially what the Americans have been doing with the Saudis since World War II. But if the ‘no blood for oil’ crowd were naive, Blair is disingenuous. The idea that access to oil had nothing to do with a decision to invade a country with the world’s second largest oil reserves stretches belief, particularly when the decision was taken by an American president and vice president who were both former oil executives and had actively been reviewing their country’s energy strategy. The war might not have been all about oil, but oil must have entered into it.

Blair wants us to know that he feels sorry for the victims of the war. “Do they really suppose I don’t care, don’t feel, don’t regret with every fibre of my being the loss of those who died?.... To be indifferent to that would be inhuman, emotionally warped.... I feel desperately sorry for them, sorry for the lives cut short, sorry for the families whose bereavement is made worse by the controversy over why their loved ones died, sorry for the utterly unfair selection that the loss should be theirs.” There are other similar passages elsewhere in the book.

One doesn’t doubt the sincerity of these sentiments, but one might perhaps doubt their depth. Even now, 7 years after the invasion, with nearly 200 British troops and 100,000 Iraqi civilians dead, one wonders if Blair really gets it, on the profoundest and most serious level. The section of the book that the above quotations come from is slightly overwritten, slightly incoherent, slightly pompous and slightly disturbing. I have never agreed with those who have portrayed Blair as some kind of sociopath: he is rightly appalled by human suffering and conscious of his responsibility for it.  But there does seem to be some perceptible limitation in his emotional depth and maturity. It is difficult to imagine Lloyd George writing in a similar way about the Great War, or Churchill about World War II, or even Thatcher about the Falklands. In the final analysis, there is something of the overgrown sixth-former about him.

One theme that does come through, however, is Blair’s desire to work out his share of the reponsibility for Iraq in a practical way, “beyond the mere expression of compassion”. This is no doubt why he accepted his current job as envoy to the Middle East and opted to donate the book’s proceeds to the Royal British Legion. This is not negligible or ignoble, and he should be given due credit for it.

A chapter of the book is devoted to the Northern Ireland peace process, though anyone wanting a full account of the inside story of this particular saga would be better advised to refer to Great Hatred, Little Room by Jonathan Powell, Blair’s former chief of staff. The chapter includes some thoughts on principles of conflict resolution, interlaced with references to Blair’s current job in the Middle East. There is another chapter on the Kosovo conflict.

Moving on to domestic policy, public service reform was the great unrealised Blairite cause. Contrary to the Conservative critique, Blair was sensitive enough to the limitations of centralised, top-down public service management. He accepted that the NHS and the education system had been underfunded in the Thatcher-Major years. Structural reforms had been “badly implemented and badly explained”, “divisive and even misguided”. But the Tories had been on to something. The march of history was towards marketisation, performance-related spending and user-centred methods of delivery. Ideas like the NHS internal market and grant-maintained schools had not been entirely wrong, and they duly resurfaced in different guises and under different names. Blair wanted to emphasise “the big difference in the public services between New Labour and Old Labour (investment without reform) and New Labour and the Thatcherite Tories (reform without investment)”.

It is difficult to disagree with Blair’s ideas in the form in which he presents them. He should be given proper credit for the desperately needed extra funding which he provided for the public services. He was also probably right to resist those who opposed his reforms on the basis of Bevanite nostalgia, provider self-interest or an unserious aversion to markets and profit. But there is another side to the story that is strikingly absent. Did foundation hospitals pave the way for a two-tier NHS? Were ordinary patients able to understand and operate the structures that were devised for them? Will private involvement in healthcare lead to privatisation by the back door? Were the implications of allowing private capital and influence into the school system via academies properly thought through? Was it right to allow academies to be run by religious fundamentalists who taught creationism? The answers in each case can be debated – but Blair doesn’t even pose the questions.

Blair insists, with some exaggeration, that his policies were “massively” redistibutive. He acknowledges the existence of a category of “undeserving rich” (he uses the term himself), but he believes that no action is required in respect of the increased imbalance of income towards the top. “Emotionally I shared the view that some of the top earnings were unjustified, but rationally I thought this was the way of the world in a globalised economy, and there was more harm than good in trying to stop it.... In a sense none of it is rational, but it’s irrational to stop it in a world in which, like it or not, certain people have transferable, global skills in high demand and short supply.” This is less an analysis than an evasion. It may be true that government cannot or should not simply try to “stop” companies from paying large remuneration packages to some of their employees. But to suggest that globalisation means that no appropriate policy response exists is at best lazy and at worst dishonest.

Aside from all this, there is the usual self-serving guff. Suggestions that Blair was excessively presidential were “complete tosh”. Criticisms of his style of 'sofa government' were "ludicrously overblown". The notion that he is dazzled by the wealthy is "ludicrously exaggerated". It is a “myth” that he is not a details man. He occasionally admits to making mistakes. He was wrong to adopt a Cameroonian “broken society” analysis in the 1990s given that the great majority of British society is well-functioning. He was wrong to have regarded the Saville inquiry as a waste of time and money. He shouldn’t have been so dead set against Ken Livingstone becoming Mayor of London. The GPs’ and consultants’ contracts under the NHS Plan were badly negotiated. He was wrong to sack Peter Mandelson the second time, and maybe the first time as well. On the big issues, however, the general theme is Je ne regrette rien. It is particularly sad that Blair believes that Labour could have been re-elected this year if it had not tacked away from his agenda – an agenda that he believes will one day be rediscovered. There is something of the Norma Desmond about all this. To be fair, Blair is somewhat self-conscious about going into if-only-they-had-listened-to-me-mode – just not self-conscious enough to refrain from doing it.


III

Some of the most chewed-over parts of the book have, perhaps unsurprisingly, been those dealing with Blair's relationship with Gordon Brown.

Blair describes Brown as a “strange guy”. Their partnership went back to the dark days of the 80s. "It was not simply a professional relationship, it was a friendship. Later, when things became difficult, then fraught, and finally dangerous, the wrench was all the harder because the intimacy had been so real." One might be forgiven for doubting claims of this sort in a political autobiography, but in this case they are probably sincere enough.

As we know, Brown was the original leader-in-waiting. Even before the 1992 election, Blair had floated the idea of Brown standing for the leadership. He returned to the idea after Labour's defeat, and the origins of the split between the two men apparently date from this period. According to Blair, it was now that it began to dawn on him that Brown was running a self-interested cabal, “more like a cult than a kirk”. In 1994, Brown stood aside and Blair was raised to the leadership. Blair provides some detail of the surrounding events, but notably omits any mention of the legendary Granita deal.

For the next few years, the two men coexisted in a broadly successful way. But it was apparent by the latter part of Blair’s first term that Brown and his circle were not buying his public service reforms. A turning point came when Brown and his lieutenant Ed Balls proved less than enthusiastic about increasing student tuition fees. According to Blair, the Tory line about Brown being a ‘roadblock to reform’ was more than just partisan froth: Brown genuinely did slow down the Blairite public service reforms, even if he did not derail them. At a famous meeting in John Prescott’s apartment in 2003, Blair agreed to hand over to Brown before the 2005 election provided that Brown wholeheartedly embraced the New Labour programme. By his own account, Blair went back on the deal because it was evident that Brown was intent on following his own agenda. Brown appears to have seen things differently. Either way, Blair now regrets having made such a deal at all.

Blair initially planned to try to hang on beyond mid-2007 in the face of Brown’s continuing recalcitrance (or, as Blair puts it, his “shrieking and barking”). But it was not to be.  Brown took over without a leadership contest and squandered his chances of winning a fourth term by extinguishing the New Labour flame.

Contrary to some popular belief, Blair insists that he retained a large degree of control over economic policy until near the end of his tenure. It is striking, however, that macroeconomic issues are rarely discussed in the book. There are no extended discussions of fiscal or monetary policy. Did Blair even understand these areas, or understand them well enough to keep control of a man who had a PhD in economics? One suspects that Brown had more of a free rein than Blair is letting on.

Click here for Part 3