Tony Blair and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern ahead of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Bringing peace to Northern Ireland was one of Blair's greatest achievements © Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

Blair could have been great

Tony Blair transformed Britain, but he cared more about the limelight than the Labour Party
March 24, 2016

Read more: In defence of Tony Blair, The Blair Mission, Neither shy, nor retiring, Lies, spin and deceit

In history, as in private life, short-term memory is the first thing to go.

How the immediate past slips from our grasp, how hard it is to recapture exactly what it felt like at the time. What were they like to live through, the Tony Blair years, even now not 10 years gone? What I remember is a certain easy-going quality, a genuine public relaxation, along with the silly bits (Cool Britannia, the wobbly bridge, the Dome). The tensions that had racked British society from the late 1960s onwards slackened, if only for the time being. I don’t mean just that there were no strikes to speak of, very few riots—though there weren’t. Nor that there were no domestic economic crises, though there weren’t any of those either.

I mean more generally that the problems of governing Britain appeared less daunting and insoluble, that life began to seem a little easier to handle. And this was true for most of us, because while the rich got filthy rich, the poor didn’t do too badly either. This indecently rosy picture is the opposite of the one painted, in big splashy tubes of vermilion, purple and nausea-yellow, in Tom Bower’s book, for which the word “extraordinary” seems pitifully mild. Broken Vows makes you want to dust down adjectives you haven’t used in a while, if ever, such as “rebarbative” and “phantasmagoric.” Bower is a serial assassin of reputations, falling with relish on the notable rogues of our day—Robert Maxwell, Tiny Rowland, Mohamed al-Fayed, Richard Branson, Bernie Ecclestone, Conrad Black, Simon Cowell. Now Tony Blair goes into the mincer. What comes out are fragments barely recognisable as human flesh. The book is unfailingly unpleasant, inexcusably unfair and, most of the time, rather irresistible. The truth about Teflon Tony, according to Bower, is that from the start he was a lightweight, a butterfly or a gnat—depending on which species you think has the shorter attention span—a hopeless manager, a vain, ghastly, money-grubbing humbug, utterly unsuited to be Prime Minister.

How he came to be that way is not revealed to us, which is why you couldn’t call the book a biography. We learn nothing about Blair’s background, or his childhood, or how he came to be Leader of the Opposition without ever having had a proper job in politics. His heart trouble is brushed aside in a sentence. His family are scarcely mentioned in the book, except for the occasional slighting reference to his wife Cherie Booth—“she wasn’t the outstanding lawyer they proclaimed,” “she was undoubtedly intelligent, but she was far from brilliant.” Surprising, then, that she came top of the country in her bar exams and was a QC in no time. Anything I have read by her on human rights has struck me as cogent and thoughtful.

But for all its raucous tone and saucy quotes, this is a curiously impersonal book. Almost the only glimpse of la vie intime is Bower’s account of Blair’s close friendship with Wendi Deng, Mrs Rupert Murdoch, after which she so abruptly ceased to be Mrs Rupert Murdoch.

And if this can’t claim to be a biography, it can’t claim to be a political history of the period either. I was repeatedly struck—no, flabbergasted—by the near-total omission of many of the episodes in those years that seemed to me memorable and significant.

Let’s start with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. In Broken Vows, Northern Ireland gets just four sentences—and those are only there to point up how success in Ulster encouraged Blair’s vainglory in the Middle East. Yet for those on both sides of the Irish Sea, the Agreement was a blessing, the end of three decades of poisonous strife. It was negotiated with exemplary patience by Blair and his lieutenants, conspicuously Jonathan Powell, his Chief of Staff, who everywhere else in this book is ridiculed as a self-deluded and over-promoted nuisance. Yes, the Agreement was the culmination of painstaking work by previous governments, and it would not have been possible if the Irish Republican Army had not been fought to a standstill. But it would also not have happened without Blair, at the crucial moment, reassuring the Unionists that nobody present would live to see a united Ireland.

Bower tells us scarcely anything either about the Scottish referendum and the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, except to rubbish Donald Dewar, Scotland’s First Minister. The constitutional change of the century—and Bower treats it as a minor political embarrassment. True, Blair was not much interested in the subject, but that does not excuse his biografiend. Ditto with the House of Lords reform, which gets a single sentence on p107. An incomplete piece of work, no doubt, but the ejection of hundreds of hereditary peers was a project that had been on hold since 1911, and was surely worth a word more in a book of 600 pages.

Again with the Human Rights Act and the Freedom of Information Act, which are touched on only because they were to give Blair trouble later on. Yet these too represent significant alterations in British politics, just as the Civil Partnership Act represented a significant change in social life. To describe it merely as intended “to rid the country of institutionalised homophobia” undervalues the grand ambition for sexual equality that it embodied.

These bizarre down-playings and outright omissions might be pardonable if Bower were instead concentrating on hard economics. Au contraire, there is scarcely any economics to be found here. This is partly because he chooses to begin on day one of Blair’s government. Yet a great deal—perhaps the most important bits—of the Tony Blair-Gordon Brown economic policy (at the outset they were a genuine duo) had been settled while Labour was in opposition, especially after the death of their leader John Smith in 1994. Smith (not mentioned by Bower) was a genial and attractive character, but he was old fashioned, if not exactly Old Labour. It is doubtful whether he would have gone along with the modernisation Blair and Brown had in mind, which was, broadly speaking to stick to the Margaret Thatcher settlement. The trade union laws were not to be reversed, income tax rates were not to be jacked up to absurd levels, for the first five years public expenditure would be kept to the levels planned by Ken Clarke, the Tory Chancellor, and the British economy was to be kept open to the world. Only by following these crypto-Thatcherite guidelines would the economy prosper enough to afford those improvements in health, welfare and education that everyone in the Labour Party dreamed of.

It worked, more or less, for quite a time—as much as anything does in politics. The only place it didn’t work was inside the Labour Party, where thousands of new members allured by Blair’s youth and brio were soon as disenchanted as the old Left by the disappearance from the horizon of familiar Labour landmarks. His second and third election victories were greeted without enthusiasm among the faithful. Bower catches something of this. Yes, his large majorities were an amazing statistical achievement, but what were they for? Bower tells us that he voted for Blair in 1997 and excitedly followed his progress from Islington to Downing Street, but he too soon sank into disillusion.

Yet the hollowing out of the Labour Party is another notable absentee from these pages. Bower scarcely dips a toe into the brutal mechanics: how the National Executive Committee and the party conference were drained of influence. Those seaside jamborees might have been rough and tawdry, but they did imbue political life with a genuine vivacity. Worse still was the growing power of the central machine over the selection of candidates (a dismal trend equally apparent in the Conservative Party).

"The hollowing out of the Labour Party is another notable absentee from these pages"
So if we are shortchanged on the constitutional, human rights, economic and party management aspects of the Blair years, what do we get for our money? What we are treated to, in extenso and ad nauseam, is a series of blow-by-blow accounts of meetings between Blair and his senior ministers and civil servants and, above all, between Blair and Brown. And blow-by-blow is right. The vitriol output would be enough to start an old-fashioned ink factory.

“‘Fuck off,’ screamed the Chancellor, and he stormed out of the room” is a typical entry. “You’re a crap Prime Minister and it’s time you moved over and let someone better do the job.” Brown’s team copied their master’s voice. Damian McBride (McPoison to his friends), Ed Balls and Ed Miliband were encouraged to speak to the Prime Minister “like something on a shoe.” Ed Miliband makes a particularly slimy impression. He sidles in from next door to enquire of the Prime Minister: “What is to be gained by you staying on for another six months?” And he brusquely asks Sally Morgan, Blair’s Chief Adviser: “Why haven’t you packed up to go? There’s a deal.” We should not have been surprised when he so cheerfully stabbed his brother in the front. Edmund the Bastard in King Lear was a sweetie by comparison.

No one, however, can outdo the Chancellor himself: “Are you fucking going or not?” he asked in 2004. When Blair refused to step aside immediately, Brown responded: “There is nothing you could ever say to me now that I could ever believe.” This memorable insult was inserted into Robert Peston’s book, Brown’s Britain (2005), at Brown’s own request. What a man.

Deafened by the effing and blinding, I find it hard to get a purchase on exactly when and how it all began to fall apart. There seems to have been little discussion of economic strategy between Blair and Brown at any stage. That didn’t matter so much when Brown was sticking to the agreed figures for public expenditure, but when they began to compete in making extravagant pledges, the outcome was both sulphurous and disastrous: “he’s stolen my fucking budget,” Brown yelled when, in January 2000, without telling him, Blair promised David Frost in a television interview that he would double expenditure on the NHS. Later on, it became virtually impossible to extract figures from Brown. “‘You asked for a fucking document, so there it is,’ shouted Brown, throwing the review papers on Blair’s desk.” The consequences of all that overspending are still with us today.

Nor were Blair’s own crowd much more delicate of speech. Alastair Campbell was as foul-mouthed as he was overbearing and duplicitous. “Fuck off, Tony,” snaps Campbell, pushing the Prime Minister aside as he tries to brief the press on the plane back from Bosnia, “let Charles do this,” then shoving General Charles Guthrie forward to give the sitrep. There seems no limit to the pretensions of this ghastly consigliere: Campbell forces Peter Mandelson to resign (twice), he tells Robin Cook to divorce his wife, he persuades John Scarlett, the Chief of the Joint Intelligence Committee, to let him sex up the Iraq dossier of February 2003, although Scarlett has already recorded his view that the evidence of Saddam’s continued possession of weapons of mass destruction is “sporadic and patchy.” Campbell didn’t care about the revulsion he inspired, believing that his dark arts were essential to Blair’s success. Blair thought so too, and so does Bower to some extent. But I’ve always thought that Blair’s charm and “instinctive savvy” (Bower’s excellent phrase), combined with the chaos in the Tory Party, were enough to do the trick.

Not surprisingly, this foul-breathed crew were deeply unpopular with the permanent civil service. The special feature of Broken Vows is the huge number of interviews Bower had with retired mandarins, all of them itching to tell their stories of humiliation. Robin Butler and his successor as Cabinet Secretary, Richard Wilson, were repeatedly shut out of key discussions. When they were present, their advice was rudely dismissed, especially when they suggested that Blair might like to go through the proper processes—submit the issue to Cabinet, prepare a paper for discussion, set up a Cabinet committee. Everything was settled on the sofa by the gang, which as often as not excluded the Foreign Secretary or the Defence Secretary as well as the Cabinet Secretary. The Chancellor tended to stomp out of the meeting halfway through if it wasn’t going his way. Meetings of the official Cabinet lasted 30 or 40 minutes and decided nothing worth mentioning. Even when they did come overwhelmingly to one conclusion, not to proceed with the Millennium Dome, Blair (who had left the room) later overruled it.

We must not romanticise previous practice. Other prime ministers had bypassed Cabinet and settled important matters between a handful of trusted ministers. If Blair brushed aside Butler’s suggestion that Cabinet ought to discuss the independence of the Bank of England, Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet did not get a sniff of the Chancellor Geoffrey Howe’s decision to abolish exchange controls. Nor was Brown’s paranoid secrecy about the contents of his budgets so unusual. Chancellors have always done their best to keep their colleagues, often including the PM, in the dark up to the last minute.

But there was something uniquely dysfunctional about Blair’s style of doing business. Visitors to Downing Street wondered at the paucity of Cabinet papers and the failure, often wilful but sometimes merely thoughtless, to keep minutes of meetings. Initiatives poured out of Blair’s team and then withered into oblivion as soon as his mind skittered on to some other topic. He moaned that he kept pulling the levers but nothing happened. Sometimes he blamed obstructive civil servants, sometimes his useless ministers. Bower goes along with some of this, often describing this or that minister or permanent secretary as feeble, indolent or shy. Yet this book represents the revenge of the mandarins, for it offers abundant evidence that you cannot consistently abuse the processes of government and then complain that the ruddy machine doesn’t work however hard you kick it.

Part of the trouble on the home front was that New Labour had no clear idea what it wanted to do, except spend billions more on schools and hospitals. To differentiate themselves from the wicked Tories, they began by sweeping away most of the Tory structures for promoting diversity, competition and devolution within the monolithic state services. Then a few of them, led by Blair, began to twig that the Conservative approach might actually produce better results, and a second wave of “reforms” began that furtively imitated it but without using the dread words “market” or “competition.” By the end of the Blair years, they had got back more or less to where they had started. With all the billions showered on doctors, nurses and teachers, the services were probably beginning to work as well as they ever had (certainly that was the view of quite a few consultants and head teachers). Bower ridicules Blair for the chaos, but it has to be said that Blair was at least leading the learning curve, while most of his ministers and civil servants were stuck in the 1940s.

Just how decisive Blair’s role was can be seen from the counter-example of immigration. Blair shared the general view of his ministers and the Home Office that immigration was a good thing, and that only Tories and racists would choose to raise it as a political issue. So at every turn, Labour opted to slacken controls rather than tighten them: by abolishing the “primary purpose” rule, by refusing to join other European Union nations in at least delaying free entry for citizens from new member states, by extending the legal rights of asylum seekers while purporting to keep out bogus applicants. Because Blair never understood the public anxiety, New Labour never responded to it.

In foreign affairs, Bower is unremittingly hostile to Blair and contemptuous even of his supposed achievements. In Kosovo, success is due to the Americans; in Iraq, failure is due to his own failure to tell the Americans what to do (the actual military victory disappears without trace from Bower’s narrative). He sends too many troops to Sierra Leone, and not nearly enough to Afghanistan. And, of course, the lies that led up to the second Iraq war remain blatant and unforgiveable.

That last verdict is now echoed by almost everyone, including those who were happy to see Saddam Hussein removed. Iraq destroyed Blair’s reputation in Britain for ever, just as Suez destroyed Anthony Eden’s. And its aftershock was to destroy New Labour too. Which is part of the reason why Blair now wanders the globe in search of fresh despots and billionaires to court, a ghostly Flying Dutchman laden with loot. The last 50 pages of Broken Vows, describing the post-Downing Street years, are marvellously researched but so depressing that I found them hard to get through. The greed and the humbug are every bit as bad as Bower says, but one is struck too by the unspeakable tedium: the vacuous conferences in cavernous five-star hotels, the fake geniality of the private interviews with sheikhs and shysters, the millions of dollars shunted around the globe for projects which are unlikely ever to happen.

The details of the Iraq story are by now so well known that Bower cannot tell us much that is new and we cannot expect much more from John Chilcot’s report into the war when and if that tramp steamer ever makes its home port. But Bower’s account does at least remind us of some interesting early steps that led Blair on to this fatal path. We have to go back to 1998, when President Bill Clinton ordered B-52s to bomb Iraq, in order to destroy Saddam’s strongly suspected stocks of chemical and biological weapons. Blair spoke in Parliament even at that time of “improving the possibility of removing Saddam Hussein altogether.” The United States Congress had that year passed the Iraq Liberation Act, which empowered the President to remove Saddam. So the President, whoever he might be, already had a free hand, but the British Prime Minister, especially a Labour Prime Minister, did not.
"All politicians wing it, but Blair was in perpetual flight, seldom anchored to any solid research or argument"
It was in April 1999 that Tony Blair flew to Chicago to deliver his speech in defence of liberal intervention to a ballroom full of whooping Republicans. The speech was drafted by Lawrence Freedman (who is today one of Blair’s inquisitors on the Chilcot Inquiry). The speech still reads pretty well. It sets out with clarity how difficult it would be for a British Labour PM to do what Blair did four years later. Yes, the world ought not to tolerate genocide and internal repression, but the United Nation’s Charter expressly forbade (in Article 2.7) interference in the internal affairs of a member state. The Chicago speech therefore called for a thorough reform of the UN’s role, workings and decision-making processes. That is still a long way off. Without this reform, only a trumped-up excuse such as lurking weapons of mass destruction could hope to secure UN approval, and when the trumping-up was itself trumped up, then the whole expedition was morally and politically doomed. The Chicago speech also warned against the easy option of “exit strategies”: “having made a commitment we cannot simply walk away once the fight is over.” Blair had only to re-read the words he had uttered in Chicago to realise that, in the eyes of the Labour Party, toppling Saddam could never be acceptable.

There was, of course, the decent alternative adopted by Harold Wilson over the Vietnam War: to have offered the Americans sympathy and covert help but no troops (Bush told Blair several times that he would have understood). In the long run, the value of shoring up a modern, open Labour Party would have outweighed Britain’s modest contribution to the war. But that was an option too retiring for Blair’s ego.

In any case, reflecting was never Blair’s forte. Bower tells us he read little of anything: he never seems to have finished his red boxes, he had read almost no history or politics; he was ignorant of large tracts of recent political events. All politicians have to wing it now and then, but Blair was in perpetual flight, seldom anchored to any solid foundation of research or argument. Ultimately, New Labour slipped its moorings and floated off into the unremembered yonder, and in floated the even less tethered Corbyn balloon. If only Tony Blair had loved the limelight a little less and the Labour Party a little more, it might all have ended so differently.