The Demolition of Tony Blair
I tend to be suspicious of biographies of the living. There’s one simple reason: dirt sells.
People don’t want to read about saints whose whiter-than-white reputations sail through the closest scrutiny. They want to know about the hypocrites, the dark sides, the “truth” about a subject that belies a carefully-constructed image. I can only be thankful that I’m not famous enough to have a biography written about me. The same must go for most people I know.
Tom Bower is a journalist and biographer who specialises in trying to take down reputations, or at least to degrade them. Having demolished the likes of Robert Maxwell, Mohamed El-Fayed and Richard Branson in previous volumes, his latest book targets Tony Blair.
No doubt he would deny that he’s a professional hatchet man, but I’m not aware of any of his biographies that have left their subjects with their reputations enhanced. He must have to pay a fortune in legal fees to ensure that he wins the numerous lawsuits brought against him by his prey.
In the case of Tony Blair, the trailer story in this week’s Sunday Times (no point linking it I’m afraid – it’s pay-walled) leaves us in little doubt that the biographer thinks Britain’s former Prime Minister is a thoroughly depraved individual. Bower seems to blame Blair for most of the current failings in our education system, the National Health Service and of course for our involvement in the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. Our present immigration conundrum was apparently his fault as well.
He also trashes Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff. Or, should I say, he quotes Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary of the time as saying that Powell was “quite ridiculous and ludicrous” (a surprising tautology from such an eminent civil service mandarin). Charles Guthrie, the chief of the defence staff, said that Powell was “sitting at a desk outside Blair’s office like a dog in a basket. He was no more a chief of staff than a monkey”.
Strong stuff. Bower also accuses Blair of governing through cronies, or, as he puts it, “sofa government”:
“Crucially, as the latte-sipping, shirt-sleeved chief executive, Blair disdained cabinet committees to crunch the options. In health as in so many key areas, Blair disbanded Whitehall’s traditional mechanisms of government by scrutiny and argument. He preferred the secrecy of sitting on sofas in his den to chew the cud with his cronies. Blair prided himself on his “instinct and belief”.”
No champagne socialists surrounding Blair, it seems. His acolytes were latte lickspittles.
Bower’s piece in the Sunday Times climaxes with the well-worn accusation of deception over the Iraq war – did Saddam have weapons of mass destruction or did he not? And did Blair manipulate the facts to make the case for war? Perhaps we shall find out when the Chilcot Inquiry finally publishes its findings – or not. Bower seems in no doubt that Blair was not only culpable for taking us into war on shaky legal grounds, but for failing to ensure that our armed forces were suitably equipped for battle.
He also blames Blair for the Labour leadership mantle falling on Jeremy Corbyn, who may or may not turn out to be the most ineffective leader of his party since Michael Foot.
After I finishing with Tom Bower’s demolition of a three-term Prime Minister’s reputation, I thought back to my memories of that period. Was it a time when a government’s incompetence and dysfunctionality was plainly evident to ordinary voters like me? Broadly speaking, no. There were aspects of Blair’s administration that were disquieting – such as his constant and obvious feuding with Gordon Brown, and the antics of government spin doctors so brilliantly lampooned by the TV comedy The Thick of It. Gordon Brown’s furtive taxation tactics – especially the raid on pension funds in the late 90s – caused real damage. But all in all there were no failings sufficiently dire to persuade electors to kick New Labour out on its ear until Brown, his grumpy successor, had vacillated his way to defeat in 2010.
Bower, however, makes the Blair years out to be an unmitigated disaster. His evidence – at least as quoted in the Sunday Times article – seems to be coming largely from two sources: Britain’s senior civil servants and generals, who appear to be dripping with bile, and falling over themselves to blame one man for ignoring, bypassing and deceiving them. A collective harrumph from Sir Humphrey, General Melchett and their colleagues in the top tier.
Where are the criticisms from Blair’s ministers, who were supposed to implement his allegedly barmy policies? And what of what went before and came afterwards, which has surely contributed to so many of today’s dysfunctionalities? Was sofa government any worse than Margaret Thatcher’s achievement in reducing her cabinet to quivering yes-men? Does the current government and its coalition predecessor bear no responsibility for the state of our armed forces, schools and hospitals? After all they had six years to put right whatever went wrong in the New Labour years.
To read all the verbal ordure heaped on Blair’s shoulders, you would think that Britain was a dictatorship, with one man’s will prevailing at all times. Clearly it was not. But boy, did he upset his civil servants.
One telling clue that Bower buys wholeheartedly into the mandarin’s contempt of Blair lies in the statement that “Sofa government meant Whitehall’s committees, which scrutinised policies and subjected decisions to rigorous argument, were abandoned”. One wonders about the rigour of the arguments about Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax, Ted Heath’s decision to take on the miners or, further back, Anthony Eden’s Suez escapade. Every government makes mistakes, rigorous arguments in the corridors of Whitehall notwithstanding.
And Bower conveniently forgets that it’s not only Whitehall that scrutinises government policy. Parliament does so as well. So do parliamentary committees that have the power to cross-examine politicians, civil servants and anyone else they choose. Humble voters get the chance to comment on Green and White Papers. And then there are the denizens of the print media, who rarely pass up the opportunity to criticise any government that threatens the interests of Rupert Murdoch and his fellow press barons.
It would be easy to imagine when reading Bower’s piece that Britain’s senior servants are the last bastion against perpetual chaos. Methinks they doth protest too much.
I’m no great fan of New Labour, though I did vote for them in 1997 (and was told by a neighbour that I was a traitor to my country for doing so). The best you can say of them is that while they made some good decisions and some bad ones, they kept the country from falling off a cliff during their years in office. Isn’t that all we can realistically expect from any government?
And is it fair to blame the collective failures of dozens of generals, hundreds of Members of Parliament and thousands of civil servants, not to mention business leaders and yes, us humble citizens, on one man? Bower doesn’t go that far, but all his talk about political legacies overstates the influence of the leader, and underplays the role of “we the people” in determining the fortunes of the nation.
When reading the biographies of political leaders, I believe that we should keep in mind three constants:
With one or two exceptions, politicians are men and women whose honesty – to themselves at least – progressively erodes the longer they’re in power. Civil servants who have to work for them don’t choose their masters; those whose advice is spurned find it hard not to marinade in bile until the time comes to dish the dirt. And finally, there will always be opportunities for those who are prepared to dig for it.
Blair can no doubt console himself with the thought that there’s bound to be a biographer who will one day speak more kindly of him, most likely after he’s gone. The person I feel potentially sorrier for is Gordon Brown. If Tom Bower is planning to sink his talons into Blair’s chief tormentor and ultimate successor for a second time (his first book on Brown was published in 2004), God help the poor man.
I won’t be buying Bower’s book. Reading a biography of a living person is like getting to episode seven of a ten-part TV drama. I prefer to wait before passing judgement until the drama is over and emotion has given way to the long view.
And I suspect there’s a bit of drama to come in the story of Tony Blair.