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It could have been great

Tony Blair transformed Britain, but he cared more about the limelight than the Labour Party

Broken Vows: Tony Blair: The Tragedy of Power

by Tom Bower (Faber, £20)

In history, as in private life, short-term memory is the first thing to go.

How the immediate past slips from our grasp, how hard it is to recapture exactly what it felt like at the time. What were they like to live through, the Tony Blair years, even now not 10 years gone? What I remember is a certain easy-going quality, a genuine public relaxation, along with the silly bits (Cool Britannia, the wob bly bridge, the Dome). The tensions that had racked British society from the late 1960s onwards slackened, if only for the time being. I don’t mean just that there were no strikes to speak of, very few riots—though there weren’t. Nor that there were no domestic economic crises, though there weren’t any of those either. I mean more generally that the problems of governing Britain appeared less daunting and insoluble, that life began to seem a little easier to handle. And this was true for most of us, because while the rich got filthy rich, the poor didn’t do too badly either.

Tony Blair in 1994, the year he became Leader of the Opposition

This indecently rosy picture is the opposite of the one painted, in big splashy tubes of vermilion, purple and nausea-yellow, in Tom Bower’s book, for which the word “extraordinary” seems pitifully mild. Broken Vows makes you want to dust down adjectives you haven’t used in a while, if ever, such as “rebarbative” and “phantasmagoric.” Bower is a serial assassin of reputations, falling with relish on the notable rogues of our day—Robert Maxwell, Tiny Rowland, Mohamed al-Fayed, Richard Branson, Bernie Ecclestone, Conrad Black, Simon Cowell. Now Tony Blair goes into the mincer. What comes out are fragments barely recognisable as human flesh. The book is unfailingly unpleasant, inexcusably unfair and, most of the time, rather irresistible. The truth about Teflon Tony, according to Bower, is that from the start he was a lightweight, a butterfly or a gnat—depending on which species you think has the shorter attention span—a hopeless manager, a vain, ghastly, money-grubbing humbug, utterly unsuited to be Prime Minister.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s April issue: Sam Tanenhaus profiles Donald Trump, the leading candidate for the Republican Party Presidential nomination and asks if Trump makes it to the Oval Office, what would he do? Stephen Glover, examines what is happening at the Guardian as the newspaper looks to cut costs. Ferdinand Mount says Tony Blair transformed Britain but he should have cared more about the Labour Party. Also in this issue: Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI5, says that Brexit would not damage the UK’s security and Christopher de Bellaigue questions whether France’s clampdown on radicals is having the right effect. Plus Miranda France looks at the legacy of Don Quixote and the Duel asks: “Should the Church of England be disestablished”?