I was seventeen when Blair was first elected in that magnificent landslide in 1997, and can recall being utterly transfixed by the jubilant and ecstatic celebration of democracy, by the sea of red flags and the tip-ex smiles on stage. Blair was young, articulate and in touch with an evolving Britain. Like Obama would be in 2008. Ten years of governing would change that completely but Bower fails to articulate the initial mood of optimism. “Broken promises” is, as the name suggests, a critical review of Blair, backed up with analytical research and interviews with over two-hundred civil servants that worked with him. Although, crucially, Bower did not have access to any of the key players. This is typical of the modern day revisionism around Blair, “He won three successive elections…and that meant he was successful. But, for others, there is a difference between success at the polls against weak opponents and success in government”. It is possible to acknowledge that Blair was a vote winning machine and also criticise his tenure. Yet, when Bower reduces the electoral success of the New Labour machine to being because they only had to get elected against weak opponents, it weakens the strength of his criticisms and lessens his overall objectivity.
It is fascinating reading the book through the lens of Brexit, and Bower goes to painstaking detail to lift the lid on the Blair policy on immigration, or lack thereof. “We need immigration, it is not an issue -even the Daily Mail isn’t talking about it”, claimed Blair. Aside from the actual policy on immigration, this comment is revealing for how Blair equates what is right with what the media are saying and any personal philosophy.
The Home Office took advice from several people who agreed with their open doors policy, including Sarah Spencer whom Bowers wrote, “Her assumption that the British would unquestionably accept hundreds of thousands of migrants was underpinned by the BBC’s general categorisation of critics of immigration as racist, which had censored public debate”. Blair banked on this sentiment and believed, like Spencer, that it was necessary to hold a certain “disdain (for) white Britain’s glorification of British history and identity. British society could be transformed, she hoped, by relaxing the home offices immigration controls”.
This was the initial Labour strategy, if you could call it that, and it continued after the 2001 election when Blunkett replaced Straw. After blaming him for not doing a whole lot, Blunkett continued on in the same vein. Labour had targeted a level of immigration of 100,000 in 2001 but 500,000 came in. As Europe expanded, so too did the number of countries that would be allowed into the free movement area. Britain had a chance to add some elements of control but New Labour were more worried with the optics of “being good Europeans” and promptly kept going. Even the Germans wanted to impose some basic initial controls.
Fast forward to 2004. Of the 350,000 immigrants that have arrived, Blunkett remarked on Newsnight, “there is no obvious upper limit on immigration”. Proof that their strategy was, quite simply, to keep the doors open. Bower highlights how Blair would occasionally discuss an anodyne, opaque aspiration on immigration but never with any clear vision of how to control it. It has now become apparent that this strategy is not sustainable over the long term and was a large part in the UK leaving the European Union in 2016.
Blair is proud of his legacy in education but Bower argues that a lot of what Blair deemed good results were achieved by spinning the facts to make the results better than the reality. In 2005, the OECD released a report where England had fallen from 13th to 22nd for education measures. Blair and Campbell spun the news to within an inch of its life. Bower believed that New Labour was forever looking for the quick fix that Blair could sell with a cheap soundbite.
When Blair built a plethora of Muslim faith schools due to them being a cheaper alternative to the expensive, multidenominational State schools, he was informed of the risk that creating areas where immigrants would not mix together cohesively would have. He pushed on and refused to contemplate any downside.
Blair was an admirer of the “Third Way” and a firm believer in centrism. The benefits of this are obvious. Cherry pick the best of right and left, and mould them into an effective policy, thereby pleasing the majority of non ideologically motivated people. The drawback is that you do not stand for anything and change policy when it does not suit. For Blair, he often referred to the innate “belief” that he had. “I only know what I believe” he would utter. Bower also alleged that he was not well educated on pre-1939 history, painting a picture of an uneducated leader who frequently acted due to his “feelings” on key issues. As he had no moral ideology, he increasingly relied upon what he believed was his innate sense that he knew to be the right course of action, even when confronted with evidence that contradicted his beliefs. When it was put to him that invading Iraq would contravene International law, he said, “There are many views on international law”. This indicated the worst of Blair, a leader spinning objective facts to suit his own belief. A toxic combination. It also highlights a profound belief in the Post-Modern belief system. He did not think that International Law, or any law, was completely objective or immutable, he did not believe in objective truth. He thought that subjective truth could trump it.
Blair did not fund the British army adequately at any stage during his time as Prime Minister. This was at odds with how he saw Britain in the world. He wanted to increase Britain’s involvement on the global stage. He irresponsibly ignored members of his own defence cabinet, who told him that the soldiers in the British army “lacked the necessary body armour”. Bower highlights how lied during his testimony at the Chilcot hearings when he said that money was never an issue.
His philosophy on foreign policy was akin to the Ed Burke maxim about evil flourishing when good men do nothing. Indeed, he repackaged this for a speech that he gave. He saw himself as Churchill, not Chamberlain. Blair was instrumental and persuasive in stopping Milosevic slaughtering civilians in Kosovo. Or as Bower generously puts it, “He had taken a gamble and won”.
He believed that Blair used the moral authority that he had now acquired by this initial victory in Kosovo to validate future foreign policy excursions. When the British army managed to prevent a civil war in Sierra Leone in 2000, this further bolstered in him that his “belief” system was right.
There are some revealing insights into Blair’s psyche post 9/11 and pre Iraq war. Bowers quotes Christopher Meyer, “He was more Neocon than the Americans!” Blair glibly ignored Middle East experts Peter Rickett’s and Michael William’s advice that Saddam Hussein was the only thing holding the Sunni and Shia divide together, saying “That is the past, not the future”. There is also something very oddly arrogant about the way that Blair stopped inviting Richard Wilson and David Omand from meetings involving Iraq. Writes Bower, “Blair’s position was unprecedented. No other British Prime Minister had planned to start a war while distrusting his chief of defence, the permanent secretary at the MOD, the cabinet secretary, the foreign minister, the defence secretary and most of his cabinet”.
Blair chose to ignore the increasing evidence that Saddam had no WMD’s. Nigel Inkster, from MI6, flew to Jordan and reported, categorically, that there were none in Iraq. Once again, Blair acted on his belief and said that he “felt the hand of fate on his shoulder”. Strangely, leaders in the UN, France and Germany did not “feel” the same way.
During the Iraq war, with the army stretched to breaking point, Blair sent troops into Afghanistan. This was after Blair had ignored a plea for an extra three thousand more troops to help the worsening situation in Iraq from Walker. Again, he did not heed the advice from his generals and pushed on with what he believed in. The intervention here did not even have an objective, something even the disastrous Iraq War had had. There were some shocking reports of the army not knowing how prevalent the Taliban were in certain districts. In some ways, it seemed more chaotic than Iraq. There was no vision, plan or exit strategy. £38 billion was spent and 400 British servicemen needlessly killed.
Most independent observers would admit that the NHS was left in a substantially better condition in 2007 than in 1997. Whilst Bower does not outright deny this, he is reluctant to acknowledge it. His logic is that Blair changed tactics and key personnel multiple times, destabilising the department. Furthermore, he concludes that what Blair really did, especially when encountering issues, was to throw more money at the problem. That it was the money and not the reforms that really improved the service. Bower reflects on how the soundbite was always the key point for Blair. He was a salesman who wanted to show what he was doing. He did intend to reform but was never genuinekt invested in the process. He would always choose the former. It is an interesting critique and brings to mind the wise words of Rosa Luxembourg, “The most revolutionary thing that one can do is always to proclaim loudly what is happening”. Bower does not seem to give Blair any credit for this. He does not acknowledge that Blair’s real genius was in his ability to clearly articulate what was happening.
The post 2007 years:
Whilst in power, Blair spoke about ridding the world of despotic tyrants but then, once out on his own, cosied up to them for his own financial gain, exposing him as a hypocritical opportunist. He advised Cameron to let Gaddafi into Britain when he was looking for refuge after the Libyan people revolted against him. He gave Nazarbayev, the vicious Kazak autocrat, advice on how to manage the press after he massacred fourteen of his own people in the Zhanaozen massacre. In 2013, he suggested removing Assad from power and then in 2014, he changed his mind and said the West should work with him. Backing Gaddafi, Assad and Nazarbayev is not a good look and it also makes a mockery of Blair’s grandstanding about removing Hussein because he was a brutal dictator. Unsurprising then that he had no qualms about doing business with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait too. As Bower points out, when it came to lining his own pockets, morality did not come into the equation for Blair.
When he started his role as peace envoy between Israel and Palestine, he said to the British consulate in Jerusalem, “I’ve solved Ireland. This is just another problem”, displaying a stunning mix of arrogance and ignorance. When he wore a yarmulke to the funeral of Shinon Peres, he discarded any vestiges of impartiality he had worn, understandably incensing the Palestinians.
Bowers unearths that Blair had spent £25m on property whilst setting up numerous legal and financial ruses to stop the public learning exactly how much he was earning. £25m.
Bower dismisses the positives of Blair’s time as Prime Minster. He does not discuss Britain’s economic growth under Blair, which grew at an average of 1.4% for ten consecutive years. This was a phenomenal achievement. Doubtless, Blair should not be entitled to claim all the credit for it but it seems a little unfair not to mention it. They outstripped the growth of the other G6 nations during this time and were a benchmark in steady economic growth.
Blair’s legacy will most likely not be as negative as is portrayed in “Broken Promises” nor as positive as the one that he likes to spin himself. The truth is somewhere in the middle ground that Blair loved to occupy. It remains a pity that Bower could not find it. We still await the definitive Blair biography.