June 16, 2016

This is a review of the book Broken Vows: Tony Blair — The Tragedy of Power by Tom Bower that I posted on Library Thing…

I have been searching for a book that tells the story of the Blair government with credibility. While this book, by Tom Bower, is one of the best I’ve read (the author has no need to be self-serving) Tony Blair slips away with his motivations not explained.

The book appears to be well-researched and I delighted in many of the details; the early signs of government going wrong, Blair committing to fighting poverty from Richard Branson’s beach (having enjoyed a meal cooked by the Shah of Iran’s former chef).

What was particularly surprising was the degree to which there were two labour governments operating within Whitehall, each with different agendas. This is illustrated by schemes such as Sure Start and ILAs where Gordon Brown’s team was acting independently across government departs using the Treasury to provide social services. At a more personal level, Brown was working to undermine Blair — denying any knowledge of a damaging biography while his hand-written notes were sitting in the publisher’s office.

The book really comes alive when discussing preparations for the Iraq war and the steps taken to keep the Cabinet, the Foreign Office and even the MoD out of the drawing up of those plans. Perhaps unsurprisingly this book confirms the idea that Blair’s desire to look like a peacemaker while preparing for war to achieve regime change cost British lives. Similarly, because of the division within government, those pushing for war — Blair and his Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell — could not approach the Chancellor for the money needed for defence equipment, including protective body armour.

In the light of current affairs Admiral Mike Boyce’s warning that bombing would radicalise the Muslim world against the west is chilling.

Despite how Blair was portrayed by Powell, Bower characterises him as a lightweight; poor focus on detail, unable to inspire loyalty and obsessed with his media profile. However I can’t help feel it is unlikely that three terms in government was achieved by spin, charm, luck and a weak opposition. One of the major flaws of the book is that it’s hard to reconcile this unremittingly hostile portrayal of Blair with him being the most successful labour Prime Minister in history. No mention of the successes of the labour government; minimum wage, greater gender equality and completion of peace agreements in Northern Ireland.

It’s at the point where Blair leaves office that the book becomes less interesting. Up till this point the analysis has been structured around a number of areas of government; immigration, education, defence and the NHS. Without this structure the book loses its focus once it concentrates on his business activities as a private individual.

Somehow Tony Blair evades this analysis. The book never quite nails down his motivations and, more particularly, what motivated him to become a gun for hire’ to some deeply unpleasant world leaders and businesses. While the book is clearly not intended to be a biography, it is a disappointment that this aspect of Blair’s personality and hubris is neglected.


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