Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Richard Wilson

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.

kazak

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 Five

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday 17 November 2016 

https://ceylontoday.lk/print20161101CT20161231.php?id=9430

 

Colman's Column3

The War with Gordon Brown

blairbrown

While journalists and biographers have done much to illuminate the strange psyche of Gordon Brown, there is only one writer who could have done him justice- William Shakespeare. There are countless anecdotes about Brown’s rages during which he hurled expletives and inanimate objects. Tessa Jowell, one of the more placid members of the Cabinet, was provoked into shouting at Brown: “Don’t you ever f****ing speak to me like that again.” Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon groaned, “Why can’t he behave like a human being?”

 

“From day one, it was terrible,” says Jonathan Powell, Blair’s Chief of Staff. In the early days of the new government, one of the most senior figures in Number 10 (not Peter Mandelson) said, “You know Gordon. He feels so vulnerable and so insecure. He has these psychological flaws.”  Peter Mandelson once remarked to Blair that he should put a sign up on his desk with the inscription: “Remember: The Chancellor is mad”.

 

Blair’s team of advisors and Brown’s were in a constant state of warfare. According to Jonathan Powell, “Gordon had a very strong field of gravity. People became infected by his paranoia. Working for Gordon did something to people”. A senior civil servant commented: “The people around Brown were pretty ruthless”.

 

Blair and Brown

blair-brownyoung

I was in the House of Commons on July 27 1983, to hear Gordon Brown’s maiden speech. The speech was impressive in a dour kind of way, showing a great deal of sympathy for the downtrodden in his constituency. He shared a Westminster office with a newly-elected MP from the Sedgefield constituency, Tony Blair. When Labour leader John Smith died in 1994, Blair was shadow home secretary and Brown shadow chancellor. The legend has it that on 31 May, Blair and Brown met at the Granita restaurant in Islington, where Brown is said to have agreed to step aside on the understanding that Blair would one day stand down in favour of Brown. Throughout Blair’s premiership, Brown would shout at Blair: “When are you going to f*** off!”

smithblair

 

smithbrown

 

Financial Wizard

 

Brown liked to portray himself as more socialist than Blair. His record as Chancellor does not support this. Soon after taking office in 1997, the new administration announced, with Brown’s agreement, that it would be continuing Conservative economic policies. Brown wrote: “I wanted to preserve Thatcher’s competitive tax rates. I wanted wealthy people to feel welcomed in the UK”. The Chancellor’s new tax rates favoured speculators, tax-avoiders and the super-rich. According to Tom Bower: “Blair’s grasp on the effect of Brown’s policies on British industry, the City or the economy was indiscernible”. However, Blair realised that whatever about Brown’s self-image as “prudent”, he was spending too much. Blair did not realise how ignorant Brown was about markets and balance sheets or warnings about the property bubble and the effects of deregulation.

 

 

Obstruction

 

Brown, like a sulky child, hindered many policy initiatives, not because he had any rational case against them, but simply because Blair wanted them. Andrew Rawnsley comments, “Brown did not offer much by way of an alternative vision or theory of reform. He just knew what he didn’t like. What he didn’t like was anything coming from Blair”. A Treasury minister commented that “Gordon thought that Tony was shallow. By definition, any idea coming from Tony had to be reckless and unworkable because it was Tony’s idea”. Brown said “Tony doesn’t think more than an inch deep”. There countless stories of Brown refusing to attend important meetings. When he did attend, he would not contribute, spending the whole time working on his own papers.

 

There are also countless tales of Brown interfering in the remit of other ministers. The NHS will serve as the prime example. Alan Milburn, the Health Secretary, was incandescent when Brown, without consultation, announced his own NHS review and made critical remarks about the health service’s performance. Milburn complained to Blair that Brown “saw it as his right to trample on everyone else’s territory”.  On health and education, the chancellor adamantly opposed creeping privatisation of services at the same time as being a fervent proponent of public private finance initiatives (PFI) to fund the building of NHS hospitals. Let the sewage flooding the operating theatres at the brand-new Carlisle hospital stand as a telling symbol of PFI.

 

https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2011/09/15/the-healthcare-business-in-the-uk/

 

My Indecision is Final

 

Cabinet Secretary Richard Wilson said, “I had Permanent Secretaries wanting decisions and we couldn’t give them because Blair and Brown were in a row. Issues stacked up like aircraft over Heathrow”. Like so many others, Wilson found it difficult to decide what Blair wanted because there was no defined objective, only generalities like “reforming the public services”. Wilson’s request for Blair to explain his message received at best idealistic verbiage.

Sir Richard Wilson

Sir Richard Wilson

Rawnsley quotes one of Blair’s closest advisors: “Tony sits there at the Monday morning strategy meetings screaming: ‘What are we doing about health? What are we doing about crime? What are we doing about transport? And nothing happening.’”

 

Blair put on a good public performance after the London bombings but someone who saw his performance at the Cobra meetings said, “He didn’t understand the machine of which he was the master, so he got in the way of getting what he needed.”

 

New Ways of Governing

 

In 1997, Blair was a complete novice to government, as also was Gordon Brown. Neither of them had managed anything except a political party. The prime minister’s apathy about organisation and management was incurable.  Officials at Number 10 had a set ritual for welcoming a new prime minister. Blair was presented with a thick blue folder, entitled “The Precedent Book”, which set out how previous governments had handled major events, such as the Queen’s Speech and Prime Ministerial statements. Blair pointedly did not open it. The Cabinet was not consulted about Brown’s decision to grant independence to the Bank of England. The Cabinet Secretary was concerned that major decisions were not discussed in Cabinet. “I’m sure they’ll agree,” responded Blair. The Cabinet Secretary persisted: “shouldn’t the Cabinet at least be informed?” “They’ll all agree,” repeated Blair, more emphatically.

 

Cabinet meetings were not held as frequently as under previous prime ministers; they did not last long; there was little substantive discussion. A joke became popular among ministers. “Why does the tea trolley serve only half the Cabinet? Because the meetings are over before it can reach the other side.”

 

Blair was happy for the government to interfere in all the interstices of citizens’ lives. The nation and its administrators became weary with initiative fatigue. According to Andrew Rawnsley: “Units, task forces and review groups, commissars of modernisation on every subject from silicone breast implants to social exclusion, proliferated … councils were instructed on the annual gross weight of dog turds they were expected to collect”.

 

The deficiencies of Blair’s style of governance is shown starkly by his handling of the invasion of Iraq. One of Blair’s reasons for avoiding formal discussions about Iraq was that he wanted to exclude Brown. In the past, a military intervention of this nature would have involved discussion of thick red files in the Cabinet room by ministers and officials and senior military officers covering the background and options.  Blair kept decisions to himself but subsequently did not give them his full attention. Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon discovered that conversations with Blair about Iraq were invariably undermined by the prime minister’s attention shifting elsewhere.

 

Conclusion

The number of Whitehall press officers had expanded to 1,100. The tally of special advisers –

spin doctors – had more than doubled since May 1997. Millionaire novelist Ken Follett was once a generous supporter of the Labour Party but became disillusioned. He predicted that Blair would be remembered “as the Prime Minister who made malicious gossip an everyday tool of government”. It was an ironic result of the efforts of New Labour’s propagandists that they undermined the public perception of the character of the Prime Minister and obscured his government’s real successes.

 

Next week – what were the successes?

 

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