Richard Toye Reviews Blair Inc: The Man Behind the Mask for the Guardian

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Richard Toye
History Department, University of Exeter

Follow on Twitter @RichardToye

Cross-Posted from the Guardian

During the early stages of the recent election campaign, Tony Blair emerged to deliver a speech in support of the Labour party’s European policy and to declare that he was backing Ed Miliband “100%”. The decision to make use of his predecessor in this way cannot have been easy for Miliband, as Blair remains potentially toxic, not least to many in the party itself, but doubtless he could not risk offering a rebuff. Blair’s motivation remains more obscure: previously he had done little to conceal his dislike of Miliband’s political approach, and he probably feels more than a little vindicated by Labour’s defeat. Certainly, a lot of people would reject with a laugh the idea that he said what he did because he genuinely believed it.

As this book shows, Blair has made little constructive effort in the years since he left office to re-establish his reputation. He has been much more interested in making money. The authors, all journalists, have done their best to uncover the details of Blair’s post-Downing Street activities. They have been frustrated, at many turns, by the extreme secrecy that surrounds his various operations. They recount how the Tony Blair Faith Foundation refused to tell them the location of its Marble Arch offices (which in fact they already knew). Blair’s staff habitually reject estimates of his earnings as inaccurate but refuse to provide alternative figures. Beckett, Hencke and Kochan speculate that he has not accepted a seat in the House of Lords because that would open his income up to greater scrutiny. Practically no one who has worked with him has been prepared to go on the record. And in spite of their best efforts, the writers have not uncovered any new “killer facts” and are obliged to engage in a degree of speculation.

The book collages a substantial volume of information, using it as the basis for a compelling indictment. There is no suggestion that Blair has done anything illegal. However, he has succeeded in making himself seriously rich by engaging in a range of ethically dubious pursuits. Meanwhile, concrete achievements are few and far between. He has had a variety of roles. First there was his position as the representative in the Middle East of the Quartet – the UN, the EU, the US and Russia – from which he has just resigned. Blair’s job was to implement the Quartet’s development agenda, and “to spearhead transformative economic change”. Yet, as the authors rightly point out, this was bound to be a thankless task in the absence of a meaningful peace process; they also suggest that he has been indolent and insufficiently willing to challenge Israeli power. They argue that Blair’s “commercial interests and those in his role as envoy” appeared “to overlap significantly”. This second set of activities – his business ones – involve providing consultancy to governments, including those where his Quartet position may have helped him build contacts, such as with the emir of Kuwait. Finally, there are his Faith Foundation, his Sports Foundation, his Africa Governance Initiative (AGI), and a modest amount of climate-change work. The structures of his various organisations are opaque, and how much time Blair spends on philanthropy and how much on paid work is unclear.

What is certain, though, is that he is willing to work for some murky clients. The most notorious of these is Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been president of Kazakhstan since 1991, ruthlessly maintaining his grip on power. (This April he secured a further term with nearly 98% of the vote.) Blair appeared in a pro-Nazarbayev propaganda video called In the Stirrups of Time and has made speeches praising the country’s economic achievements. He also advised the president on a 2012 address he gave in Cambridge in the wake of a police massacre of oil workers. Blair told him to meet the issue “head on” and to emphasise that “these events, tragic thought they were, should not obscure the enormous progress that Kazakhstan has made”. From a PR point of view it was probably wise counsel, but perhaps it doesn’t require 10 years as PM to come up with this type of insight. At the height of her troubles, Blair told Rebekah Brooks to “keep strong” and “take sleeping pills”; at least she wasn’t paying for the advice.

President Of Kazakhstan and tony blair
Blair has appeared in a propaganda video fort he president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev (left). Photograph: Pool/Getty Images.

The book is consistently judgmental, but in only one or two points does it stray from fairness. If some of the staff of the AGI have ended up performing good work in the battle against Ebola, it seems rough to twit them for indulging in “management speak” as they carry it out. The critique of Blair’s view of Islam – derived from a single questionable speech he made in the aftermath of the murder of Lee Rigby – is insufficiently developed. It is undoubtedly true, though, that Blair is in denial about the effect of his own foreign policies as prime minister in stoking the rise of Islamic extremism.

Yet in spite of Beckett, Hencke and Kochan’s commendable research efforts, Blair himself remains somewhat elusive in their account. They write that “the shameless deference Blair shows to politicians who flout every democratic principle and lock up opponents and who are brazenly corrupt is sharply at odds with the values he once espoused”. But the misdeeds of Blair’s government (such as colluding with the Gaddafi regime’s kidnap and torture of Libyan dissidents) far outstrip any he has committed since leaving No 10.

Certainly, narcissism and love of money are important aspects of Blair’s character. But his habit of getting cosy with tyrants is not just about ego and personal enrichment; arguably, it is in line with his longstanding preference for “effective” government over democratic government, itself possibly a product of his own difficulties in office. We may not like Blair’s convictions but we cannot understand his behaviour fully unless we admit both that they exist and that – as the Labour leadership debates are now demonstrating – they are of continuing relevance to today’s scene. Perhaps if he had been more careful of his personal reputation, his political principles would stand a chance of wider current acceptance. [continue reading]

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