The moral decline of Tony Blair
Since leaving office, Britain's former prime minister has done little more than amass a huge personal fortune, as a new book sets out.
This article is a preview from the Summer 2015 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.
Blair Inc. The Man Behind the Mask (John Blake) by Francis Beckett, David Hencke and Nick Kochan
The story of Tony Blair since he left office is one of abject failure. This may sound like a strange thing to say about a man who has amassed a multi-million-pound fortune, travels the world in private planes and continues to mix with international statesmen and businesspeople. But the tale told by the authors of Blair Inc. is one of tragic decline, politically, intellectually and morally.
This is a man who took a demoralised Labour Party to three election victories, played a significant role in bringing stability to Northern Ireland and defined a new philosophy of international affairs. But it is difficult to identify a single significant achievement since 2007, apart from personal enrichment.
His appointment as Middle East Envoy to the Quartet was controversial from the outset and he now cuts a lonely and irrelevant figure in discussions of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The moral framework for international intervention, based on his view that humanitarian imperatives should outweigh realpolitik, now lies in tatters. His charitable work with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation (TBFF) and the Africa Governance Initiatiative, though its aims may be admirable, has been limited at best and at worst fuelled suspicions that it was merely serving the interests of his commercial arm, Tony Blair Associates.
In an interview with the authors of Blair Inc., Mike Harris, an international freedom of expression campaigner, Labour activist and former Blair supporter, is eloquent on the former Prime Minister’s descent: “The man who ushered in the post-Westphalian era, the anti-Kissinger who prevented the genocide of Kosovan Muslims and defended the rights of Sierra Leoneans, is now the counsel of oil-rich dictators.”
Francis Beckett, David Hencke and Nick Kochan are proper old-fashioned hacks and they have dug deep into Mr Blair’s murky dealings with human-rights abusers across the globe. It is worth listing them, in case anyone is under the illusion that this is some kind of accident: Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Burma, Gaddafi’s Libya, Egypt, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi.
At the heart of the Blair operation lies a lack of transparency that makes it difficult to know in which capacity he is operating. “Which Tony Blair keeps visiting Abu Dhabi?” ask the mystified authors. “The patron of the TBFF? The Middle East peace envoy? Or the principal of Tony Blair Associates?”
Beckett, Hencke and Kochan are rightly concerned to investigate the ethical limits of Blair’s international operation. What emerges is a one-man conflict of interests, especially where it comes to the Middle East. It is simply not possible, argue the authors of Blair Inc., to act as an honest broker in Israel and the Palestinian territories while also representing the interests of paying clients such as the government of Kuwait or the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. These conflicts show up most strongly during his visits to the Libyan dictator, Colonel Gaddafi, for example, when he can’t seem to make up his mind whether he is there as the Quartet representative or on behalf of his Faith Foundation. Some would say he should not have been there at all.
What emerges is a picture of supreme poor judgement. Blair has always been a tacky politician – his Prime Ministerial holidays with Silvio Berlusconi serve as an exemplar of bad-taste statesmanship unsurpassed in a British leader. But there is much here that approaches that nadir. His advertising promo for Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev sounds for all the world like a bad translation of a Kazakh politburo press release. He describes the brutal autocrat as demonstrating the “toughness necessary to take the decisions to put the country on the right path, but also a certain degree of subtlety and ingenuity that allowed him to manoeuvre in a region that is fraught with difficulty”.
In terms of bling it’s hard to beat France’s richest man, Bernard Arnault, the head of Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey and a personal friend of the Blairs. So it comes as no surprise that all three of the Blair children enjoyed the privilege of work experience with “the wolf in cashmere,” as Arnault is known.
Reading Blair Inc. is a deeply depressing experience for anyone who has ever placed their hopes in Blair (and there are a lot of us out there – remember, 9.5 million people voted for him to be Prime Minister after the Iraq War). For those of us who have worked for him, it is spine-chilling.
For five months last year I worked at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation setting up the Religion and Geopolitics website. I was assured at the outset that the site would have full editorial independence, but this was never the case. This episode is covered fairly in the chapter in Blair Inc. on TBFF. It became clear to me that Blair never understood the concept of independence – either of the website or of the charity. My team was often asked to provide briefings for the private office and began to operate as Blair’s private think-tank on the Middle East. This culminated in work carried out for his Bloomberg speech in April 2014 when he outlined his view that strategic anti-Islamist alliances should be forged with Russia, China and Egypt.
At no point was I left in any doubt about Blair’s faith. He was clearly driven by a conviction that if only people were “good” Christians, Muslims, Jews etc, then the world would be a better place. On the issue of how Blair reconciles his apparently conflicting activities, I agree with the authors that this stems from the belief that he is “a pretty straight guy” and that this in turn has its origins in his Christian faith.
Despite its thematic structure, Blair Inc. skips along nicely and provides a readable addition to the growing library on its subject. From the outset the tone is hostile and at times the authors rely on unreliable allies to their anti-Blair cause. Why do we need to hear that the head of Hizb-ut-Tahrir believes “his is one of the most hated names in the region” or that Blair’s sister-in-law Lauren Booth, a regular on the Iranian state mouthpiece Press TV, thinks he “threw away the trust of the Palestinians’ Prime Minister”? But these are details. This is an important investigation into a set of highly secretive organisations by a dedicated trio of journalists, who offered every opportunity to the key players to respond to their charges. I only wish I had read it before I went to work for Blair Inc.