Saturday, 18 February 2017

Tom Bower, Broken Vows

Oh shit, oh shit.  Whatever why I'm so so missing Tony.  Because he is so charming and his clothes are so good.  He has such a good body and he had his really, really good legs Butt... and he is slim tall and good skin.  Pierce blue eyes which I love.  Love his eyes.
Such was the verdict of Wendi Deng on the Rt. Hon. Anthony Blair, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1997 to 2007.  Bower quotes these ill-chosen words from a haul of emails from News Corporation's servers.  His own verdict on the former premier is rather less flattering.

The portrait of Blair that emerges from Bower's study is that of a superficial, unreflective and ultimately ineffectual figure - a man whose glib charm masked an essential inability to shoulder the responsibilities of his office.  His Oxford education had been a waste of time and money: he had spent most of his spell at St John's College playing football and jamming with his rock band.  He was a poor judge of character, and he had little knowledge of history.  When by chance he stumbled on Neville Chamberlain's personal diaries at Chequers, he didn't realise how little they had to teach him about how to deal with Saddam Hussein 60 years later.  His ignorance extended even to his own political party: Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson were little more than names to him.

It comes as no surprise to discover that Blair was autocratic.  He showed something like contempt for his Cabinet ministers, under the mistaken impression that Margaret Thatcher had done the same.  He didn't like receiving unwelcome advice from civil servants.  He preferred to rely on a small clique of confidants - the thuggish Alastair Campbell, the oily Peter Mandelson, the inept Jonathan Powell.  Oddly enough, one member of the inner circle was Anji Hunter, who had been his first girlfriend as a teenager; a fact that Cherie found difficult to overlook.

Yet Blair was an authoritarian who had very little idea what to do with his authority.  During his ascent to power in the 1990s, New Labour was a vehicle for winning elections, not for governing a country.  He didn't even know how to get things done.  He brushed aside the traditional protocols and safeguards of Whitehall without putting anything effective in their place.  Bower describes a system of "government by assertion", in which a combination of slogans, targets, willpower and favourable press coverage were considered sufficient to change the country.  It was The Thick of It made flesh.  Quick wins which played well in the media were prioritised over long-term reforms.  It is not irrelevant here that Blair had never previously had a job in government at any level, nor had he ever run any large organisation, with the unusual exception of the Labour Party.

The standard critique of Blair from the left is that he was a crypto-Tory.  If Bower is to be believed, his failing was more basic than that: he didn't have strong or clear enough beliefs to be a crypto-anything.  When he came to power, he was disturbingly ignorant of, or uninterested in, high-profile policy areas like the economy, the NHS and immigration.  The only exception seems to have been education, which he did know something about but was nevertheless slow to reform.  His overall record was, according to Bower, insubstantial. 

The big exception to this pattern of dilettantism, of course, was Iraq.  Blair really found himself in Iraq.  His messianic ambitions to change the world through military force can be traced back to his first term of office, although they had been typically unfocused and uninformed ("I know we have an army, navy and air force," he told the Chief of the Defence Staff, "but I don't know any more").  After 9/11, there was a step change.  Blair turned his back on his elected Cabinet ministers and went all in with the Bush Administration.  Of course, it all ended in disaster, with an underfunded army struggling to rein in a brutal sectarian civil war.  But Blair has been slow to show remorse for his decisions.  Bower is not impressed with his performance in front of Chilcot.

The book also confirms what we largely already knew, namely that the one real obstacle to Blair within his government was his powerful but dysfunctional Chancellor.  Gordon Brown ran the Treasury as a personal fiefdom and showed anger and contempt towards Blair and anyone else who got in his way.  Blair's attitude towards him was one of uncharacteristic nervousness and insecurity.  He tried to avoid dealing with him.  Luckily for Blair, Brown ended up being saddled with the blame for the financial crisis which had gestated on the younger man's watch.

*

Since leaving office, Blair has apparently taken to calling himself Britain's "most successful prime minister" and cultivating a grudge against people who fail to appreciate his special talents.  He has famously given free rein to his ingrained fascination with money - both making it and associating with people who have it.  The man himself protests that he does a large amount of unpaid work, but Bower sees things differently.  The closest that Blair has had to a real political job, beyond advising various dictators, was his time as the West's peace envoy to the Middle East.  This was a notorious failure, although Bower does acknowledge that this was in part because the Americans didn't give him sufficient backing.

Bower has left us an extremely full and well researched account of the Blair years - the book is comprehensive to the point where the detail compromises its readability.  It has to be said that Bower's own biases against Blair's politics - Bower is squarely a man of the conservative right - are fully on show.  His treatment does not claim to be balanced, and he seems unwilling to grant that Blair had any positive achievements at all.  There is something amiss when an author attacks Tony Blair's judgement and yet appears to believe that Alan Milburn was prime ministerial material.  Nevertheless, if this book is a case for the prosecution, it is one that Blair's defenders must meet.