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A wonderful dream: Tony Blair on the guillotine

Giovanni Tiso reviews Broken Vows, a biography of Tony Blair by Tom Bowers.

There was that time Tony Blair dropped a jar full of honey in the kitchen, and got down on his knees to clean up the mess with a brush and pan. Or that other time when the bath was overflowing upstairs and they found him standing next to it, intent on pouring the excess water into the sink using Virgin Radio mugs, without having either closed the tap or pulled the plug first. These two episodes, presented halfway through Tom Bower’s ponderous new biography of Blair, Broken Vows, in order to exemplify the “unworldliness” of the then British PM, had quite the opposite effect on this reader. They filled with me with questions.

Who was watching these scenes? The domestic staff at his residence, probably. Why weren’t they helping? I don’t know. And what was Blair doing with more than one Virgin Radio mug? Does he keep them in the bathroom? Did he run upstairs carrying them from the kitchen? Why not a pot, Mr prime minister? Or towels?

So many questions, all of them pointless. But then I didn’t so much work my way through Bower’s book as I got mired in it. Running just shy of 600 pages, plus another 50 or so between the endnotes and the index, Broken Vows is nearly as exhausting a read as I imagine the experience of having been governed by Tony Blair for 10 years must have been. Its length is fuelled by the sheer number of details gleaned from dozens, possibly hundreds of sources, many of which asked to remain anonymous. The problem, as typified by the jar of honey incident, is that the biographer was apparently compelled to put all of them in. Hence the ploddingly chronological order, from month to month, year to year: a reliving, more than a retelling.

This approach is useful when the forensic levels of detail are suited to establishing key facts or timelines, most notably in the case of the fabrication or ‘sexing-up’ of the case for the war in Iraq via the two dossiers produced by John Scarlett and Alastair Campbell. I was grateful for the hand-holding here, and for the opportunity to go over that story again through the lens of the time that has passed, allowing the facts to settle. But the rest, not so much. Did we really need eight separate chapters dealing with New Labour’s policies on energy, immigration, education, the NHS, or government relations? And I mean eight chapters each.

Another irritant was the frequent, throw-away editorialising, especially at the expense of Gordon Brown, whom Bower reduces to a cartoonish villain. This particular subplot reaches its boiling point in the following judgment:

By championing the poor, overtaxing the middle class and deriding those who aspired to be wealthier, the resentful Scotsman was dividing the nation.

Always be wary of divisive Scotsmen! Other pronouncements of the author include the belief, stated as fact, that bad teachers – as opposed to socio-economic conditions – lead to poor educational outcomes for working class children, or that trade unions stand in the way of progressive reforms, or that causing “the disadvantaged to expect an equal stake in society” is a bad thing. His, in other words, is a critique of Tony Blair from a Tory perspective, which accounts for its ideological ambiguity.

Bower doesn’t question New Labour’s project, but rather Blair’s inability to be a coherent and effective conservative in its implementation. His principal sins, as gleaned from the book, were to rely on a cabal of loyalists to run the executive, to be uninterested or unable to grasp the level of detail required by government, and – although this last point is only implied – to have failed to rout Gordon Brown and obliterate old Labour. Of these criticisms, the one concerning Blair’s failure to use the British civil service in order to steer the machinery of government is the most cogent. You’ll just need to take a week off work to have the time to absorb it properly.

At either end of this 500-page book is the making of another, more interesting one: it concerns Blair’s life after government, and the building of a commercial empire leveraging his political star status and modelled on Bill Clinton’s. None of the details in this other story – his relations with political leaders accused of crimes ranging from murder (president Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan) to mass murder (Colonel Gaddafi, president Kagame of Rwanda), his jetting around in a Bombardier Gulf Express dubbed “Blair Force One”, all the way down to Blair’s likely affair with Rupert Murdoch’s wife, Wendy Deng – are superfluous. In this second, shorter biography, Blair cuts a figure that is at once venal, pathetic and criminally unconcerned with basic standards of morality, finally going some way towards justifying the book’s subtitle, The Tragedy of Power. Although more properly it should be called a tragedy after power.

It was at the time when these events unfolded that Blair wrote his own biography, A Journey, for which Bower tells us he received a £4 million advance to go with his £3 million yearly retainer to solicit business for JP Morgan. That exculpating self-hagiography makes fascinating reading against the introduction and conclusion of Broken Vows. In it, beside urging politicians to respond to the Great Financial Crisis by accelerating market reforms, Blair seems less preoccupied with giving an account of his time in power than with marketing himself as an evangelical envoy for peace – hence the claim to have “always been more interested in religion than politics”. Readers of Bower’s book will be particularly surprised to hear him describe himself here as “very, even excessively, loyal to friends”. But they will smile wryly at this confession:

Over time, I began to think there was never a moment when I could be completely candid and exposed. You worried that even sitting in your living room or in the bath, someone would come to photograph, question and call upon you to justify yourself.

With all that we now know about Tony Blair and baths, this feeling at least was undoubtedly justified.


 

Broken Vows: The Tragedy of Power by Tom Bowers (Faber, $37) is available at Unity Books.

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