All Ending In Tears
Comment at bottom of page
21st June, 2007
The last Cabinet meeting for Tony Blair ended in tears too, according to reports. I’m not surprised.
13th May, 2007
This article in the Sunday Mirror touches on Blair & Brown’s complex relationship, the unresolved leadership battle, their opinions of each other and the questionable judgements made at home and abroad. And there were the unexpected events, as always. But the article touches on many aspects of Blair’s Ten Years with clarity and some empathy. Not uncritical, in fact over-critical in some areas in my humble opinion, it’s still a good read.
But I don’t agree with ALL of it. Read it through, and at the end I’ll tell you where exactly I think it falls short.
By RICHARD STOTT 13th May, 2007THE BLAIR YEARS 1997-2007: STOTTY’S VERDICT
“The faultlines that were to drive New Labour into crisis and virtual meltdown deep into his third term were there even at the moment he walked into Downing Street. His relationship with his greatest political friend and ally, Gordon Brown, was never resolved from the moment Blair made his first mistake in not suggesting a leadership fight following the death of John Smith. It was a fatal weakness.
1997: Victory… New Prime Minister Tony Blair and Cherie celebrate Labour’s landslide outside No 10 (pic:AP)
1998: Key ally Peter Mandleson quits over Hinduja affair.
1999: Blair at TUC to introduce minimum wage (pic:Independent)
2001: Celebrating Labour’s second landslide win with Brown and Kinnock.
2002: Blair tells MPs of dodgy dossier on Iraq WMDs.
2003: Baghdad blitzed as Britain goes to war (pic:EPA)
2004: British hostage Ken Bigley executed in Iraq.
2005: With family on third General Election Win.
2006: Blair and Levy caught in cash for honours scandal.
EVERYTHING was going for Tony Blair that bright May morning 10 years ago. A fresh new young man on the block with an infectious smile that could melt the sternest of hearts and silence the most cynical of critics. Children in Downing Street and a new generation that was going to transform Britain fit for a new millennium. A brave new morning set to challenge the world.
New Labour. New Britain. Alastair Campbell’s slogan was in place and Tony Blair’s brand new remodelled army was on an irresistible march, creating a country fit for all its people. White. Black. Brown. Christian. Muslim. Jew. Hindu. Rich and poor. The driving force was going to be education, backed by an economy that rejected old-fashioned Labour tax and spend in favour of a grand coalition between the power of the markets and the morality of a passionate and clear-sighted Labour Government. A country of all the talents. Let the good times roll.
Ten years on, a weary and often haunted looking Blair promised us in the more down-to-earth surroundings of the Trimdon Labour Club: “Hand on heart, I did what I thought was right.”
It was another vintage front-of-house production, showing us again why this beguiling extraordinary but flawed man dominated British politics for a decade.
“Doubts, hesitation, reflection, consideration and reconsideration, these are all the good companions of proper decision-making,” he confided. But all too often these were the very things missing. Blair was at heart a president not a prime minister. Never was this more obvious than in the debacle over Iraq.
He painted us a rosy picture of a Britain at home in its own skin. Part right. But it can hardly be entirely true of a country with the worst cancer survival rates in Western Europe, where young people cannot afford homes, pensioners have taken a severe financial battering while multimillionaires are created overnight and violent crime is rampant on sink estates where the law surrendered years ago. As ever, from his first to his last speech, Tony talked a good tale. But why did the political fairytale promise so much but in the end under-deliver? Largely because those sprinkled with stardust all those years ago couldn’t live together happily ever after.
The faultlines that were to drive New Labour into crisis and virtual meltdown deep into Blair’s third term were there even at the moment he walked into Downing Street. His relationship with his greatest political friend and ally, Gordon Brown, was never resolved from the moment Blair made his first mistake – not suggesting a leadership fight following the death of John Smith. It was a fatal weakness for which he was to pay dear.
Brown never came to terms with not being leader. Worse, he became actively to resent Blair and over the years built up a formidable force within the Treasury that seemed set recklessly to sabotage Blair’s plans. At times it reached the height of high political treason. Brown believed the premiership was his birthright as the more intellectual of the two men. That he was, but a newly-fashioned party needed a larger-than-life frontman and that was Blair, not his dour, buttoned-up Scottish rival.
Peter Mandelson had already pointed this out in a memo that destroyed his relationship with Brown for good. But Mandelson was right and for the rest of his political life in Britain paid for it. If Brown had stood, he would have finished a bad third in the leadership stakes, finishing behind not only Blair but John Prescott too. That would have destroyed his power base and the Blair Years would have been very different.
Blair instead handed over the Treasury and much domestic spending to Brown – and that means big power, control over reform programmes, health spending and crime. In effect he allowed Brown to become chief executive to Blair’s chairman. A disaster when all your energies have been spent in being elected and you come to power policy-lite, a very dangerous position for a Prime Minister to be in. For the truth is that for all the razz, and Things Can Only Get Better, Labour’s 1997 manifesto was paper thin.
The big idea of New Labour was to harness the best of government with the best of the free market. But throughout the Opposition years Blair and his team failed to construct a logical series of policies that would hang together as a political programme, the main problem being the lack of an agreed economic policy. Brown firmly slapped down Blair’s “stakeholder” strategy but had nothing to put in its place.
The first time I met Blair we discussed what both of us considered to be Labour’s biggest and most urgent job in Government – reform of the welfare state. Blair was prepared to think the unthinkable, the trouble was he did not know what the unthinkable was. The same vagueness characterised his thinking on the NHS. Within a fortnight of Blair taking over I suggested to his team there should be a Royal Commission into the future of the health service.
ONLY Labour could be trusted to reform it in such a way that it was capable of dealing with the massive financial, medical and technological advances that were bound to be made in the next 10 years.
It seemed to me then, as it does now, that it is impossible for the taxpayer to fund a first-class health service free for all at the point of delivery. There is just too much going on. From obesity pills to cancer and heart disease advances on every front and technological inventions to make the mind and the wallet boggle.
The country needed to be prepared for a full-scale debate on how this should be funded and the way to do that was for a Commission to set out all the ideas and alternatives that could then be argued and raked over by all. Complex problems required complex and often long-term answers, something not always appreciated by the Prime Minister.
But Blair wasn’t having any of that and by rejecting it showed another faultline that was to plague his premiership. He was too attracted to the quick fix, the easy headline, the soundbite that suggested things were being done when in fact all that was happening was yet another sticking plaster being slapped on.
This turned out to be true not only for health, but education, crime and all areas requiring urgent reform. He certainly built the hospitals and he built the schools. He created the doctors and the nurses and put more police on the beat.
But there was no overall plan to make all those good things gel together as a working whole. The result was non-stop chop and change, confusion and, ultimately, collapse in morale and over-expensive pay settlements.
He got away with his first term as one largely of consolidation and trust. Labour could be trusted not to blow all the cash, unlike previous administrations, confounding what remained of the Tory doom-mongers. Gordon Brown did manage the day-to-day economy well and his handing over of interest rates to the Bank of England was a masterstroke. But by the second term there was still no overarching policy that strung a coherent political, social and financial policy together.
Rule was strictly day by day. Brown was causing even more trouble, keeping himself and his coterie of groupies together in a tightly-knit band. If it wasn’t made by Gordon then it wasn’t any good at all. The atmosphere became fetid, with Cabinet Ministers overhearing increasingly bitter rows between the two men, much to the detriment and destabilisation of Government. Brown tried deliberately to squeeze Blair out – on one occasion suggesting all financial matters should be dealt with by him rather than the Prime Minister. A situation so grotesque that shortly after Blair’s second election landslide the Prime Minister seriously considered sacking his Chancellor.
Once again his will failed. The truth was Britain had a Chancellor who lacked the courage to make the fatal strike against his leader and a leader who lacked the courage to strike down his Chancellor. Result: Gridlock government.
THIS exposed another Blair shortcoming. The Prime Minister takes great pride in an Australian description of him as “A nice kind of bastard”, just the right touch of humanity and hard man. But he showed fatal weaknesses in dealing with Brown, allowing him to get away with far too much in front of others, even to the extent of undermining his own position.
Why would he do that? At least one Cabinet Minister believes that it is partially Blair’s guilt in not giving Brown a clear takeover date. Did Blair ever promise that? Maybe. But he hardened his heart against it when he realised that Brown had no intention of working with him. It was at this time that Blair began to harbour serious doubts about Brown’s abilities as a future prime minister.
9/11 and the invasion of Iraq was to change everything. This was Blair centre stage and centre stage is where your front-of-house man revelled in being. All Prime Ministers are seduced by the potential of military action because soldiers do what you tell them, unlike wayward politicians, wealthy and powerful businessmen and angry electors. He had seen what could be done with raw power in Kosovo, a genuine force for the good in which Blair led and a timid President Clinton followed. It was heady, but dangerous, stuff. Add to that Blair’s brilliant patience game over the Good Friday agreement and the final peace agreement in Northern Ireland and his diplomatic achievements were impressive. There are few people who could have achieved what he did in Ulster and – together with Bertie Ahern – he deserves all the credit going.
War though is dangerous and unpredictable country, particularly when the most powerful man in the world needs a mouthpiece because he’s not much cop at doing it himself.
Blair was not pulled into the Iraq war by Bush, far from it. He believed not only that it was the right thing to do, but that he was the right man to guide Bush through it, especially by trying to use it to build a road map for the Middle East.
But old failings let him down. He totally misjudged the messianic nature of Neo Cons like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld who couldn’t give a fig for the British point of view. They were wholly set on bringing down Saddam and teaching the Middle East that US democracy was what their dictators needed.
Absurdly naive, but Blair hardly questioned it, even when members of his own Cabinet thought their US opposites were on the verge of being madmen. Blair was in presidential, not prime ministerial mode. In spite of this only one member of the Cabinet, Robin Cook, seriously questioned whether Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.
Blair’s fundamental mistake was trying to show the country Saddam was a clear and present danger by presenting two dossiers of quasi-intelligence. He used material that was not, in the time-honoured phrase, fit for purpose.
By its nature intelligence is messy and incomplete, hedged around with maybes and possibilities. It does not give itself to certainty. The big danger is that you can make it into what you want it to be – and that’s what he did. Not by lying, by trying to be too open. Once again his lack of a detailed grasp let him down. He was forced to admit he didn’t know whether the overblown claim that Saddam could launch WMD within 45 minutes applied to tactical or ballistic weapons.
Even this was overshadowed by what will be Blair’s overriding legacy. The civil war in Iraq. There was no planning for the aftermath of war, winning seemed all, both to him and Bush and, as in Kosovo and the fall of Milosovic, winning had been deceptively easy. He was warned, but still went ahead, with all the disastrous results we see every day on our TV sets. It is a consequence he will live with for the rest of his life.
Blair’s premiership was a curious mixture of timidity at home, breathtaking fortitude abroad (Kosovo) and bloody incompetence (Iraq). His legacy though remains complex. Iraq will overpower everything, but the sands of time cover even the most colossal monuments to man’s folly. Blair has changed the political climate, not necessarily in what he achieved in policy terms but how he shaped the political geography. It is difficult to see Labour going back to the far left, soft right split that made it ungovernable in the 1980s. Even more important he forced the Conservative Party to reassess itself, to imitate his revolution.
He has redefined the political landscape and the winners in future will be those leaders who can convince the electorate they can successfully blend the enormous power of the market and the moral good the best of governments can bring. He now goes into the wilderness, like all Prime Ministers, a failure at the point of exit. Iraq is as bloody as it ever was and looks like remaining so for the foreseeable future. How Blair learns to live with that only he can guess. But he can be proud of his achievements in the Balkans and Northern Ireland.
It was his bad luck that he presided over one of the most turbulent times of immigration, religious unrest and Muslim fundamentalism that because of the invasion of Iraq has brought every man, woman and child in this country into the frontline. Typically, Blair denies that, although not many others do. That is a matter for his conscience and our judgement.
Every Prime Minister is judged by whether he leaves office with the world a better or worse place. In spite of his pleading, the world is an infinitely more dangerous place now than ten years ago and Blair has helped make it so.
Much of Britain though is better than the broken down, selfish, greedy, me first, sod you life we inherited from two decades of Tory rule. The testament is new hospitals and schools, more university places, more people in work, a better standard of living.
But the last years have seen the development of a new vicious underclass, feral and lethal, rejoicing in being beyond any law. This is a truly terrifying development,.
Far too often Blair’s Government was buffeted by events instead of being in charge of them. Asian knife killing has doubled in Blair’s 10 years, black-on-black crime has got younger and younger. The growing sense of panic reflected by the non-stop flow of crime legislation, little of which has had any effect except to alienate the judges, always a sign of Government losing control. At least Northern Ireland rejoined the real world.
But the final savage irony for a man of God who came to power on the promise that he would be whiter than white is that Blair is the first Prime Minister in British history to be interviewed by police investigating a criminal conspiracy over cash for honours. What a sorry and deeply tragic way for a premiership that promised so much to end.
Time will change our view of Blair. The country is better than it was 10 years ago. Improvements have been too cautious, too slow and often too confused because Labour lacked a coherent and gripping story to tell. But then only two administrations since the war – Attlee’s and Thatcher’s – have come near to having one. After two landslide victories Blair should have achieved more. His dream of Europe was stillborn, throttled by Gordon’s economic tests, and his legacy as a great statesman – beloved of all Prime Ministers – lies firmly buried in the blood and sand of Iraq.
Still, not as bad as we think. When he’s gone the troops will come back and Brown must complete the work needed to round off proper reform of our public services. That remains Labour’s greatest challenge.
Believe me, Brown owes us that. After years of trying to do Blair down and coming close to downright sabotage, it is the least we can expect of our next Prime Minister.
10 Tony soundbites
TOUGH on crime, tough on the causes of crime. – 1992, Labour Party Conference.
MY project will be complete when the Labour Party learns to love Peter Mandelson. – 1996, newspaper interview.ASK me my three main priorities for Government, and I tell you: education, education, education. – 1996, Labour Party Conference.I THINK most people who have dealt with me think I’m a pretty straight sort of guy. – 1997, Labour accused of changing its policy on tobacco advertising after accepting £1million from Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone.A NEW dawn has broken…we shall make this country as proud of us as we are of them. – 1997, Labour wins General Election.MINE is the first generation able to contemplate the possibility that we may live our entire lives without going to war or sending our children to war. – 1997, speech in Paris.
SHE was the people’s princess and that’s how she will stay, how she will remain in our hearts and in our memories forever. – 1997, death of Princess Diana.
WE have to be very careful that we are purer than pure. – 1998, newspaper interview.
A DAY like today is not a day for soundbites … but I feel the hand of history upon our shoulders. – 1998, signing of Good Friday Agreement, Belfast.
IS my face bovvered? Face? Bovvered? – 2007, Blair turns the tables on Catherine Tate for Comic Relief.
10 Blair highs
May 1, 1997 – Labour wins General Election by landslide.
May 6, 1997 – Independence for Bank of England.
April 10, 1998 – Good Friday Agreement signed, Stormont.
April 1, 1999 – Minimum wage introduced.
May 20, 2000 – Baby Leo Blair born.
June 7, 2001 – Labour re-elected in second landslide.
September 11, 2001 – Blair vows to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with US after terror attack on Twin Towers and Pentagon.
December 13, 2003 – Saddam Hussein found.
May 5, 2005 – Labour wins historic third term in power.
July 6, 2005 – London wins bid to host 2012 Olympics.
10 Blair lows
July 6, 1999 – Blair speaks of the “scars on my back” from attempts at public service reform.
June 7, 2000 – Heckled at a WI conference.
September 24, 2002 – Publishes “dodgy dossier” on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
December 10, 2003 – Cherie Blair apologises for embarrassing Government over involvement of Australian conman Peter Foster in her purchase of two flats.
March 20, 2003 – US launches air strikes on Baghdad.
July 18, 2003 – Government scientist David Kelly’s body found in woodland beauty spot close to his home.
October 8, 2004 – British hostage Ken Bigley is confirmed executed in Iraq.
July 7, 2005 – Four suicide bombers kill 52 in attacks on the London Underground and a London bus.
June 1, 2006 – John Prescott admits to an affair.
December 14, 2006 – Blair interviewed by detectives investigating cash-for-honours allegations.
My thoughts: Hindsight is a wonderful thing. The main analysis here is that neither Blair nor Brown had the guts to do each other in. Well, good. I’m spitting blood at the present situation where Brutus Brown has got his henchmen to do the job. The idea that our New Labour government, high in aspiration and electorate good wishes, should have imploded with political ‘murder’ in the top echelons at the beginning seems naive in the extreme. Having said that … read on …
ELECTION FOR LEADERSHIP – AND NEUTERING BROWNIt’s easy for us to say that they should have had an election after John Smith died. It’s easy to be sure that would have relegated Brown to the backbenches and ended the rivalry. But it ain’t necessarily so. They were BOTH the architects of New Labour and Brown would almost certainly have become the chancellor eventually, if not immediately. They WERE friends, after all.But what a pity Blair did not sack Brown in 2001 when his instinct was to do so. Or at least moved him to the Foreign Office or Home Office with some excuse or other. There were several occasions I recall when it was clear he was interfering with Blair’s decisions or promises and was not sharing with the PM his ideas on economic changes.But how could Blair sack the “most successful chancellor” for decades? Still, the very idea that the PM should find out about major changes to the economy at the same time as the rest of us – for instance in at least one budget – is astounding! And yet that is what has been happening. Makes me wonder how much control Brown is going to try to hold over the next chancellor.
And what of Brown’s “five economic tests”? They were ALWAYS designed to put off the implementation of the euro indefinitely by the Euro-sceptic Brown, thus scuppering one of Blair’s mainstays for the future of Britain in the EU. That could have had an as yet immeasurable influence on our future in Europe, which may not become clear for decades. Brown, of course, would say that HE has been proved right on this issue, but that’s another argument.
THE NHS – QUICK FIXES – SOUNDBITES
I agree largely about the health service’s inability to survive on taxation only. I have thought this for more than 15 years. Today 60 is the new 45, and 80 the new 68. And everyone expects to get to 100 these days! I agree with the writer that all parties should listen to an independent review on this. But is it likely to happen given that the Tories now tell the NHS loving public that the health service is safer in their hands and are taking advantage of the present unpopularity of the kind of recent changes that they would normally be pleased to call their own? And why? Because they can. It’s populist. They have no health policy anyway. Above all it’s short termism. Which is the British way. Five years. No more.
So that’s that, then. Quick fixes and soundbites dealt with in one. Or didn’t you notice?
Short sentences. Simple thoughts. Made for the headlines. Or the News at Ten. The way Tony Blair speaks when he needs to. He doesn’t think in short simple sentences, of course as we hear every time he argues his case at length. But this is presentation and remember, despite education three times over, the voters think in tabloid font. That’s it then. Reading age 13. Way to go.
THE STATE OF THE NATION
I really do not accept the idea that the country is more dangerous and less united than ten years ago. Since our crime rates differ dependent on location, my part of the country seems MORE together or at least AS together as at any time in recent years. Nothing that I have noticed, anyway. But then personally I take a principled stand against the proposition of being intimidated by scare stories or perceived threats. Perhaps we don’t all think like that.
IRAQ HAS FOMENTED ETHNIC UNREST
I don’t believe that there is any more unrest in most of the country than there was before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And if it is so in certain parts of the country I don’t believe that the war in Iraq should be identified as the cause. The excuse, yes, but not the cause. Knife and gun crime is usually black on black – not muslim on anyone at all.
We have a prime minister and a government who have worked hard to be inclusive; perhaps too hard. What may have happened is that we are now MORE aware of the fact that multiculturalism has its limits. It needs to be looked at again, and the heads of ethnic groups need to be engaged and take upon themselves responsibility to identify restlessness in their midst. They then must educate and if necessary report concerns to the authorities.
IF IT’S A LESS SAFE WORLD IT’S DESPITE BLAIR, NOT BECAUSE OF HIM
The world is not a less safe place BECAUSE of Blair. Most DEFINITELY not! IT MAY BE LESS SAFE DESPITE HIM, but not BECAUSE of this man. The argument here implies that Blair should not have been involved in Iraq, so that if or rather when the world became less safe because of the Americans (to extend this premise), Blair and the UK would have been able to say, “nothing to do with me, Guv!” That may be how some of our fellow countrymen would react – but not me, and not Tony Blair. Not, I’d guess Brown either, but then, we still don’t know about Brown and international policy, do we? In my usual contrarian fashion I think we should THANK Blair and Bush for letting the world see what has been going on behind the scenes for decades in terrorist training grounds and in mosques in liberal western countries, ours being sadly at the forefront. I want to know about this. Thank you, Mr Blair.
“PRESIDENT” BLAIR, BROWN & THE USA
There are question marks over our relationship with the USA, true. The only way that Brown can avoid raised expectations from the USA in future is to insulate himself in the way he is proposing – i.e. parliament must decide on going to war – as Blair did regarding Iraq, though he did not need to as the prerogative is still his.
You have noticed that the PM has attempted to blame no-one else for the situation in Iraq though, haven’t you? He takes it all on his own back. And neither does he blame Bush’s administration. No more “flawed” than the rest of us, he’s a courageous man, and we should be grateful to him and proud of him. I am, anyway.
As for the prerogative, I’m not completely convinced that they will be quite as content with the change of control over the “royal” prerogative set up for this week in parliament, inasmuch as it may impact on other decisions, slowing processes, perhaps to MPs and PMs future regret.
At the moment all of the parties seem keen on it, because they feel that Blair has been too presidential and too willing to disregard parliament, despite his backing from parliament for Iraq. Knee-jerk politics? Maybe.
For me – Blair for President, any day.