- Broken Vows: Tony Blair – The Tragedy of Power by Tom Bower
Faber, 688 pp, £20.00, March 2016, ISBN 978 0 571 31420 1
Since he left office in 2007 Tony Blair has been hawking his wares around the world, from Nigeria to Kazakhstan. What has he been selling? Himself, of course, plus his reputation, and perhaps his party’s too, somewhere down the river. But he’s also been peddling an idea: deliverology. Tom Bower gives us the pitch. He reports Blair telling Paul Kagame, the Rwandan president, back in 2007: ‘I learned by bitter experience during ten years as prime minister the problems of getting the government machine to deliver what I wanted. I created a Delivery Unit, and that was a great success. It transformed everything. I want to bring that success to Africa.’ Or as he put it to President Buhari of Nigeria at a meeting last year: ‘I pioneered the skills to make government work effectively. The Delivery Unit is the leader’s weapon to make his government effective across the civil service and country.’ He offered to establish a delivery unit within Buhari’s regime, staffed by experts from Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative. At the same meeting, according to Bower, Blair asked the various aides present to leave the room so he could talk to the president alone. He told them he had a personal message to convey from David Cameron. In fact, he used the time to pursue some business on behalf of Tony Blair Associates, his commercial calling card. He wanted to sell the Nigerians Israeli drones and other military equipment for use in their fight against Islamic rebels.
If true – and Bower’s source seems to have been one of Buhari’s aides, though he provides no details – this is pretty hard to read without flinching. But the double standards at work shouldn’t distract from the bogusness of the do-gooding part of Blair’s proposition. Deliverology is itself a false prospectus. It relies on the assumption that Blair gradually mastered these skills on the job and that he was forced out just when he had got on top of the government machine. Certainly that’s what he says in his memoirs, where he insists that he only worked out how to exercise power effectively towards the end of his time in office. Now he wants to help others start out with the wisdom he had to acquire through ‘bitter experience’. But political leaders always say this: that governing starts to make sense when time is running out. That’s why it’s so hard to persuade them to move on. Obama told Marc Maron earlier this year that he was finally getting the hang of it seven years in, just when he has one foot out of the door. For democratic leaders this is the tragedy of power: they only learn how to do their jobs once the public is sick of the sight of them, or the constitution is telling them they have reached their limit. But it’s an illusion: it just seems easier because the end is in sight and they have stopped worrying about what might come next. Blair felt he was really getting things done at the point when his struggle with Gordon Brown was over. But it wasn’t because he had worked out how to deal with an obstructive rival; it was because he had ultimately been defeated by him. He was liberated by having little left to lose. Obama has been increasingly willing to assert his executive authority because he no longer feels it’s worth trying to deal with Congress. Yet if his successor starts with that attitude he (or she) will be pilloried, just as any prime minister who caves before his chancellor from the outset won’t be in charge for long. Delivery depends much more on context than it does on technique. In that respect, it’s not a transferable skill.
Hence the second problem: when Blair says he can provide Kagame with a weapon to use across the civil service and the country, it doesn’t mean what it would mean in a British context. Blair’s domestic beef was with a civil service that he felt had become entrenched and hidebound, an obstacle in the way of reform. But what about countries where the civil service barely functions, where the rule of law is at best an aspiration and leaders deploy real weapons against their own people as well as metaphorical ones? The deliverologists would say it is even more important to have clear targets and a separate machinery for achieving them when the rest of the government is corrupt and inefficient. But establishing that sort of personal remit under the leader’s authority isn’t just a matter of efficiency; it is also a question of power. Bypassing the civil service does nothing to stop power being abused; if anything, the reverse is true. Kagame’s regime is now notorious for its brutal suppression of opposition forces; murders and disappearance are routine. Kagame has also amended the constitution to allow him to run for another three terms in office, meaning he could potentially stay on until 2034. Blair says that he makes sure to raise what he calls ‘the human rights stuff’ whenever he is pushing his delivery agenda in parts of the world where democratic institutions are fragile. But he doesn’t feel he can do more than that, given that target-setting is where he can make a real difference. That’s the promise of deliverology: to carve out a space separate from the messy business of politics, where different rules apply. This too is an illusion. Carving out a separate space for government is a political act and the normal rules apply even more strongly. Otherwise who knows what former prime ministers and presidents would get up to behind closed doors?
The case against Blair’s globetrotting activities since he left office is overwhelming and Bower is not short of the material to make it. Unfortunately that is not the book he has written. He wants to do something more ambitious, which is to build the case against deliverology from the story of Blair’s time in Downing Street. He lacks the resources to do that. There are two problems. First, much of the ground he covers, unlike his tales of Blair’s recent escapades, is a matter of public record, so he needs to be careful that he gets the facts right. He isn’t. I lost confidence in what I was reading on page 134, when Bower describes Blair’s Chicago speech of 1999, made during the Kosovo War, in which he laid out the doctrine of humanitarian intervention. Bower quotes him as saying on that occasion: ‘The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder the world around us.’ This is one of the most memorable things Blair ever said, but he didn’t say it in Chicago in 1999; he said it at the Labour Party Conference in 2001, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Confusing these speeches – the two best-known Blair made, given in very different contexts – is like a Lincoln biographer thinking that his subject talked about ‘the better angels of our nature’ in the Gettysburg Address. Why would anyone bother to read on after that? What makes it particularly hard to take is that Bower is quick to castigate others for their slapdash approach. Later he refers in passing to ‘Nicholas Stern, a civil servant, [who] published an error-strewn review in 2006 warning about the dangers of climate change’. He provides no evidence for this contemptuous verdict, and no source: presumably someone said it to him in passing during one of his many interviews with interested parties and he reports it as fact. Bower’s own book is both error-strewn and sanctimonious: an off-putting combination.
The other problem is that Bower can’t seem to decide what the case against Blair’s Downing Street years actually is. In the introduction he says that the genesis for the book was a dinner party argument he had with a friend of Blair’s who insisted that New Labour had done a lot to improve literacy rates in secondary schools; Bower didn’t believe there had been any improvement. The implication is that Bower is interested in delivery too: the question he sets himself is whether the Blair government managed to get the results it promised. But more often he castigates Blair for failing to know what he wanted to do. He is portrayed as lacking any true sense of purpose, for being preoccupied with targets when what he needed was a defining vision. Bower complains that the Blairites ‘were not guided by either an ideology or a master plan. Everything was hit or miss.’ His conclusion is that ‘improved lifestyles did not amount to a defined ideology’ and that Blair offered ‘nothing fundamentally new’. So which is it: was Blair the deliverologist who failed to deliver? Or is deliverology itself the problem, a pseudo-philosophy of government when what’s needed is something much more substantial?
This confusion permeates Bower’s account of the central failure of Blair’s time in office: the Iraq War. Here, though, the picture is complicated by a third possibility: was Blair just posing as a deliverologist when in fact he was an ideologue all along? Bower marshals everything that can be said against the Iraq catastrophe, from doctored dossiers to cavalier disregard for the rule of international law. He quotes General Mike Jackson, who toured Basra in May 2003 after the victory over Saddam. ‘It is startlingly apparent,’ Jackson reported to London, ‘that we are not delivering that which was deemed to be promised and is expected.’ Jackson was encouraged to keep his concerns to himself, since this was meant to be a good news story – Victory! – and nothing was to be done to rock the boat. What are we meant to conclude from this: that if the Blair government had been more focused on delivering what was promised and less on managing the headlines, the war could have been a success? Was it therefore a failure of planning? Or was it a far deeper moral failure, because the British government could never have delivered on its promises to the people of Iraq? And if so, was that because Blair’s inner circle was thinking only about news management, or because news management was itself in the service of a neoconservative agenda that was impervious to the evidence? Bower mocks Blair for spending his time reading the Quran instead of studying policy papers that might have given him a better understanding of recent Middle Eastern history and the Shia/Sunni conflicts that cut across it. This Blair is the opposite of a lifestyle politician: he is more like a mystic. Yet he is the same Blair whom Bower accuses of having no sense of purpose: a grinning fool he derides for prancing around in front of Alastair Campbell in his yellow and green underpants.
The truth is that Blair was all these people and more: the mystic, the fool, the sofa politician, the neocon, the preacher on a tank and the deliverologist. The reason the last matters is that it allowed Blair to play all the other roles as well. Deliverology might be designed to pin the civil service down, but it frees the politician up. Targets sound constraining when they are in fact liberating, because they can be put in the service of an ideology or they can just as well stand in place of one. Deliverology allowed Blair to follow his whims, which took him all over the map. What it didn’t do was force him to face up to his weaknesses as a politician. These included a lack of historical perspective and a craven inability to face down Gordon Brown. When Blair met a barrier in the way of something he wanted to do, he swerved, taking his targets with him. It’s no coincidence that a lot of the most hostile briefing for this book seems to have come from the senior civil servants who found working with Blair a demoralising experience. Bower quotes Robin Butler, Blair’s first cabinet secretary, saying of his earliest official encounter with the newly elected prime minister: ‘He’s scared of me. He didn’t even ask me how to make the government machine work.’ Bower wants to suggest that this was naivety on Butler’s part, because Blair was already determined to seed his own placemen (Alastair Campbell, Jonathan Powell) inside the government machine to have it do his bidding. But in fact it seems about right: Blair was scared of the hard work involved in getting the civil service on his side. He was always looking for short cuts. The result was an administration whose permanently aggrieved sense of having to operate in a hostile institutional environment became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The British civil service may have many failings, but if you want to deliver lasting change it is the only instrument that can do it for you. Blair treated the administrative machinery of the UK state as though he really were in Africa, with predictably counterproductive results. When the fuel crisis of 2000 nearly brought the country to a standstill Blair took charge himself, threatening to call in the troops unless the protesters backed down, which they soon did. Once a mess of his own making had been solved by a flex of authoritarian muscle, Blair asked his advisers: ‘Why can’t all government be as successful as this?’ If he needed to ask, he wasn’t the person to answer.
What did Blair want? Bower is right when he says at one point that Blair was after the one thing he couldn’t have: the control he believed came with setting targets along with the greater efficiency he felt could only be had by introducing market competition into the public services. Targets v. markets were what Bower calls Blair’s ‘irreconcilable ideologies’. Yet what’s so frustrating about this book is that having shown how difficult it is to govern effectively given the conflicting demands all policymakers face, Bower still tries to hold Blair to an impossibly high set of standards. His steady drumbeat of indignation implies there ought to be some way of squaring the circle. Deliverologists ought to deliver! Blair failed to do what he promised! That’s not the problem. The problem is that he promised it in the first place. It was a false prospectus from the outset. That we fell for it says a lot about what’s wrong with our politics. That Bower seems unable to dispense with it says a lot about what’s wrong with his line of attack.
Bower would have been better sticking to his normal approach to his subjects, which is to focus on their failings of character, rather than attempt an audit of an entire period of government, something that’s well beyond his reach. There are glimpses here of the book he could have written, especially when Blair crosses paths with the sort of people Bower usually writes about. My favourite moment comes at a dinner Blair hosted at Chequers in 2006:
Big Ken Anderson [a Texan consultant hired in 2002 to sort out costs in the NHS] gave it to Blair straight: ‘There’s been a lot of pushback by the civil service,’ he said. ‘Ultimately, however you measure it, it’s all been a failure.’
Blair flashed with silent dismay. Hearing the truth was unpleasant. With Elton John, another guest, seated nearby, there was no opportunity for a proper discussion but Anderson’s views on the NHS were no secret. Blair’s reforms were grinding to a halt.
Indeed: must be hard to have a serious policy discussion when Elton John will keep popping up at the wrong moment. Bower is good at capturing both the inadvertent humour and the inadvertent horror of the netherworld in which Blair came to move, an uneasy mixture of celebrity, charity and wonkery. His post-2007 career has allowed him to indulge all his worst instincts in these directions, along with his burning desire to make a lot of money, which seems to have been there all along. However, he hasn’t had it all his own way. Bower recounts what happened when Blair bumped up against another of his favourite subjects, the notorious do-gooder and skinflint Richard Branson. As a ‘face for hire’ providing consultancy advice for various ‘green’ ventures, Blair offered his services to Branson, who was dabbling in this area. ‘Almost inevitably,’ Bower writes, ‘Blair accepted Branson’s invitations to visit Necker, part of the British Virgin Islands, but eventually discovered that the tycoon refused to reimburse him for advice.’ Maybe there is no such thing as a free holiday after all.
A biography of Blair which, like Bower’s recent book about Branson, concentrated on his activities over the last decade would have been far more effective as well as much more fun to read. Perhaps Bower thought it would have appeared too trivial: does it really matter what a politician does after leaving office, unless it can be connected to what he did while he was there? Well, yes and no: yes there has to be a connection, but no it doesn’t need to be spelled out, especially if the spelling out weakens the case by confusing the evidence. Anyway, this is politics, so the past is never past. The truly scary parts of Bower’s book don’t really concern Blair at all, or his intimate circle, or even his ever growing property empire or his flirtations with the international arms trade. It comes when he strays into the orbit of the Clintons, who have long inhabited the same netherworld in which he now operates. Blair hooked up with Branson via Bill Clinton, whose foundation has its finger in many of the same pies that Blair has been trying to access on the speechmaking/fundraising/deal-brokering circuit. More than once, as I read Bower on Blair the international deliverologist, I found myself wondering what a no-holds-barred exposé of the Clintons’ activities over the same period would look like. It’s a chilling thought. Hillary Clinton is very likely to be the Democratic nominee for the presidency. She may well be facing Donald Trump, a candidate she should have no difficulty beating, other things being equal. But other things are not equal. The way Tony Blair and Bill Clinton have conducted themselves since leaving office is a hostage to the fortunes not just of their personal reputations but of the political causes they still represent. It is sometimes said that Clinton and Blair should shoulder the blame for making politicians like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders so appealing to their erstwhile supporters. But that’s probably as it should be: parties move on. If the scandal of deliverology contributes to the election of President Trump, that would be another thing entirely.