This is a surprising book. I thought it would be a straightforward diatribe against the Blair government. My fear was that I would agree with too much of it. But I found it more analytical and complicated than I expected. It begins with the murder of James Bulger and Tony Blair’s role as shadow Home Secretary. It sets out how he learned from Clinton and moved to the right of the Tories on fear of crime. Cohen suggests that Blair drove penal policy in a reactionary direction, even before the Labour government was formed.
He also reminds us of the famous leaks from Philip Gould’s bin bags of the memos setting out Blair’s strategy in 2000. He quotes Blair’s memo instructing Alistair Campbell to impress on Whitehall that:
There are a clutch of issues … combining ‘on your side’ issues with toughness … they range from the family, where partly due to… gay issues, we are perceived as weak; asylum and crime where we are perceived as soft; and asserting the nation’s interest where … we are seen as insufficiently assertive.
And so, he said, “The government should think now of an initiative e.g. locking up street muggers. Something tough with immediate bite, which sends a message through the system.” He wasn’t sure what the initiative should be .. but whatever it was it “should be done soon, and I personally should be associated with it”. Whitehall was also ordered to find two or three eye-catching initiatives that are entirely conventional in terms of their attitude to the family.
These memos encapsulate Blair perfectly. He is the arch manipulator. Things are rarely decided on their merits, the main focus is on perceptions. Some see this as brilliant political positioning but it is also deeply cynical. It inevitably leads to bad policy – which has started to show in Iraq and on foundation hospitals and top-up fees. The public’s loss of trust suggests that they are beginning to see through the positioning.
I am tempted to The memos [quoted in Cohen’s book] encapsulate Blair perfectly. He is the arch manipulator. Things are rarely decided on their merits, the main focus is on perceptions. Some see this as brilliant political positioning but it is also deeply cynical. suggest that the need to be seen to be ‘asserting the national interest’ led on to the biggest spin of all – on Iraq. But Cohen supported the Iraq war and his chapter on Iraq focuses on the unwillingness of the far left to stand up to dictators because they are so driven by anti-Americanism. This a reasonable criticism of those who opposed action in Kosovo and Afghanistan. But Cohen falls into the opposite trap by accepting that it was necessary to support Bush and Blair in order to take action against Saddam Hussein. The chapter therefore does nothing to expose the deceit and half truths used by Blair to get us to war in Iraq according to the timetable laid down by Bush.
His chapter on asylum is powerful and scathing. He reminds us of Blair’s claim at the Labour Party Conference in 2000 “….but if people want me to go out and exploit the asylum issue for reasons of race … then vote for the other man because I will not do it.” But in reality Blair allows the asylum issue to fester. Cohen reminds us in a powerful and moving way of the hate campaign against Jewish refugees in the 1930s, which is echoed in the attacks on asylum seekers now. He also gives a good account of the incompetence of the Home Office and their inability to welcome genuine refugees and catch the people-smugglers and others who abuse the system.
Part II of the book takes a big sweep through the Dome, the Hinduja brothers and the Enron scandal. Cohen’s thesis seems to be that New Labour’s attachment to rich businessmen, glitz and the stock market bubble has given too much rope for the private sector, leading to a swindling of hard working pensioners and a lack of concern about inequality. There is useful material in this part of the book, but the story it tries to tell is not fully convincing. It seems to attribute to Blair control over issues like Enron and the stock exchange bubble that are well beyond his reach.
Cohen’s conclusion is that by changing the Labour Party, Blair has removed the possibility that the Labour Party might change the country. I hope he is wrong. Only time will tell.