Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Andrew Turnbull

The Blair Years Part Seven

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday December 1 2016

Colman's Column3

Blair’s Later Career

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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 Four

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday, November 10 2016

 

Colman's Column3

 

The Moral Imperialist Messiah

 

 

Kosovo

tonibler

When Blair visited Pristina in 2010, he appeared onstage with nine boys who were named after him. Tonibler Sahiti’s mother said: “I hope to God that he grows up to be like Tony Blair or just a fraction like him.” The NATO intervention in Kosovo, which owed much to Blair’s advocacy, is often seen as protecting Kosovo Albanians from genocide. However, SNP leader Alex Salmond called it “an unpardonable folly”.  General Mike Jackson exhorted the troops, “with God on our side” “to protect the Albanian good guys from the murdering Serbs”. Days after Blair’s visit to Pristina, Albanian thugs began murdering Serbs.

Cabinet Secretary Andrew Turnbull sees the apparent success in Kosovo as the beginning of Blair’s Messiah complex. “He is saving the world from evil”. While intervening in Kosovo, Blair declared during a speech in Chicago, (partly drafted by Lawrence Freedman, who was later a member of the Chilcot Inquiry) his “Doctrine of the International Community”. Blair advocated the use of foreign troops to protect a civilian population. This doctrine could have been used to intervene in Sri Lanka.

Sierra Leone

The civil war in Sierra Leone began on 23 March 1991 when the RUF (Revolutionary United Front) attempted to overthrow the elected government.  Families were gunned down in the street, children and adults had their limbs hacked and women were raped.

Unarmed UN observers, including a small number of officers from the British Army and Royal Marines, were expected to monitor the Lomé Peace Accord signed in July 1999. The RUF did not honour the peace agreement, kidnapped UN personnel and seemed set to take over the whole country. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he expected the UK as the former colonial power, to intervene in Sierra Leone directly, rather than relying on the international community.

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Blair described the Sierra Leone operation as one of the things of which he is most proud. Most of the inhabitants of Sierra Leone welcomed it. The motivation was altruistic and there was no strategic or commercial interest in the adventure. The proportionality of 5,000 troops and naval force being sent to deal with a small group of brutal drug dealers was not questioned at the time. Unfortunately, the Sierra Leone adventure was cited by Blair in his rationale for later deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Afghanistan

Immediately after 9/11, Blair was very supportive of GW Bush. Although anxious to prevent the US taking precipitate and inappropriate action, Blair was also puzzled and frustrated by Bush’s initial invisibility and lack of response. Those in the know thought the 9/11 perpetrators might be hiding in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban. At the first meeting of intelligence chiefs in the den at Number 10, Blair had looked a little ‘fuzzy’ at the mention of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network. One official said, “I don’t think Blair knew much about al-Qaeda at this point. It was clear to me that he had not taken in earlier warnings”.

 

On October 7, 2001, the US, supported by allies, began an invasion of Afghanistan. A small contingent of British SAS soldiers supported American special forces who were guiding the US air force’s bombing raids. The Pentagon initially rejected Blair’s offer to send 6,000 troops. Tom Bower comments “Blair’s commitment was driven entirely by an untested philosophy, and he could not provide a definition of ‘victory’ that would end the war.” Six weeks after the bombing had begun, the Taliban were driven out of Kabul but they were not finished.

karzai

At the 2001 Labour Party Conference, Blair gave an impassioned speech in which he stated his case for moral imperialism and made a firm commitment to fighting alongside the US, whatever the cost. One Cabinet member described it as “the inaugural speech of the President of the World”. Andrew Rawnsley commented: “There was a disjunction between his admission that they couldn’t get the trains to run on time at home and his vaulting claim that they could heal the world of conflict, poverty and disease.”

 

 

Waiting for Chilcot

Basra, IRAQ: (FILES) -- File picture dated 29 May 2003 shows British Prime Minister Tony Blair addressing troops in Basra, Iraq.Blair announced 10 May 2007 his resignation after a decade in powerr, saying he will stand down at the end of June. He told party suporters in his constituency of Sedgefield that he would step down as Labour leader, and therefore as prime minister on June 27. AFP PHOTO POOL Stefan ROUSSEAU (Photo credit should read STEFAN ROUSSEAU/AFP/Getty Images)

29 May 2003  British Prime Minister Tony Blair addressing troops in Basra

 

The entire 12-volume, 2.6million-word Chilcot Report into the invasion of Iraq is available online.   I recommend readers to look at the report’s executive summary.

 

http://www.iraqinquiry.org.uk/media/247921/the-report-of-the-iraq-inquiry_executive-summary.pdf

 

It was widely expected that the report would be a whitewash and the long delay (the process took seven years) in publishing the report caused suspicions. Previous inquiries related to Iraq – Hutton in 2003 and Butler in 2004 (of which Chilcot had been a member) – had been disappointing.

 

The five appointees who were tasked with disentangling events since 1998 did not inspire confidence. Tom Bower described one of them, Baroness Usha Prashar, as “an untalented quangoist, [who] fulfilled the requirement of diversity.” I worked with her when she was a member of the Social Security Advisory Committee in 1983 and do not recall ever hearing her contribute to a SSAC discussion. On the Chilcot panel she asked Blair questions about post-war Iraq but failed to follow up on his evasions, inaccuracies and contradictions.

 

Nevertheless, the Chilcot report was not a whitewash. It found that military action was not the last resort and that policy on Iraq was made on the basis of flawed intelligence. The severity of the threat posed by Iraq, particularly the existence of weapons of mass destruction, was grossly overstated, and presented with a certainty that was not justified. Furthermore, the UK, which did not achieve its stated objectives in Iraq, did not prepare or plan for a post-Saddam Iraq.

Gerard Russell is an author and a former British and UN diplomat who spent 14 years representing Britain in the Middle East and served as a political officer in Afghanistan. He speaks fluent Arabic and Dari and assisted Iraq’s first elected prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, in 2005. He recently commented on the Chilcot Report in the New York Review of Books: “Perhaps there were no quick solutions to be had, but only the slow rebuilding of an abused and shattered state. If so, the most important lesson for us is that we should be doubly and triply cautious about breaking something that is so hard to reassemble.” Russell concludes:” … occupying and trying to run a foreign country is a doomed endeavour.”

 

How not to Fight a War

 

David Manning, who was the British Ambassador to the US from 2003 to 2007, described to the Chilcot committee “a ring of secrecy” that Blair constructed. Cabinet Secretary Andrew Turnbull realised that Blair and his chief of staff’s passion for speed and secrecy “was not a bad habit he and Powell had slipped into, but how they wanted to operate from the start”.

 

Turnbull was excluded from any discussions about Iraq as was Kevin Tebbitt the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence. David Omand, the former head of GCHQ, who had been specifically appointed as the coordinator of security and intelligence in the Cabinet Office could not get Blair to talk, or listen, to him. In his book, Broken Vows, Tom Bower commented: “By excluding the MoD – and Tebbit’s background included seventeen years in the Foreign Office, then [Director of] GCHQ –Blair denied himself direct advice about the movement of manpower and the supply of equipment before and after the invasion.”

 

According to Andrew Turnbull, Blair was “less and less interested in hearing contrary opinions.” Cabinet meetings were desultory. During twenty-five meetings about the war, no official was summoned to write the minutes, and the papers submitted by the Cabinet Office outlining the options were not read. Blair did not enjoy a good relationship with senior military men upon whom he relied to implement his plans for Iraq. Michael Boyce, was succeeded as Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) in 2003 by Michael Walker. When military leaders asked for more manpower or equipment he said, “Go and ask Gordon”.  Walker tried to get more helicopters but found Blair “inattentive”.

 

War with Brown

 

Officials were astonished that Blair “spent more time and effort managing the relationship with his Chancellor than on any other issue”. More on Gordon Brown next week.

 

The Blair Years Part Three

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday, November 3 2016. The title given was Privatisation’s Disastrous Route.

Colman's Column3

We have seen in previous articles how Blair failed to put in place structures that would make a practical reality out of the grand visions he hoped would be his legacy. New Labour did nothing to reverse the disruption caused by Tory privatisation of public utilities and transport. Blair’s own lack of attention to detail led to failures in the areas of energy policy, transport and agriculture.

team-photo

Transport

The New Labour manifesto for the 1997 election promised “an effective and integrated transport policy at national, regional and local level …” However, According to Cabinet Secretary Andrew Turnbull, “no-one ever really looked after transport. It was a very low priority in the first term.”

John Major is remembered fondly by some, but I will always remember him for doing to the British rail network what he did to Edwina Currie. Conscious of being in the shadow of Thatcher, he wanted his share of the privatisation glory. Rail was the only major area left so Major was determined to privatise it, even though it led to fragmentation, chaos and death. Operations were broken up and sold off, with regulatory functions transferred to the Rail Regulator. Railtrack took over the infrastructure and track maintenance became the responsibility of 13 different companies. Three rolling stock operating companies (ROSCOs) took over passenger trains with the stock being leased out to passenger train operating companies (TOCs) which were awarded contracts through rail franchising.

Nobody wanted rail privatisation except Tory ideologues and those who stood to make a fat profit at the taxpayers’ expense. After a series of rail disasters with many fatalities, there was a growing consensus that maintenance work was not being done properly and splitting of the railways into 25 different companies was a horrendous mistake. After the Paddington rail crash, in October 1999, a Guardian/ICM poll found that 73% of all voters would support re-nationalizing Railtrack. Blair did not accede to the people’s wishes.

Privatisation was meant to bring business savvy into public utilities, but, in reality, it allowed foreign governments and their state-owned operators to make vast profits out of the UK. In one two-year period, Dutch company Abellio took dividends of £20 million from their UK operations; French company Keolis made £37.9 million; German company Arriva made £15 million.

Hatfield, the morning after the train crash. Investigators and Police at the scene of the crash. The remains of the crash. New parts of the track waiting to be put on the tracy which was used by the Kings Cross to Leeds train yesterday which crashed. October 20, 2012. Photo by Andrew Parsons/i-Images.

Hatfield, the morning after the train crash. 

The Hatfield rail crash in 2000 led to severe financial difficulties for Railtrack which was put into a special kind of insolvency by the British High Court. On October 17 2000, four passengers died and dozens were injured because a faulty rail hadn’t been replaced: the rail crumbled under the friction of the 12.10 from King’s Cross to Leeds and threw the train from the tracks. Blair did not take the opportunity to re-nationalise the railways but nevertheless pumped in taxpayers’ money. In 2002 a new organisation, Network Rail, bought Railtrack PLC. Network Rail had no shareholders but was nominally in the private sector but its borrowing was guaranteed by the government. In 2004, Network Rail took back direct control of the maintenance of the track, signalling and overhead lines.

Instead of sorting out the chaos in the national rail network, the Blair government went ahead with plans to mess up the Tube. Although chancellor Gordon Brown was resolutely opposed to any hint of privatisation in the NHS (except in building hospitals) and banned use of the word ‘choice’, he was obsessed with using PFI (Private Finance Initiative) to revitalise the underground network. In practice, PFI is a bad deal for taxpayers and involves a hidden privatisation of public services. The UK Accounting Standards Board called PFI an “an off-balance-sheet fiddle” because the government can move the cost of public works out of the public sector borrowing requirement and by sleight of hand reduce the deficit. PFI can only be implemented through an anti-competitive process which inevitably leads to corruption. The big corporations would not be interested if it were otherwise. For a small investment, companies can be sure of long-term profit guaranteed by the taxpayer.

The government announced in February 2002 that it was going ahead with plans for part-privatisation of the London Underground despite wide-spread opposition. Opponents insisted that the plan was fundamentally flawed on both financial and safety grounds. Brown and Blair left the detail to deputy prime minister John Prescott who soon lost control to a group of businessmen, lawyers and consultants whose fees reached £1 billion. The final bill for the project was about £30 billion. Blair supported his chancellor’s hubristic scheme “as the only way to get massive investment into the ailing network”.

Energy and Fuel

Energy provides another example of Blair’s inability to maintain a consistent position and to trust his ministers to implement a policy. As a means of reducing energy costs and the incidence of fuel poverty, a new programme of grants for cavity wall and loft insulation and for draught proofing was quickly launched, with some 670,000 homes taking up the scheme. This scheme was later abandoned and the number of those suffering from the cold increased. Steep price rises and possible power blackouts, that we are so familiar with in Sri Lanka, were a grim possibility.

Germany was driving the EU to increase the proportion of energy supplied by renewables to 20%. Only 1.6 of Britain’s energy needs was being generated by renewables and Merkel’s policy would cost Britain’s consumers £7.9 billion extra every year and would wreck its energy market. Industry representatives doubted whether the prime minister and his advisers understood either the costs or the complications. When Alistair Darling told Blair that he was mad to agree to Merkel’s plans, Blair said “I got confused”.  In Broken Vows, Tom Bower writes: “As so often, although their conversation lasted only a few seconds, his eyes wandered.”  William Rickett, an energy expert working in the Cabinet Office, commented: “That’s not the sort of behaviour you expect from a prime minister. He’s wasted eighteen months of work and it’s delayed anything happening on the ground while we go back to the drawing board”.

 

Petrol Revolt

gbrown2p

An avoidable crisis brought the UK to the brink of anarchy and almost toppled the government. “The great petrol revolt of 2000” led to hospitals cancelling non-vital surgery and funeral directors warned that they would not be able to bury the dead. It reminded me of James Callaghan’s winter of discontent when I sat in a Manchester cinema with rats running over my feet because the local authority could not collect the garbage. By 2000, fuel prices in the UK had risen from being amongst the cheapest in Europe to being the most expensive. By 2000, tax accounted for 81.5% of the total cost of petrol, up from 72.8% in 1993.  Because of demonstrations against increased fuel tax, a stage was reached where nine out of ten petrol stations had no fuel to sell. There was panic buying and supermarket shelves were empty. One minister warned: “There would be no food. The health service was going to collapse. We were twenty-four hours away from meltdown”.

 

After being initially slow to focus on the problem, Blair went energetically into action, working the phones to influential people in the oil and haulage businesses. He was not successful and shouted “For f***’s sake, they gave me assurances”. One of the oil executives resented Blair’s attitude.  “We are not nationalised industries. We are globalised companies with, on the whole, more influence around the world than the British Government”. Blair said, “I have to show I am leading”. Sending in the army was considered but the generals were reluctant. Polls showed that as many as 94% supported the protesters. As Andrew Rawnsley put it: “The petrol shortages might be a pain, but the people seemed ready to endure them so long as the torture inflicted on the Prime Minister was greater”.

 

Foot in Mouth

burning-cows

The army was called upon to help in another crisis which Blair mishandled – the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001. With up to 93,000 animals per week being slaughtered, Agriculture Ministry officials were assisted by units from the British Army. The bureaucracy failed abysmally, politicians were unfocused, then panicked and scientists and self-interested farmers issued confused predictions. Thousands of farmers faced financial devastation because the Rural Payments Agency had collapsed. The Secretary of State, Margaret Beckett, would be officially criticised for contributing to a blunder that cost over £1 billion in compensation but was rewarded with promotion to the Foreign Office. Blair admitted: “We were mired by scandal and controversy and then I did a reshuffle which was the worst of all worlds”.

 

Next week, Blair goes to war – in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq – and with the Treasury.

 

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