Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Andrew Rawnsley

The Blair Years Part Seven

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday December 1 2016

Colman's Column3

Blair’s Later Career

deng

Tony Blair has hinted that he may return to active politics. He said he was “trying to create the space for a political debate about where modern Western democracies go and where the progressive forces particularly find their place”. He announced that he will launch a new organisation in the new year to look at the global forces that have led to Brexit and Trump: “The political centre has lost its power to persuade and its essential means of connection to the people it seeks to represent. Instead, we are seeing a convergence of the far left and far right.” Blair plans a consolidation of the various groups and foundations he currently runs. He has already said he is closing his for-profit businesses, which have attracted criticism.

It is rather depressing to read the opening pages of Tom Bower’s book Broken Vows – Tony Blair and the Tragedy of Power – and to think back to the optimism one felt in May 1997. It has to be said that Bowers’s book has not received unstinting praise. Nevertheless, Bower gives a good picture of Blair’s life after he left government. Blair has earned tens of millions through a combination of consultancies, public speaking and facilitating corporate deals.

Delivery Man

Blair’s main pitch was that he succeeded in government because of his ability to “deliver” and that he could pass the secret of this on to others in government through “delivery unit solution packages”. David Runciman reviewing Broken Vows in the London Review of Books noted: “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.”

In order to write this series, I have done a lot of reading, including the following very useful books, whose authors interviewed a great number of civil servants and politicians who had observed Blair at close quarters. I would recommend these books. There were three books by Anthony Seldon – Blair (2004), Blair Unbound (2008) and Brown at 10 (2010). There were two by Andrew Rawnsley – Servants of the People (2000) and The End of the Party (2010). No-one seems to disagree with Bowers’s verdict that Blair could be unfocused, lacking in knowledge and poor at management. None of these writers seems overly impressed with Michael Barber’s Delivery Unit.

Globetrotter

Bower describes how in the last months of his premiership Blair preferred travelling the globe to paying attention to domestic politics. “Some of those journeys were influenced by his ambitions for a career after Downing Street”. Bowers puts some of the blame on Cherie: “He had constantly urged his wife to refrain from her embarrassing financial forays, promising her serious wealth once they left Downing Street. He assumed that a new world of fees and commissions would answer Cherie’s familiar plea of ‘Why can’t we go by private jet?’”

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 10: Tony Blair and Cherie Blair seen arriving hand in hand at chiltern firehouse restaurant and memebers club for dinner on May 10, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Alex Davies/GC Images)

 

 

 

Helping Gaddafi

 

Blair resigned as Prime Minister on 27 June 2007, but immediately before leaving office he embarked on a global tour which included a meeting with Colonel Gaddafi in Libya. On 27 April, he had thanked Gaddafi for the “excellent cooperation” between their intelligence services. What this in reality meant was that Blair was helping Gaddafi torture and kill his opponents. MI5 officers, in cooperation with Libyan intelligence agents, had been targeting Libyans living in London who were opposed to Colonel Gaddafi’s regime. When Blair thanked Gaddafi for “assistance” he was probably referring to information extracted by torture in Libya.

gadblair

Human Rights Stuff

For a man who based his “ethical” foreign policy on unseating tyrants, Blair’s relations with dictators have been puzzling. It is difficult to square this with his professed Christian morality. In 2011, he accepted a lucrative offer from the Kazakh dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev.

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Leaked e-mails revealed in 2016 that Blair had charged Nazarbayev £5 million a year for his services. Kazakh security forces shot dead fourteen unarmed protesters and wounded over sixty others in Zhanaozen in 2011. There were also reports of opponents being tortured. “I don’t dismiss the human rights stuff,” Blair said. “These are points we make”. Blair personally wrote large sections of a speech that Nazarbayev made at Cambridge University. The line Blair advised him to take was “I understand and hear what our critics say. However, I would simply say this to them: by all means make your points and I assure you we’re listening. But give us credit for the huge change of a positive nature we have brought about in our country over these past 20 years… We are going to have to go step by step.” Since Blair began his work with Kazakhstan, the country has fallen eight places in the  Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, to 160 out of 180, and fell in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, to 123 out of 167.

 

The UK government refused to release information about Blair’s involvement with Rwanda through his Africa Governance Initiative charity. Amnesty International has accused Rwandan president Paul Kagame of human rights abuses, including unlawful detentions, restricting freedom of expression and jailing opposition politicians and journalists. A UN report accused his forces of war crimes, including possible genocide, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

paul-kagame

Bad Faith

Blair even accepted donations to his Faith Foundation of $500,000 from Victor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch, and $1 million from Michael Milken (the model for Hollywood’s Gordon “greed is good” Gekko) who was convicted in 1990 for fraud. Faith Foundation staff attended a conference in Vienna funded by Saudi Arabia.

 

His work towards peace in the Middle East for the Quartet (for which the UK government contributed £400,000 of taxpayers’ money every year) proved ineffectual because of the taint of his closeness with GW Bush. One observer said that he watched Blair’s authority ‘swiftly drip away’, and he was excluded from discussions.

 

This image of a former prime minister touting himself about may be distasteful but Blair is not the first world leader to disappoint and cash in afterwards. It seems a bit pathetic that Blair should use his status to try to sell the Nigerians Israeli drones and other military equipment for use in their fight against Islamic rebels. However, is it so bad to try and make a buck for Tony Blair Associates? This is more serious than just hucksterism and greed. David Runciman was writing before Trump’s election but he presciently wrote in March 2016: “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 … If the scandal of deliverology contributes to the election of President Trump, that would be another thing entirely.”

Conclusion

The three most important public servants in Blair’s administration – Robin Butler, Richard Wilson and Andrew Turnbull – concluded that, as prime minister, Blair had not been a fit guardian of the public’s trust. Richard Wilson said: “There are events during my period as Cabinet secretary that make me shudder at what I remember because we had high hopes and we were so disappointed. He promised so much, but in the end, so little was achieved.”

Historian Ian Kershaw wrote in 2007 when Blair left office: “Labour now seems to stand for little more than the claim that it can manage the problems of British society a bit better, and a bit more humanely, than can the Conservatives. And even that claim is open to question…However Blair’s domestic achievements are judged, his place in history will be primarily shaped by the Iraq war. Iraq will forever stand out in bold red in the debit column of his time in office. It was an avoidable disaster. And it was a disaster bearing Blair’s personal hallmark.”

 

The Blair Years Part Two

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday October 27 2016

Colman's Column3

Tony Blair has announced that he may return to British politics. Britain needs a saviour and Blair always saw himself as a Messiah. How did his vision work when he had a chance to make substantial changes in British society as prime minister from 1997 to 2007? The triumph of style and spin over substance, lack of concentration, poor management of human resources and avoidance of confrontation were common themes in Blair’s approach to all the major issues that he had intended to tackle.

Tony Blair

Education

Education was a big factor in Blair’s “vision thing”. “Our top priority was, is and always will be education, education, education. To overcome decades of neglect and make Britain a learning society, developing the talents and raising the ambitions of all our young people.” Blair significantly increased public spending in absolute terms on education but was hampered by a lack of focus (despite his addiction to focus groups). David Blunkett, when Education Secretary, believed that the NHS was a black hole which was permanently in crisis and was likely to suck away what he believed should be available for education. In 2001, Labour spent less on education as a percentage of GDP than John Major had in 1995.

blunkett

After eight years of Labour government, illiteracy was increasing. Eleven-year-olds were entering secondary school damaged by Whitehall’s pressure on local authorities and schools to “teach to the test” – not to create better human beings who could make a valid contribution to society, but to churn out pupils who could pass tests so that schools could hit targets. As with the NHS, there were frequent complaints of “initiative fatigue”.  Head teachers felt overwhelmed with paperwork and bureaucracy. Constant testing, targets and inspections were detracting from learning and encouraging teachers to be dishonest. Scores were being manipulated. To satisfy the target of five GCSEs and a rise in the GCSE pass rate to 76 per cent, many head teachers had directed pupils to take easy courses. It looked good that more GCSEs were being achieved but 21.7 per cent of pupils who got what counted in the revised system as five ‘good’ GCSEs left school without demonstrating a reasonable knowledge of maths or English. Grades were inflated to please the government. In 2005, AQA, one of the country’s largest examining boards, awarded an A* in business studies for marks of 47 per cent. That was typical of grade inflation.

 

The promotion of privately sponsored academies did not improve real standards. A National Audit Office (NAO) report showed that the exam results of academy pupils were below average and some academies were wasteful, weak and financially irresponsible. Blair used inaccurate 2005 statistics to bolster his own supposed achievements. He ignored the NAO report and poorer results which were published in later years.

 

Blair’s first Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, said the prime minister was always willing to discuss problems. His style of leadership meant that there was no guarantee that anything happened afterwards.

 

Welfare Reform

Just as he was unable to implement a grand vision for the NHS and for education Blair found welfare reform beyond his powers of imagination and perseverance. He failed to get across to ministers and civil servants what he wanted and failed to get his ministers to work productively together. Frank Field, the Labour MP for Birkenhead, was an acknowledged guru on welfare benefits. An ascetic, monk-like creature, he had accumulated a vast amount of knowledge and ideas from his study at university of economics and his time at the CPAG (Child Poverty Action Group) and the Low Pay Unit. His parents were Tories “who believed in character and pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps”. When Blair appointed him in 1997 as the Minister of Welfare Reform, Field took this to mean that he had licence for “thinking the unthinkable”.  Blair wrote that: “the problem was not so much that his thoughts were unthinkable as unfathomable”. Field clashed with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, and the Secretary of State for Social Security, Harriet Harman.

field

There was a serious personality clash between Harman and Field. Andrew Rawnsley reports that Harman, “pinking with anger”, shouted “I can’t work with someone who thinks I’m a liar”. White with fury, Field shouted back: ‘And I can’t work with someone who is a f****ing liar.

harman

I worked in social security local offices, visiting claimants in their homes, in Manchester in the 1970s and moved to London in 1982 to work for Sir Arthur Armitage, chairman of SSAC (the Social Security Advisory Committee). When Field was Director of the CPAG, we saw him as an advocate for benefit recipients and a man of the left.  Today he looks more like a radical conservative. He certainly did not favour a dependency culture. The Blair government was quite intentionally trying to make Britain a fairer society and Downing Street’s task groups encouraged the disadvantaged to expect an equal stake in society. According to Rawnsley: “Not only was work made less attractive than government handouts, but with the government’s blessing, a new majority of Britons classified themselves as victims”.

 

When I worked at SSAC, I had many entertaining conversations with the forthright Ann Bowtell, before she became a Dame or a Permanent Secretary. When Alistair Darling took over from Harriet Harman at the Department of Social Security he asked Dame Ann Bowtell if he could read all the briefing material on work in progress on welfare reform. “Oh,” replied the Permanent Secretary. “That shouldn’t take you long.”

 

Rawnsley comments, “This was the moral for Tony Blair. Announcing a Big Idea was not the same as having one.”

 

Dome – Doh!

The Millennium Dome provided an apt symbol for the bad aspects of the Blair years.  Blair brought humiliation on himself by claiming that the Dome would be “a triumph of confidence over cynicism, boldness over blandness, excellence over mediocrity”. The Dome project was conceived, on a smaller scale, under John Major’s Conservative government, as a Festival of Britain kind of showcase to celebrate the third millennium. Blair greatly expanded the size, scope and funding of the project and significantly increased expectations of what would be delivered. Psychogeographer Iain Sinclair correctly prophesied doom for the project. “The peninsula was where the nightstuff was handled: foul-smelling industries, the manufacture of ordnance, brewing, confectionery, black smoke palls and sickly-sweet perfumes. … In a sense, it was very perceptive of the Millennium Experience promoters to settle on Bugsby’s Marshes as the site for their monumentally expensive folly. Where better to greet the millennium (even if the nominated date is meaningless) than this ravished swamp with its history of plague, pestilence and pillage?”

Blair committed too much of himself and New Labour to this folly. The Dome was designed by Richard Rogers, New Labour’s favourite architect; the company chairman was New Labour supporter Bob Ayling; the Prime Minister’s friends, Peter Mandelson and then Charlie Falconer were the main front men. Most of the Cabinet, the media and the public did not want the Dome but that did not matter. How could this government transform Britain’s public services, which were already consuming nearly 35 per cent of the nation’s revenues, and still waste money on this nonsense? Andrew Rawnsley comments: “What the people wanted was not a vacuous temple to political vanity but a health service that worked.” The Dome was commissioned without any further discussion among Blair’s ministers.

 

The opening night was an excruciating fiasco which severely displeased the Queen and Prince Philip who were forced to endure a dance troupe of near-naked dancers, one of whom flaunted a three-foot spikey penis at the audience. The organisers were not even able to supply the Prime Minister’s wife with a glass of water. The Tesco house champagne was served in self-assembly plastic flutes and ran out. The heart in the Body Zone had developed an irregular beat and its brain was broken. Lord Blyth, of Boots, who had been a generous donor to the party, barked: “New Labour can bloody well wait for their £12 million.”

domequeen

Andrew Rawnsley wrote that the enterprise “embodied the most meretricious features of the consumer age which New Labour had absorbed too well. The Dome was the vapid glorification of marketing”.

 

Next week, I will show how New Labour did nothing to reverse the fragmentation and disruption caused by Tory privatisation of public utilities and transport.

 

 

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