Tony Blair under the knife

Tony Blair under the knife

Monday, March 6, 2017 7:35 am

Wale Okediran

By Wale Okediran

In May 1997, the Labour Party won a landslide general election victory, the largest in its history, allowing Blair, at 43 years old, to become the youngest Prime Minister since 1812. In September 1997, Blair attained early personal popularity, receiving a 93% public approval rating, after his public response to the death of Princess Diana. The Labour Party went on to win two more elections under his leadership: in 2001, in which it won another landslide victory, and in 2005, with a reduced majority. In the first years of the New Labour government, Blair’s government introduced the National Minimum Wage Act, Human Rights Act, and Freedom of Information Act. Blair’s government also devolved power, establishing the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, and the Northern Ireland Assembly. In Northern Ireland, Blair was involved in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Even though Blair or in that respect any other world Leader could not be said to be infallible, British investigative Biographer, Tom Bower in his voluminous 2016 book; Broken Vows; Tony Blair and The Tragedy Of Power was unsparing of Tony Blair in and out of office.

Bower observed in his book that his original intention to write about Blair was just to focus on his years in office but decided to look further due to an interesting occurrence. As he put it; ‘’ The genesis of the book was a friendly but impassioned argument I had over dinner with a close friend of Blair. She insisted that, thanks to his time in government, only 10 per cent of eleven-year-olds entered secondary school illiterate, whereas in 1997 it was 30 per cent. I believed that there had been no genuine improvement in literacy and numeracy during the Blair years.

The book

The argument continued over the following days, and by the end I realized that no one really knew what had happened during that hectic decade — not only in education but in energy, immigration, health, social welfare, defense and, of course, the events that led Britain and America into two disastrous wars. There are many books describing aspects of those subjects. Most are partial memoirs or gossipy accounts of life among Blair’s inner circle (the best being Andrew Rawnsley’s two volumes). In addition, Alastair Campbell’s diaries provide a useful timetable and a remarkable testament to the prejudices of Blair’s supreme adviser, while Jonathan Powell’s slim record provides a crude study in self-deception.

No book adequately delves beyond the spin masters’ smoke and mirrors to reveal what the government actually achieved. The thirty-six books I read all perpetuate myths and, occasionally, falsehoods about the central events of the period from 1997 to 2007. All ignore the eyewitness accounts by anonymous civil servants who saw so much but have generally kept their counsel. Even those books, articles or TV documentaries that reveal unknown facts about, for example, education or the build-up to the Iraq war present a mosaic rather than a full narrative’’.

In summary, Tony Blair’s sins according to Bower are; the controversial Invasion of Iraq, the untruth about Blair’s claims of rebuilding Britain’s schools, hospitals and welfare services and his covert decision to open the doors of his country to mass immigration. In addition to Blair’s years in office, Bower was equally contemptuous of Blair’s after office era when he asked the loaded question; ‘’How is it that the same man who risked his government to destroy Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein has, since leaving office, earned millions of pounds serving dictators’’?

Even though critics of Blair denounced him for having the Labour Party abandon genuine socialism and accepting capitalism, his supporters, including the party’s public opinion pollster Philip Gould, stated that after four consecutive general election defeats, the Labour Party had to demonstrate that it had made a decisive break from its left-wing past, in order to win an election again. It is also a well- known fact that Blair strongly supported the foreign policy of the Bush administration, and ensured that the British Armed Forces participated in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and, more controversially, the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Blair has faced strong criticism for his role in the invasion of Iraq, including calls for having him tried for war crimes and waging a war of aggression. In 2016, the Iraq Inquiry strongly criticized his actions and described the invasion of Iraq as unjustified and unnecessary. Blair’s critics also refer to his years as UK’s Middle East Envoy where they believed he failed woefully. As they put it; ‘’ The only thing he’s got the Israelis and Palestinians to agree on, so the joke goes, is how much they wish he’d just leave them alone’’
Then there’s the vast wealth that he’s accumulated since leaving office, through his advisory position with JPMorgan Chase and his ability to charge a king’s ransom for after-dinner speaking (hundreds of thousands, if the reports are to be believed).

However, Blair’s legion of friends, believers and legatees have come to the former Prime Minister’s defence by insisting that the man who spent ten years in Downing Street has left an undeniably formidable legacy. Mention is made of the enduring peace in Northern Ireland, which he brokered in the build-up to the Good Friday Agreement as well as the 1.4 million people in the UK making a tenable living as a result of the minimum wage.

And despite the flak he got for the Iraq war, Blair’s supporters still believe that their man was not totally wrong in doing what he did. According to them; ‘’The Iraq War polluted our judgement of everything else that he has done. Indeed, the aftermath of Iraq has been so appalling that we ignore the war’s one area of success. In the past we speculated about Blair’s intentions and the faulty intelligence that led up to the campaign, but one thing is clear: the operation liberated an oppressed people from a crime family. There’s a recent tendency to romanticise Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, but don’t forget that he killed possibly a million of his own people. What if he hadn’t been toppled? Sometimes it’s the things you don’t do that are more damaging. Blair won the battle, even if he lost the peace. There was a time when we were marginally more sympathetic to that. In May 2007, the month before Blair left office – and four years since the war began – he was only two points behind David Cameron in the opinion polls. Blame for the current insurgency cannot be laid solely at Blair’s door.

The prevailing ideology implies that all right-minded MPs hold him responsible, ignoring the fact that heavyweights such as William Hague disagree. In June, the former foreign secretary said: “There are other major forces at work here – the growth of sectarianism in the Middle East, rivalry between different states in the Middle East, the rise of religious intolerance – which are not necessarily provoked or subdued by Western intervention.”

However, Bower remained unconvinced by such postulations; His words; ‘’ The best way to discover the truth about an unknown, Karl Marx famously proposed, is to write. I have taken his advice. My study focuses on five areas: Health, Education, Immigration, Energy and the Wars. Health and Education represented, according to Blair, huge successes for Labour, while the inside story of immigration never been told. Regarding energy, I failed to understand why not a single power station was built throughout Blair’s decade in power, exposing Britain to potential blackouts. The wars speak for themselves.

Regarding Iraq, all the key military officers and many of the civil servants and politicians have broken their silence; I also had the benefit of the televised testimony of about 190 witnesses to the Chilcot inquiry. The road to war in Afghanistan has not been previously explored. It is a shocking story, but understandable in the context of Blair’s approach in other areas of his premiership. In other words, the same characteristics that persuaded Blair to dispatch troops to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan decided the fate of Britain’s education, our health service and the nature of our society. Iraq was not an aberration; it was consistent with his administration of government throughout his decade in office. The story of his tenure reveals the nature of the man today’’.

However, many Blair’s supporters vehemently disagree with Bower. According to a post in the Labour Website; ‘’Whatever may be anybody’s views on Iraq, however, in many ways we would be lucky to have Blair back in British politics today. Every now and then he re-emerges to remind us as much. More recently, he went on Radio 4 to talk about the European elections. His manner telegraphed absolute credibility, his lines did not seem rehearsed and his arguments were more robust, coherent and convincing – not to mention better articulated – than anything we’d heard from those in power. In the context of the current government, it was like listening to Franklin D Roosevelt’’.

Blair’s supporters even went as far as comparing their man with one of his successors, David Cameron; Yet another post on the Labour website had this to say; ‘’Blair’s marquee policies were consistent with what he presented as his convictions. After all, his willingness to keep re-stating his original position on Iraq, fully aware of the obloquy that it provokes, is astonishingly steadfast. Contrast that to David Cameron. It was no shock to us when he switched from hugging trees to hating wind farms, or changed his emphasis to pander to UKIP voters. Where the coalition seems to have been successful, it has often built on Blair’s groundwork. Michael Gove’s free schools are the genetic descendants of Blair’s academies. Tory members privately despair over how little Cameron seems to stand for’’.

Bower, perhaps mindful of the above reaction to his book among other reactions from Blair’s legion of admirers had this to say; ‘’ To those readers who suspect my motives, let me declare the following. I voted for Blair in 1997 and excitedly watched his drive from Islington to Downing Street. Like the majority of Britons, I did believe that this was a new dawn. Before the election, I had met socially many of those close to Blair, including Peter Mandelson and Mastair Campbell, and had no reason to distrust them. I have met Blair once at a Hampstead dinner party in 1996 to celebrate Mandelson’s birthday and was bemused to discover that Labour’s leader knew nothing about Harold Wilson (with whom I had spent two memorable weeks as a BBC TV producer during the October 1974 election) or any of his predecessors.

Besides that, I did not doubt that he was sincere. In 2003, I supported the invasion of Iraq. I believed the prime minister’s warning that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and even, to the bemusement of friends, followed the government’s advice to stock up on tinned goods and spare batteries. Thirteen years later, I am neither disenchanted nor angry about Blair or his party. I am not a Labour supporter, but I remain mightily influenced by the student radicalism I absorbed during the 1960s at the then uniquely blessed London School of Economics.

So please accept that what follows
— my twenty-first book — while fuelled by curiosity is not motivated in prejudice. Rather, I was compelled to research this book because, like most Britons, I could not understand how the ‘whiter than white’ Prime Minister of 1997 evolved into a derided carpetbagger. Were we all fooled at the outset by a brilliant actor, or did an honest man fall victim to the temptations of power? Did he embark on government in bad faith or, infected by vanity and unmoored values, did he slowly lose his way amid situations he did not understand? Will his still loyal friends, after reading this book, retreat from their high ground? Or are Blair’s critics, as he asserts, guilty of mean-spirited ingratitude? Will history, as he believes, hail his greatness?

Laudable as the above statement from Bower might sound, my conclusion after reading his beautiful 630 page ‘Tony Blair; The Tragedy Of Power’ which is divided into four parts and 50 Chapters is that, the book despite its claim to evidence based information is a partial, revisionist version of Tony Blair’s premiership. Had Bower limited his conclusions to some of Tony Blair’s failures of judgement which is not uncommon with many great world leaders, the book would have achieved its objectives. After all, in spite of the failure of the CIA orchestrated 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in which more than 100 Americans died, John F Kennedy still remains one of America’s most beloved Presidents till date. Neither could the failed 1972 Munich Olympic massacre and the failed 1980 Iranian hostage rescue at the US Embassy in Teheran among other failed military exercises could be held against the principal world leaders .

However, Bower’s main Achilles Tendon is his book’s conclusion to the effect that Blair did not achieve anything during his ten year premiership. However, available records have it that Tony Blair, despite some of his political shortcomings, actually transformed Britain as Prime Minister. Records show that the transformation was not just about Northern Ireland and the minimum wage: Other legacies include; Civil partnerships, The Bank of England independence, The Welsh Assembly, The Scottish Parliament, A Mayor of London as well as a plunging crime rate. Even abroad, his brand of liberal interventionism in Sierra Leone and Kosovo was a success. He is a hero to Kosovan Albanians, many of whom have named their children “Tonibler” in his honour.

Despite this, Tom Bower should be commended for producing another important addition to the literature of politics; ‘’a dramatic re-evaluation of Tony Blair which disentangles the mystery of an extraordinary politician’’


This is Wale Okediran’s review of Tony Blair; The Tragedy of Power, written by Tom Bower (Faber and Faber Ltd, London, 2016)

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