Book review: Broken Vows
Most of Tom Bower's past subjects have been flawed characters with a reputation as fraudsters.
His previous books include studies of Klaus Barbie, the notorious Gestapo official in Lyons, Robert Maxwell, Tiny Rowland, Mohamed Al-Fayed, Richard Branson and Conrad Black.
Bower, investigative journalist, wrote a critical biography of Gordon Brown in 2004. This study of Tony Blair concentrates on his time as Prime Minister and then his afterlife as a jet setter who traded on his reputation as a problem solver.
Although Broken Vows reads like a demolition job of Blair’s character and reputation, Bower claims he voted for Blair in 1997, and then became disillusioned with the progress of time and the failure to deliver on promises.
Bower writes that his motivation was curiosity rather than prejudice. But to this reader Broken Vows is a formidable case for the prosecution with little room for extenuating circumstances or recognition of any successes. Furthermore, there are a number of factual errors like his claim that Harriet Harman educated her children at private schools or reversing the RAF rank of air vice marshal to “vice air marshal”.
But Bower is a tenacious researcher and writer and he has mastered over thirty-six books on Blair and his government, TV interviews and documentaries and newspaper accounts. The only seen official documents he consulted were published reports like Butler’s on intelligence in the Iraq War and the online evidence, oral and written for the Chilcott Inquiry. To discover what happened after 1997 Bower interviewed dozens of civil servants ranging from juniors to Permanent Secretaries, many junior ministers and Cabinet ministers, and the principal senior military officers. These were to provide the background, context and at times vital information for the five main areas of Blair’s government – heath, education, immigration, energy and wars.
The interviews provide valuable texture and certainly fill in the gaps of what evidence we have available. This is crucial with Blair’s way of Prime Ministerial government as he preferred informal meetings with no official minutes and the exclusion of senior officials like the Cabinet Secretary and even responsible ministers.
A lot of Bower’s description of this kind of “sofa government” as well as the monumental, debilitating and violent rows between Blair and Brown, is well known. Although the extent of the damage it caused in terms of dysfunctional government and the waste of billions of pounds has appeared in the reports of the Public Accounts Committee these have tended to have had little impact.
Broken Vows read like an extended newspaper article, and Bower has decided to flit backwards and forwards between his five main areas of government, which can lead to some confusion, not least because many of the issues and crises were occurring simultaneously.
Bower repeats the accusation made by others that Blair had no real emotional attachment to the Labour Party or any experience in government. Like some other Prime Ministers he entered office with little interest in foreign policy or defence. His political mentor, Roy Jenkins, once opined that it was pity Blair hadn’t read history rather than law at university. Jenkins tried to get Blair to read some political history, and unfortunately the only political biography he read was Gladstone by Roy Jenkins, which merely reinforced his conviction that like Gladstone he was sent to do God’s work on earth.
Broken Vows hammers away at Blair’s reputation on every front, and there is no attempt to really consider why he was able to win three General Elections or to achieve successes based upon hard work, application and grit such as the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement. This compares poorly with Bower’s indictment that Blair preferred spin to substance, naively believed that more money would fix the NHS combined with tinkering with structures. On immigration Bower demonstrates that beyond the chaos of the Home Office Blair believed that unrestricted immigration was good for the country.
Like his ministers, Blair was prone to blame civil servants and officials for failure to implement policy and deliver. There is a tendency of many Prime Ministers and ministers to blame the conservatism and amateurism of the Civil Service, and Bower provides enough evidence of that – for example the role of Nigel Crisp at the department of health. Although much of the criticism of Blair’s failings come from those civil servants Bower interviewed – all of whom had vested interests – there is no doubt that Blair’s style of leadership was to avoid conflict and not to master detail or to undertake to confront his over powerful Chancellor.
Given the likely publication of the Chilcott Inquiry this year the role of Blair in discovering an interest in a moral foreign policy and the use of military force for good is a crucial part of Broken Vows. Bower rams home the point that before the Iraq invasion Blair was far from being President Bush’s poodle, but rather his active partner. It is the deceit and secrecy about the origins of the Iraq War that have been most damaging to Blair’s reputation with the connivance of those civil servants, intelligence officials and senior military who were drawn into his magic circle or remained silent rather than challenge his policy.
Bower begins and ends Broken Vows describing the apparent contradiction between Blair the moral crusader fighting evil ideologies and dictators and at times, particularly after leaving No 10, his lust for financial contracts with unsavoury world leaders. The Bower verdict on Blair is like that of a jilted lover who feels cheated and contaminated by the experience.
Keith Simpson is Conservative MP for Broadland. He is also books editor of Total Politics.