Watching democracy in action always gives me a kick. I was seventeen when Blair and New Labour swept all before them in that magnificent landslide in 1997. Blair was young, articulate and in touch with the times. Ten years of governing would change that completely but Bower failed to capture the zeitgeist at the time. To be fair, Bower was honest about his intentions in writing his biography “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”. “Broken promises” is a critical review of Blair, backed up with painstaking research and interviews with over two-hundred civil servants that worked with him. Although, disappointingly, he did not interview any of the key players or top aides. Once you accept the type of biography Bower set out to write, it is a valuable one to read, yet it is far from the fairest or most objective portrait of Blair.
It is fascinating, and unfair, reading Bower’s biography after Brexit. The problem with history books is that it is always easier to contextualise after the event. Nonetheless, it is not difficult to see how Blair’s policy on immigration, or lack thereof, resulted in the UK’s subsequent departure from Europe. “We need immigration, it is not an issue – even the Daily Mail isn’t talking about it”, said Blair. This failure to foresee that turning on the taps of uncontrolled immigration would result in an obvious backlash was misguided. Blair’s comment also revealed how he used the media perception of him to decide whether or not he was taking the correct course of action.
The Home Office took advice from several people who agreed with their open doors policy, including Sarah Spencer, of 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 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 was more worried about the optics of “being good Europeans” and continued with their strategy.
Commenting on the 350,000 immigrants that had arrived in 2004, Blunkett remarked on Newsnight that “there is no obvious upper limit on immigration”. More evidence that their strategy remained unaltered. Bower highlighted how Blair occasionally discussed some anodyne, opaque aspirations on immigration but never with any clear vision of how to control it.
Blair remains proud of his legacy in education to this day, but Bower argued 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 that identified that England had fallen from 13th to 22nd in the education rankings. Campbell spun the report to within an inch of its life. It was Bower’s assessment that Blair and New Labour prioritised the quick fix that Blair could sell with a cheap soundbite over any long-lasting strategy.
When Blair built a plethora of Muslim faith schools because they were 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 so-called “Third Way” political philosophy. The benefits of which were obvious as Blair cherry-picked the best parts from the right and left and moulded them into an effective policy, thereby pleasing the majority of non-ideologically motivated people. The drawback was that Blair did not stand for anything concrete and frequently changed policy. Blair 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 and painted a picture of an uneducated leader who frequently acted according to his “feelings” on key issues. As he had no moral ideology, he increasingly relied upon what he believed was his innate sense of what 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 – spinning objective facts to suit his own beliefs. It also highlighted how his somewhat postmodern mindset in that he did not think that International Law, or any law, was completely objective or immutable. He did not believe in objective truth. The postmodern denial of belief in overarching narratives suited his lack of ideology.
Blair did not fund the British army adequately at any stage during his time as Prime Minister which 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 had informed him that the soldiers in the British army “lacked the necessary body armour”. Bower highlighted how Blair lied during his testimony at the Chilcot hearings when he said that money was never an issue and remains mystified as to why this lie was not more rigorously followed up on.
His philosophy on foreign policy borrowed from the right and he liked the Edmund 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 and not Chamberlain. Before the disaster in Iraq, Blair was instrumental and persuasive in stopping Milosevic slaughtering civilians in Kosovo. Or as Bower disingenuously put it, “He had taken a gamble and won”. This is proof of Bower’s lack of objectivity as he just put his successes down to luck. Foreign Policy is extremely complex. The world has been guilty of standing by and watching atrocities like that in the Balkans take place. That he was successful there was to his credit.
Bower believed that Blair used the moral authority that he had by then acquired with 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. Bowers quoted 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 was something very arrogant about the way that Blair disinvited Richard Wilson and David Omand from meetings that involved Iraq. Wrote 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, then of MI6, flew to Jordan and reported, categorically, that there were no weapons of mass destruction 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 was right. The intervention in Afghanistan did not even have an objective and 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 were needlessly killed. Doubtless, Blair’s previous success in Kosovo had emboldened him. The Iraq War was the epitome of how his lack of a moral compass got him into trouble. To me, violence is only ever justified in a defensive capacity. Therefore, Kosovo was justified after the horrible ethnic cleansing at Srebrenica. However, this was not the case in Afghanistan or Iraq and both of these wars were illegal and unjust.
Most independent observers would admit that the NHS was left in a substantially better condition in 2007 than in 1997 and whilst Bower did not outright deny this, he was reluctant to acknowledge it. His logic was that Blair changed tactics and key personnel multiple times which destabilised the department. Furthermore, he concluded that what Blair really did was to throw more money at the problem and it was this and not the reforms that really improved the service. Bower reflected on how the soundbite was always more important for Blair. Essentially he was a salesman who wanted to show what he was doing. 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.
Whilst in power, Blair spoke about ridding the world of despotic tyrants which is a noble aim. Why, then, did he cosy up to them for his own financial gain after he left his post as Prime Minister? Bower does an excellent job of highlighting Blair as a hypocritical opportunist. Shockingly, Blair had advised Cameron to let Gaddafi into Britain when he was looking for refuge after the Libyan people had revolted against him. Blair gave Nazarbayev, the vicious Kazak autocrat, advice on how to manage the press after his regime murdered 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 was not a good look and it also made a mockery of Blair’s grandstanding about removing Hussein because he was a brutal dictator. It was not really surprising that he had no qualms about doing business with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait either. As Bower pointed 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, Blair 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 Shimon Peres, he discarded any vestiges of impartiality and incensed the Palestinians. Bowers unearthed 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.
Bower dismisses the positives of Blair’s time as Prime Minister. He did not discuss Britain’s economic growth under Blair, which grew at an average of 1.4% for ten consecutive years. Doubtless, Blair should not be entitled to claim all the credit for that but it seems a little unfair not to mention it as 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 find it although, as of 2017, Blair’s legacy appears like it will borrow more from the right than the left and follow Enoch Powell’s assessment that all political careers end in failure.