I was 17 when Tony Blair first got elected in that magnificent landslide in 1997. I was transfixed by the jubilant and ecstatic celebration of democracy; that sea of red flags. Blair was young, articulate and in touch with an evolving Britain. Like Obama in 2008. Yes, 10 years of governing would change that completely but Bower does a pretty poor job of articulating the feeling at the time. “Broken promises” is, as the name suggests, a critical review of Blair. 600 pages of analytical and scientific research with interviews with over 200 civil servants that worked with him. Although, crucially, he did not have access to any of the key players. Bower starts off with his take on that heady era: “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”. Fair enough. Although it seems harsh to gloss over this.
It is fascinating reading the book through the lens of Brexit etc. and Bower goes to painstaking detail to lift the lid on the Blair policy on immigration, or lack thereof. Blair was telling Jack Straw right from the beginning that “we need immigration, it is not an issue -even the Daily Mail isn’t talking about it”.
The Home Office took advice from several people who agreed with them. Sarah Spencer was among them, “Her assumption that the British would unquestionably accept hundreds of thousands of migrants was underpinned by BBC’s general categorisation of critics of immigration as racist, which had censored public debate”. Blair banked on this sentiment throughout his premiership. He thought that, like Spencer, who “disdained 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 does much the same thing. Labour had targeted a level of immigration of 100,000 in 2001 but 500,000 came in. As Europe expanded the number of countries that would be allowed into the free movement area, Britain had a chance to add some controls but Labour and Blair 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. 350,000 immigrants have come in. Blunkett says on Newsnight: “there is no obvious upper limit on immigration”. Bower highlights how Blair would occasionally discuss vague aspirations on immigration but never had any clear vision of how to control it and was content to let it increase to virtually any number. 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 this area 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 as much as possible and Blair gave a speech selling the positives of the Labour strategy. Bower says he was always looking for the quick fix that he could sell with a cheap soundbite.
When Blair built lots of Muslim faith schools as it was a cheaper alternative to the expensive, multidenominational state ones, he was told of the risk of creating areas where immigrants would not mix together cohesively. 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, pleasing everyone. 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 alleges that he was not well educated on pre-1939 history. The picture he paints is 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 the right course of action, even when the evidence was not backing up his point of view. 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.
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 step up their global involvement and was pro-intervention. However, when members of his own defence cabinet were telling him that the soldiers “lacked the necessary body armour”, he ignored them. This was irresponsible. Bower highlights how he got caught out in an obvious lie when he testified at the Chilcot hearings and said that money was never an issue.
His philosophy on foreign policy was coming from the Ed Burke school of thought of evil flourishing when good men do nothing. Indeed, he repackaged this quote for a speech he gave to the commons. He saw himself as Churchill, not Chamberlain. Blair was instrumental and persuasive in stopping Milosevic slaughtering civilians in Kosovo. An example of where intervention was justified. Bower’s take on it: “He had taken a gamble and won”. This is where Bower does not seem to be objective about Blair.
He believes Blair used the 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 him that his “belief” system was right.
There are some revealing insights into Blair’s psyche post 9/11 and pre-Iraq war in the book. He quotes Christopher Meyer: “He was more Neocon than the Americans”! He glibly ignored Middle East experts Peter Rickett’s and Michael Williams 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 odd, suspicious and arrogant about the way that Blair stopped inviting Richard Wilson and David Omand from meetings involving Iraq. Says 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 MOD, the cabinet secretary, the foreign minister, the defence secretary and most of his cabinet”.
Blair chose to ignore the increasing evidence to say 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 3,000 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 the district etc. 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 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 fully invested in this. 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, he 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 14 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 completely unacceptable. Unsurprising then that he had no qualms about doing business with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait too. As Bower says – 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 Peres’ funeral he discarded any vestiges of impartiality he had had in the process, incensing the Palestinians.
We further learn that Blair has spent £25m on property. £25m. This despite him setting up numerous legal and financial ruses to stop the public learning exactly how much he was earning.
Bower minimises and dismisses the positives of Blair’s time as Prime Minster. There is no discussion of Britain’s economic growth in the book. The UK grew at an average of 1.4% every year for 10 years in a row. This was a phenomenal achievement. Doubtless, it was not all Blair’s doing 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. Just a pity that Bower could not find it. We still await the definitive Blair biography.