Is a balanced judgement on a government ever possible?
I’ve just finished a book about New Labour under Tony Blair. He was PM for 10 years – from 1997 to 2007, leaving office just before the global financial crisis broke – and this particular book, “Broken Vows – Tony Blair, the tragedy of power”, published almost a decade later, purports to be an assessment of his government’s record - at least in the fields of health, education, immigration, energy and “the wars”.
Tom Bower is a well-known British investigative journalist who has profiled commercial rogues such as Robert Maxwell, Tiny Rowlands, Conrad Black, Bernie Ecclestone (of F1 fame) and Richard Desmond let alone characters such as Klaus Barbie but offers more sympathetic profiles of Prince Charles, Simon Cowell and Boris Johnson.
His bibliography lists the books he relied on – basically 40 memoirists and not a single one of the many writers whose serious analytical accounts of the period were available if only Bower had had the patience to read serious material.
It’s significant, for example, that no mention is made – whether in the bibliography or the text – of a book which had attempted an assessment both fair and accessible - The Verdict – did Labour Change Britain? by Polly Toynbee and David Walker issued several years earlier in 2010.
And that is certainly the question by which it is reasonable to hold both Blair and New Labour to account. “Modernisation” was Blair’s mantra – conservatism the enemy whether it rested in the trade unions or the civil service – both of whom he regarded as the immediate enemy.
Indeed such was the suspicion of the civil service from the very beginning that virtually all New Labour Ministers threw their senior civil servants’ advice notes into the bin. They had their manifesto – strongly enforced by both Blair and Brown, the “Iron Chancellor”.
Not only Civil Servants but the Cabinet was treated with utter contempt – if it had not been for the Blair-Brown tension which would often break out in open conflict, the resultant system might have lapsed into total “groupthink”…..
Sadly, however, Bower doesn’t bother to use (or even make reference to) the excellent analysis available in British Government in Crisis (2005) by Christopher Foster who had been both an adviser and consultant but prefers instead to rest on a critique of the vainglorious Michael Barber of “deliverology” infamy
Strangely, only in Education had New Labour come with coherent plans for the future. Bower’s story is one of the system staggering from one crisis to another – with no lessons learned other than the need to return to Conservative policies which Blair not so secretly had always favoured.
These days, we associate New Labour with four main things – PR “spin”, the Iraq war; a globalist encouragement of immigration; and huge budgetary increases for health and education. But there was a positive side which even an ex-adviser to Margaret Thatcher recognises in this critical review of “Broken Vows”.
But – despite the claims in the Introduction - Bower’s book is NOT an attempt to judge a government – let alone dispassionately. As is abundantly clear in the devastating picture of Blair portrayed in the book’s opening chapter and Afterword, this is a hatchet job on a man whose greed, superficiality and delusions were already evident to most of us
Those wanting a serious analysis of New Labour should better spend their time on -
New Labour – a critique Mark Bevir (2005) Not the easiest of reads – the author is a post-modernist academic if also a social democrat – but starts from the position that New Labour used slippery language and ignored its traditions. But excellent on options and traditions ignored...
The Verdict – did Labour Change Britain? Polly Toynbee and David Walker (2010) written by journalists sympathetic to Labour who supply a reasonably balanced assessment – if one rather light on references.