2016 10 – Tony Blair – power, money and scandals

Blair Inc – The Power, The Money, The Scandals

A review by Mark Cowling[A]

In 1997 the first Labour government for 17 years was elected in a landslide victory. I was absolutely delighted.  I had some traumatic memories, particularly from the Thatcher years.  The miners’ strike of 1984-5 was a horrible episode. Arthur Scargill led the National Union of Mineworkers into a strike without a national ballot, and when stocks of coal were at a record high. The miners and their families suffered terribly in a battle which was obviously unwinnable. If you said this to other people on the left you were seen as a traitor. The defeat of the miners made it much easier for pits to be closed. This left mining villages in the north-east devastated, and many of them have not really recovered to this day. The defeat of the miners, together with that of other unions, such as the print workers, led to a general demoralisation of working people, and a decline in union membership and influence.

In Middlesbrough where I live the recession caused by Mrs Thatcher’s monetarist policies had a devastating effect on many small manufacturing and garment businesses. Under her henchman Ian MacGregor the steel industry, which was a large local employer, was prepared for de-nationalisation by cutting back drastically on the labour force. My daughter now teaches in a primary school in an area of the town which was affected by these changes.  From having fairly full employment prior to Mrs Thatcher, still in 2016 the area is marked by very substantial long-term unemployment. Of some 250 children at my daughter’s school only 18 pay for school lunches. My daughter found that the children in her class had no real idea of what is meant by work outside the home. As will be imagined, the area also has bad problems with drugs and general anti-social behaviour.

With all this as a background, the relief when Blair was elected was overwhelming.  However, he then squandered the opportunity to put through any radical measures during his first term. His succession of governments certainly had some achievements, notably putting more money into the NHS and education, better provision for nursery-aged children or the Human Rights Act, but were disappointing compared with what could have been achieved.  And then, of course, Blair seriously damaged his own reputation and the prospects of his party by supporting the US invasion of Iraq in spite of there being no real evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. This magazine’s predecessor provided very good evidence, available publicly, which showed that it was very unlikely that Iraq possessed chemical weapons. Iraq was held to be supporting Al Qaeda, which also seemed most unlikely, as Saddam Hussein had a Christian as his Foreign Minister, and could be seen in propaganda videos promoting university education for women, sitting around a table with a group of women who did not wear veils.

Mainly as a consequence of the invasion of Iraq and the devastation left in its wake, Blair left office under a cloud.  Prior to Blair, retiring prime ministers would typically make reasonable amounts of money by writing their memoirs, charging for lectures, and probably taking on three or four company directorships.

However, as this book demonstrates, in only too devastating detail, Blair has spent his time between making mischief, notably in the Middle East, and making obscene amounts of money. Blair has also taken on a series of commitments, some of which very much contradict the others, apparently without realising that this is a problem.

Here are some of the highlights (low lights?!) of the book.

 

Quartet Peace Representative in the Middle East.

It starts with his role as a mediator in the Middle East. It was pretty obvious, given the disastrous outcome of the invasion of Iraq and statements he had made which evinced hostility to Muslims, that he needed to demonstrate, at minimum, neutrality between Israel and the Palestinians. On the contrary, he completely flunked his first opportunity. The background is that following the Hamas victory in the 2006 elections in Gaza the Israelis imposed a blockade and economic sanctions. In 2010 the Israeli defence forces killed nine Turkish activists on the Marmara, which in turn led to huge international pressure to lift the blockade. Instead of adding to the pressure he simply accepted the view of the Israeli premier Ehud Barak that there should be some voluntary Israeli easing of the siege. Blair simply managed to get the Israelis to allow a few previously banned items into Gaza, and trumpeted this as a major victory in the world’s media.  Not surprisingly, the Palestinians concluded that there was nothing to be gained from Blair (location 440). Another example of conflicting interests and lack of sensitivity was his appointment in 2012 of a woman who had previously worked as an Israeli intelligence officer and adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu to Tony Blair Associates. Although she was not working on the Middle East, it can readily be imagined that this did not go down well with the Palestinians (location 455).

Following the Israeli assault on Gaza in the summer of 2014 in which some 2200 Gazans were killed, he commented that the Palestinians should restrict themselves to peaceful means, without any counter balancing comment about the Israelis (location 463). This lack of neutrality continues his approach as Prime Minister when he saw Israel as a democratic state threatened by extremists, at the same time as making deprecating remarks about British Muslims and rejecting the idea that British foreign policy had anything to do with the radicalisation of Muslims (location 491).  One of Blair’s other activities was the setting up of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. This failed to include any prominent Muslims, but did include Haim Saban, an American Israeli billionaire and supporter of Israel (location 503).  At the time of the murder of Lee Rigby in 2013, Muslim leaders condemned this act of extremists, Blair blamed a strain within the Muslim faith which was not just the province of a few (location 528).

Blair’s activities as the representative of the Quartet in the Middle East were not cheap.  Whereas his predecessor had managed with seven or eight staff and was neutral, Blair’s staff occupied a whole floor of a luxury hotel at £1 million per year (location 536). His major achievements for the Palestinians were two large-scale economic projects to do with natural gas and telecommunications, both of which coincidentally benefited the JP Morgan bank with which Blair happened to be associated as a “strategic adviser” at £2 million per year (location 553). In any case, substantial economic development from Gaza could only be expected as the result of a peace deal with Israel. It is not realistic to expect economic development to lead to peace (location 755).

 

Blair’s wealth.

The book clearly demonstrates a dramatic Blair interest in making money. The book estimates that he is worth about £60 million, but: “[the] Tony Blair financial empire [is] the most impenetrable financial body that is legally possible in the United Kingdom” (location 886). The Blair moneymaking enterprises centre on Tony Blair Associates. One goal of the structure is tax avoidance (location 1047). Important clients for advice include JP Morgan (£2 million per year), the Emir of Kuwait (£27 million) and the government of Kazakhstan (£8 million per year) (location 1065).

 

Blair the adviser.

There is no sign of Blair being distressed by the Emir of Kuwait’s lack of democratic credentials and lamentable human rights record (location 1505). This association with the Emir and Blair’s role as Quartet Representative do not sit easily together (location 1519).  Kazakhstan’s president Nazarbayev is notionally a democratic statesman, but in one election his main opponent shot himself twice in the chest before shooting himself in the head.  More recently Nazarbayev has been re-elected by plebiscite, with suspiciously high percentages in his favour (location 1696). Under him strikers have been massacred (location 1756) and opponents subject to show trials (location 1857); minority religious groups face persecution (location 1945). Nonetheless, Blair simply praises Nazarbayev and, for substantial sums, the president of Azerbaijan (location 2036). He seemed happy to help the Burmese generals to improve their image (location 2155). He maintained the friendship with Gaddafi that started when he was prime minister (location 2452). Peter Mandelson, a fellow founder of the New Labour project, distances himself from this support for dictatorships. (location 2596).  Mandelson, the book alleges, has been involved in similar activities to Tony Blair’s, but less blatantly and dramatically (location 2914).

The book does eventually praise Blair for his role in the response to the Ebola crisis (location 3359). This help was provided through Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative (AGI) charity.  Blair works for this gratis, but the book suggests that this work facilitates potentially lucrative consultancy contracts (location 3328).

 

The Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

Set up in 2008, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation aims to strengthen inter-faith collaboration, but also to strengthen the influence of religion or, in Foundations speak “We inform, educate and inspire how religion motivates the world today” (location 3663). The authors comment that this is meaningless: how do you inspire how religion motivates the world today?  One major problem of the Foundation is its failure to recruit a Muslim of any prominence to its advisory board, whereas there is no such problem with other faiths (location 3937). This links on the one hand to the comments mentioned above linking Islam to terrorism, and his closeness to the Israeli position in his work as Quartet Representative. As mentioned above, one of the major donors to the Faith Foundation is a prominent supporter of Israel, which doubtless makes recruiting a Muslim of repute difficult, and also undermined his position as a neutral honest broker in the Middle East. More generally, donors sought by the Faith Foundation are seriously rich (location 4381).

 

The Blairs’ real estate.

The Blairs now own no less than 36 properties including five abroad and two blocks of flats.  One is a country mansion reminiscent of Chequers with an estimated value of £8 million; another is their five-storey London house at Connaught Square, also valued at around £8 million (location 4993).

 

Progress.

In Britain the Blairite political interest is represented within the Labour Party by Progress.  The authors comment that this is a singularly well-heeled organisation with an annual income of around £360,000, apparently gained from a few wealthy donors, notably Lord Sainsbury (location 5189).  The organisation has an opaque decision-making structure and is difficult to contact (location 5205). It provides training and support for suitable Parliamentary candidates. It was plainly disturbed by the election of Ed Miliband, and stepped up its activities in response. The book does not cover the election of Corbyn, but links between the rebellion of Labour MPs and Progress would doubtless be a worthwhile study.

This most interesting book pairs well with The Establishment by Owen Jones.  Jones’s book does not have a clear theoretical framework, but is a really excellent compendium of the evils of the neo-liberal legacy of Mrs Thatcher, including its continuing influence in the Labour Party. One area he charts is an increasing tendency for Labour politicians to be career politicians with middle-class and quite possibly privately educated backgrounds. This in turn is prone to link with treating politics as a money-making enterprise, and he gives some examples of Blair associates who have also amassed property, although none on the scale of Tony Blair himself.

The career of Blair since leaving office is frankly disgusting. Next year there will be an extensive reselection of Labour MPs and candidates as a result of boundary changes.  I shall be very pleased if people with the Blair approach to politics depart as a result. The book can be recommended as an important but thoroughly depressing read.

[A] Blair Inc – The Power, The Money, The Scandals, by Francis Beckett, David Henke and Nick Kochan.  John Blake Publishing, London.  Kindle edition, £4.29.  Paperback, £7.99.

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