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Gladstonian, not Bushman

by Meghnad Desai

Gladstonian, not Bushman

Broken Vows: Tony Blair – The Tragedy of Power by Tom Bower is a surprisingly dull book. Bower is known for forensic investigations into the great and good. But with Blair he fails for the simple reason that much of what he reveals is already known.

I met Blair soon after he came into parliament. He was open and friendly. Very much like his friend Bill Clinton, he never forgets a face or name, and can retrieve it the minute he gives you a vigorous handshake. When he was shadow home secretary, he told us people in the constituency parties to stop being anti-police and remember that the poor suffered more from burglary and petty crime than the rich. He knew how to make Labour popular again.

Credible party of government

The day in 1994 my secretary at the London School of Economics and Political Science told me the shocking news that John Smith, the Labour party’s then leader, had died, my first thought was that Blair would be his successor. There was never any doubt. He was an outstanding leader, winning the Labour party three successive general election victories with a large majority. We may be nostalgic about Clement Attlee or Harold Wilson. But Blair made Labour a credible party of government.

Bower starts with 1997 and the advent of the New Labour administration. He relentlessly tries to portray the government as faltering, lost and confused. Except for Margaret Beckett and Jack Cunningham, no one in that first Cabinet had experience of holding office.

Yet they were young and eager to pursue their modernising agenda. If Margaret Thatcher had modernised the economy by jettisoning the nationalised industries, New Labour would modernise the political system and society. New Labour also thought the civil service would be a roadblock to its crusade. It is easy to think of the civil service as villains for a generation reared on the popular television programme Yes Minister.

Much of what Bower describes is New Labour’s learning experience. Blair knew that whatever happened or did not happen would be blamed on him, not his Cabinet colleagues. Bower finds this peculiar, but Blair was right. He was in a hurry to implement his vision. As with many previous prime ministers, he discovered that change takes time and requires herding a disparate collection of civil servants, members of parliament, Cabinet colleagues and even sympathetic journalists – the worst prima donnas of them all.

As always the National Health Service proves difficult to reform. No matter who is in power, the NHS is ‘in crisis’. Nurses’ morale is low and doctors are overworked. The Labour party thinks of the NHS as its private property, but its supporters want unlimited funding with no reform. Bower does not see the significance of the good reforms, such as that overseen by Alan Milburn, health secretary between 1999 and 2003, establishing the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.

Iraq invasion

Blair was a Gladstonian ‘liberal interventionist’ and it is wrong to think of him as being dragged along by President George W. Bush. He was convinced of the need to tackle Saddam Hussein from the day he took office. There was much unfinished business stemming from Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and Operation Desert Storm, launched to liberate the Gulf state.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq lost Blair millions of friends. But fast forward to today and listen to the demands for the removal of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, if there is to be peace in Syria, and you see Blair’s point.

While Bower spills much ink on the subject of Iraq, he barely mentions Blair’s biggest positive achievement – the Northern Ireland peace process. A dispute harking back to the 1960s, if not the 1920s, was resolved permanently.

Nor does Bower say much about the constitutional reforms Blair achieved – incorporating European human rights legislation into UK law, freedom of information, reform of the judiciary and the House of Lords, devolution for Scotland and Wales, gay rights, and disability rights. All these together merit just one page. Nor does he mention the introduction of the minimum wage, perhaps the New Labour government’s most welcome achievement.

The fascinating saga of the feud between Blair and Brown is rehashed here. It is amazing the government did not disintegrate, with No.10 and No.11 Downing Street permanently at daggers drawn. Of course, once Brown became prime minister he lost all credibility and then the general election.

As to Blair’s money-chasing activities, there is nothing to reveal that we do not know already. John Major, Blair’s Conservative predecessor, is the ideal to follow. He has done high-level work with lucrative clients, but quietly. Blair does not just want wealth: he is still hungry for power and high office.

Bower has read the open book that is Blair. But as his subject said himself, no one will ever be able to settle the score with Blair. He will be talked about and discussed when many of his rivals and detractors are forgotten. 

Meghnad Desai is Emeritus Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Chairman of the OMFIF Advisory Board.