Monday 18 December 2017

Books: A dreary and inaccurate hatchet job on Blair legacy

Politics: Broken Vows: Tony Blair - The Tragedy of Power, Tom Bower, Faber & Faber hdbk, 688 pages, €29.50

Unfair account: Bower's book is not history - it is a tirade.
Unfair account: Bower's book is not history - it is a tirade.
Broken Vows

Andy smith

Reading this dreary book is like being trapped in a corner by somebody intent on telling you all that is wrong with the world. It is not history, it is a philippic. It does not assess Tony Blair: it sets out to shred whatever is left of his reputation.

In this pursuit, the author, Tom Bower, picks and chooses. In 1997, we read that the economy was growing, immigration was coming under control, the internal market in the NHS was helping bring down costs, until a group of "former lawyers, TV producers, councillors and teachers with no experience of managing large organisations" came along and started interfering.

When the Daily Mail was looking for something interesting and new from the book that they could publish as an extract, their main choice was Bower's account of how Blair furtively decided to take the country to war in Iraq. Bower calls it "purposeful deception".

His thesis is that Blair made up his mind as early as April 2002, when he visited George Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, but kept his decision to himself.

As evidence, he cites what the diplomat Stephen Wall told the Chilcot Inquiry - that "he 'probably' only became aware, like most ministers, that Blair intended to join the invasion in January 2003".

I was part of the press pack who accompanied Blair to Crawford that April. Checking back, I find that the opening words of the account I wrote for The Daily Telegraph were "Tony Blair declared for the first time last night that Britain was ready to take military action against Iraq". Back in Westminster, the Labour MP Alice Mahon was already collecting signatures of Labour MPs in an attempt to head off British involvement in the impending war. I do not know why it could have taken another eight months for the news to seep through to civil servants and ministers, but I am not convinced that it was solely Blair's fault.

Anyone who remembers the Blair years will know that the British Prime Minister spent many hours in negotiations, which ended the long conflict in Northern Ireland.

Bower's 688-page tome does not mention Northern Ireland, but he does find room to revive a story first published in The Times on a Saturday in December 2001, claiming that during the previous summer, Tony and Cherie Blair had taken part in a "rebirthing" ceremony in Mexico, "which involved covering themselves with watermelon, paya and mud and screaming loudly to signify the pain of birth." Is that true? Who knows?

Into the mix, the author sprinkles inaccuracies. He writes that Alan Milburn was a former Trotskyite, that Harriet Harman sent her children to private schools, and that, in February 2003, Blair "approved the publication" of a second Iraq dossier that was a "fabrication". Milburn was never a Trotskyite, Harman's oldest child went to a grammar school, and the February dossier in 2003 was handed out in Washington to about half a dozen British journalists, of whom I was one, and though some of it was plagiarised, it was not a "fabrication". There are also assertions that Bower presents as fact - for example that Blair's spokesman Alastair Campbell was "infamous as a bully and a liar" and "unbalanced" - which others would class as opinion.

Bower is best known for writing courageous exposés of some very rich and litigious businessmen. This time, he has chosen a target he knows is not going to retaliate. He has written some very good books. This is a very bad one. He has not - as the blurb on the dust jacket claims - "uncovered the full story of Blair's decade in power", but if you are furious that the Labour government was ever permitted to interrupt Conservative rule, here is a book to reinforce your prejudices.

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