John Duggan reviews Broken Vows: The Tragedy of Power, where author Tom Bower outlines how Tony Blair confused British electoral success with a mandate to change the world and a belief that he was saving civilisation.
Faber and Faber, €23.30
Megalomaniac who believed his own spin
BY THE time you read this, the Chilcot Report on the war in Iraq will have been published.
Whatever the report itself says, it will, no doubt, have been the cue for fresh torrents of abuse to rain down on the head of Tony Blair.
Those who will never forgive him for his alliance with George W Bush, and what it led to, are legion.
Tom Bower, author of a new record of Blair’s years in power, is unlikely to be found leaping to his subject’s defence.
He voted for New Labour in 1997 and supported the invasion of Iraq, but it is fair to surmise that he regrets both choices.
Reading Bower’s book, I began to wonder whether the seeds of everything that subsequently went wrong were sown in an event that features very little: that general election of 1997.
Blair, Gordon Brown and their closest associates had won the battle for the future of the Labour Party.
They had routed the Conservatives at the polls. The media was cheering them to the rafters. It was the dawn of Cool Britannia.
But the victory had papered over cracks at the top of the party.
Brown was still seething about Blair cheating him of the leadership.
Victory also papered over cracks in the electorate.
The Tories were in a state of utter disarray, making New Labour an attractive proposition for all those who craved change.
But the landslide hid the fact that the working classes were starting to desert the party that was meant to represent them.
(The EU referendum has now lain bare how far this desertion has gone.)
But, in May 1997, none of this impinged on the feeling that things could only get better and better.
Blair and co saw themselves as masters of the universe. In Whitehall, the egos had well and truly landed.
There is much borderline farce in Bower’s account of this lot strutting up and down the corridors of power, bumping up against civil service mandarins, admirals and generals, and, of course, one another.
Yet a certain amount of chaos lurked beneath all the preening self-confidence.
New Ministers fanned out across many departments of state with a shaky sense of what exactly they were meant to achieve.
Blair’s watchword was modernisation.
It was what he had done to his party and now it was what the country needed, what the National Health Service needed, what the Middle East needed.
But time and again, substance and detail were missing and Blair could not supply them.
Ministers floundered. Scandals broke. Cabinet posts were horse-traded among political fixers.
Hyperactivity was mistaken for governing.
There were countless brave new dawns for policies that would evaporate before noon.
When Blair’s government spoke about taking the next steps, it usually meant heading off in a completely new direction.
When they spoke about building on something, it usually meant burying it.
Between 1997 and 2005, Blair oversaw 16 White Papers and 11 acts of Parliament on education alone.
At one stage, he appointed someone to “lead the fightback” against policies he had himself introduced.
As Blair increased spending, he didn’t, according to Bower, take any interest in topics like productivity or value for money.
Increases in hospital funding, for instance, were being gobbled up by increasing unit costs, but Blair didn’t grapple with such problems until very late in the day.
He went in for “sofa government”, circumventing the Cabinet (and anyone who might tell some awkward truths) in favour of decision making in his Downing Street den, surrounded by hand-picked companions, loyal to him and to his project.
The higher the stakes, the looser, if anything, the process became.
However, nothing bedevilled decent government in the Blair years more than relations between the Prime Minister and his Chancellor, Gordon Brown.
The rift is paraded by Bower on page after page, policy after policy.
It makes you wince to see so much power in the hands of two men locked in a private feud with no end in sight.
Life is a living hell, Blair is reported to have said in the middle of the foot-and- mouth crisis, when Brown was again throwing his weight around Some felt that Blair
had a Messiah complex. I’m not so sure. He was more like the prophet who had led the Labour Party to the promised land of Downing Street.
Though most of that promise drained away over two-and-a-half terms in government, there was still no one else like him.
And so, however badly he disappointed many in the Labour Party, still they clung to him.
With Blair, there would be no return to captivity on the opposition benches.
It is not just the politicians, though, that emerge from Bower’s book looking shabby.
Great British institutions like the civil service, the top brass and the NHS are shown to be not always up to the job.
On September 11, 2001, Blair had gone to Brighton to give a speech to the Trades Union Congress.
When the news of the attacks in New York and Washington came through, abandoning his speech, Blair headed back to London on a commuter train.
According to Bower, over the course of that hour-long journey, Blair concluded that the world had fundamentally changed on his watch.
In “the battle between good and evil” his responsibility now was not to work out how normality might be restored but how to “save civilisation”.
Blair loved the international stage. Among other things, it was where he could escape Gordon Brown’s remorseless harrassment and attain his full stature.
As Bower would have it, the success of a relatively minor military operation in Sierra Leone in which one British soldier was killed, and the war in Kosovo, which was American-led and involved no ground troops, convinced Blair he could lead a new era of liberal intervention.
This was hubris. Yet Bower never claims that Blair’s conviction that Saddam Hussein needed to be overthrown was anything but heartfelt.
The most revealing moment in the book, for me, is when Blair is told by a Middle East specialist that removing Saddam would destabilise Iraq because the Sunni-Shia split would no longer be contained.
“That’s all history,” Blair replies.
“This is about the future.”
More hubris. Through goodwill and fine intentions, and other people’s blood, history could be overcome.
Bower’s book is not perfect. It is at times sloppy and cliché-ridden. Northern Ireland barely features.
Bower does argue, though, that Blair’s success in Ulster convinced him he could now broker a deal between Israel and the Arabs. Pride comes before the fall yet again.
The book draws to a dispiriting close.
The final chapters paint a picture of Blair, having left Downing Street and Parliament, as a man on the make, racking up consultancy and speaking contracts for jaw-dropping amounts.
The lines blur between Blair’s private business interests and his high-minded philanthropic foundations.
There are private jets and five star hotels; a complex web of companies set up to channel Blair’s income; allegations of an affair with Rupert Murdoch’s wife; and questionable dealings with cruel, corrupt governments.
(Blair visited Colonel Gaddafi six times during the two years after he had left Downing St.)
It is as if Blair has been making up for lost time, trying to recoup all the money he could have been making in the City when he had been getting by on the salary of an MP or a PM.
Bower turns to a close associate, who in the end gave up on Blair, for perhaps the most telling criticism in the book. This is “a man incapable of self-criticism.”
If this is right, then, as I said at the beginning, look again to the false dawn of 1997.
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