Tony Blair under the knife

A review of Tom Bower’s Broken Vows: Tony Blair and the Tragedy of Power by WALE OKEDIRAN.

THE biographer, Tom Bower, in his voluminous 2016 book, Broken Vows: Tony Blair and The Tragedy of Power published by Faber and Faber Ltd., London, is unsparing of the ex-British Prime Minister in and out of office. Bower discloses that he originally intended to focus on Blair’s years in office but decided to look further due to an interesting occurrence.

He explains “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 argument continued over the following days, and by the end I realised 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.”

Blair’s sins, according to Bower, are the controversial invasion of Iraq, the  untrue claims of rebuilding Britain’s schools, hospitals and welfare services and his decision to open the doors of his country to migrants. Bower is equally contemptuous of Blair outside of office when he asks, “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’’?

In 2016, the Iraq Inquiry strongly criticised Blair’s 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 believe 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 is the vast wealth that he has accumulated since leaving office, through his advisory position with JP Morgan Chase and speaking engagements.

However, Blair’s friends and legatees have come to the former Prime Minister’s defence by insisting that the man, who spent 10 years in Downing Street, left a formidable legacy.  They highlight 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 earning a decent living as a result of the minimum wage.

However, one’s conclusion after reading the 630 -page  book divided into four parts and 50 chapters is that despite its claim to evidence-based information, it’s a partial, revisionist version of Tony Blair’s premiership.  Had Bower limited his conclusions to some of Blair’s errors of judgment, which is not uncommon with 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.

However, Bower’s main fault is the book’s conclusion to the effect that Blair did not achieve anything during his 10-year premiership when available records show that despite some of his political shortcomings, Blair actually transformed Britain as Prime Minister.  And 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.

Nonetheless, 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.”