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Review: SUCKING UP TO BLAIR

Blair Unbound
By Anthony Seldon (with Peter Snowdon and Daniel Collings)
Pocket Books 2007
669 pages, Paperback £9.99

REVIEW BY ALEX MILLER

This is the second part of a two-volume biography of Tony Blair, covering the period from September 11th 2001 to Blair’s resignation as Prime Minister in June 2007. It is based largely on material gleaned from extensive interviews with members of the inner circles surrounding Blair, (then) Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, and US President George W. Bush. As such, it adds up to a lurid but often fascinating picture of life in the upper echelons of the UK and US governments. Useful as this is, the book however fails to add up to a convincing or plausible account of Blair’s involvement in the important events in world politics between 2001 and 2007.

One reason for this is that although the book is in some places mildly critical of Blair, it is on the whole marred by an overly deferential – in some places almost sycophantic – attitude towards its subject. This often manifests itself in the unquestioning acceptance of utterly implausible claims that could easily have originated from Blair himself. A few examples: US neoconservatism is described as the view that “America’s mission was actively to spread democracy throughout the world, rather than simply containing tyrants like Saddam Hussein”; Blair’s “academies” – state schools taken out of local authority control and handed over to businessmen or religious zealots to run – are said to have been taken over by “successful external sponsors offering inspiring vision”; Lord Hutton, who headed the inquiry into the circumstances that led to the death of Dr David Kelly in 2003, is described as having “proved himself to be utterly independent amidst the great political pressures of Northern Ireland”. In fact, Hutton had represented the British Army at the now infamous whitewashing Widgery Inquiry into Bloody Sunday in the early 1970s: hardly “utterly independent”.

Other embarrassments for Blair are either played down or ignored completely. For example, the cold-blooded public execution of the completely innocent Jean Charles de Menezes by British secret police in London in July 2005 gets only 3 brief sentences; Guantanamo Bay gets the briefest of mentions in passing; and there is nothing about the massive decline in Labour’s share of the popular vote since 1997, nor of the catastrophic collapse in Labour Party membership in the same period. Moreover, in the “Yo Blair!” incident involving Blair and Bush caught unawares by a microphone at the G8 meeting in St Petersburg in 2006, Blair is described as “engaging Bush in the niceties of policy”. In fact, as anyone who knows the recording can attest, Blair is heard more or less going down on his knees begging Bush to send him as an envoy to the Middle East.

Examples like these could be multiplied easily. And Seldon expresses an odd view of Blair’s overall trajectory since 1997. Whereas many would see Blair as having started tolerably well in 1997 with the introduction of the national minimum wage, the setting up of devolved parliaments in Scotland and Wales, and modest but welcome reforms to the House of Lords, before heading rapidly downhill towards war in Afghanistan and the scandals of Iraq, Seldon expresses the opposite view that Blair started out badly and became more successful towards the end of his premiership. Remarkably, in the course of charting Blair’s “long farewell” prior to his resignation in 2007 Seldon reports without comment or even a hint of irony Blair’s pride in the “success” of the intervention in Afghanistan!

But despite this tendency towards whitewashing Blair’s crimes and failings, at some points the book does unwittingly point towards the truth. For example, despite the meticulous and detailed account of what insiders were saying and thinking in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, at no point does anyone ever raise the question of how British troops would cope if the WMD allegedly possessed by Iraq were turned on them. This is proof in itself that the WMD were in fact a fabrication concocted by Blair and his fellow war criminals. In addition, in a telling Freudian slip Seldon gives the game away about WMD. Of a trip Blair made to China in 2003 Seldon writes: “By shifting the focus on to a real concern with WMD, North Korea’s nuclear weapons, Blair had hoped the trip would draw a line under the dossiers and WMD before the summer recess”. By qualifying the concern with North Korea’s nuclear weapons as “real”, Seldon unwittingly confirms that Blair’s “concern” with Iraq’s WMD was in fact unreal: just what we always thought.

The book also throws some useful light on Gordon Brown. One thing that emerges time and time again is that whenever Brown appeared to be to the left of Blair on a given issue, this had more to do with Brown’s personal political ambitions than any genuine leaning towards “Old Labour” values. For example, the book records that immediately prior to the attack on Iraq Brown launched a passionate defence of Blair’s strategy at a crucial meeting of Cabinet”. And as unemployment soars and the failings of the free-market economy beloved of Brown and Blair are daily thrown into sharper relief in 2008, it is strikingly ironic to be reminded of the title of the Green Paper championed by the two New Labour founders Blair and Brown as recently as 2007: “In Work, Better Off: Next Steps to Full Employment”. So much for the myth of Brown’s economic foresight and competence.

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