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Monday, October 11, 2010 

Jonathan Powell and the Machiavellian memoirs.

With the political coffee table already buckling under the weight of New Labour memoirs, the market all but saturated even before Gordon Brown and his few allies add to the all but unreadable pile, it's little wonder that the hangers-on and those behind the scenes are already embellishing their accounts with additional asides and analysis in a probably futile attempt to stand them out from the crowd. With Jonathan Powell, former chief adviser to Tony Blair, having already written a worthy if almost certainly little sold account of the Northern Ireland peace talks, his wheeze has been to cast a Machiavellian eye over his time spent in and around Downing Street.

Blair, unsurprisingly,
comes out of this test well, his only real failing being that he wasn't as ruthless as Machiavelli advised when it came to dealing with a potential rival. It wasn't weakness on his part, Powell believes, merely a refusal to deal harshly with an old friend. The rival by contrast, despite his achievement in eventually forcing the prince to abdicate, was weak on exactly the things he needed to be strong on. As an addition to the analysis from figures associated with the last government as to why the party lost the election, it's certainly both more interesting and based in reality than Blair's own view that Brown lost thanks to his abandonment of "New Labour values". It is however just as lacking: while Powell recognises that the TB-GBs were far more complicated than many accounts have portrayed them, admitting that if Blair had sacked Brown he would be ridding the government of the other major talent within it and risk creating a concentrated opposition on the backbenches, even he still doesn't find that Blair and Brown, arguments and fighting aside, were better together than individually. Blair without Brown may well have in fact been brought down sooner, while Brown failed more than anything because he couldn't the party beyond New Labour, not because he repudiated its values as the Blairite thesis has it.

Away from the musing, Powell's account, especially of the last couple of years of Blair's time as prime minister strikes as being just as deluded as his master had become by that point. Having written earlier on of how Gordon Brown avoided responsibility, supposedly originating in strictness of his parents, it's interesting to note how
Powell tries to blame the military for the Afghanistan deployment to Helmand in 2006, having lobbied for troops to be sent there in "strength", while poor Tony and then defence secretary John Reid were "reluctant". Powell tries to convince us that no prime minister "enjoys" going to war, in spite of media consensus, yet if Blair ever was reluctant about sending in the troops he certainly never let it show, although perhaps that's just another example of his taking Machiavellian advice on board.

Just as instructive is the reaction to General Richard Dannatt's outburst on the army's deployment in Basra,
as detailed at length by Powell. To those outside the Blair circle it was little more than a statement of the obvious: that the army had took part in a war of aggression and that their presence in Basra was making things worse. He was right then and he's still right now: they had lost the city, unable to enforce order without using overwhelming force which would have been wholly counter-productive, and were simply acting as a lightning rod for insurgents. This was again though in the Powell Machiavellian analysis a signal of weakness, one which supposedly had the Mahdi army redoubling their efforts, while Nato and everyone else complained about Dannatt undermining morale. It didn't help the troops, and expanding the fallout even further, Blair and Powell both claim that such observations don't just threaten first-division army deployments, they threaten our very status as a country as we step back from putting troops in harm's way. That Powell believes military escapades define us as a nation in the 21st century is damning enough; that he doesn't know when we should either admit defeat or know when to pull back is far worse. To add to the projection, Dannatt is described without irony by Powell as being "divinely convinced of his own rightness". Completely unlike Powell's master then.

This hysterical view of the slightest criticism and its potential consequences was not just limited to Blair and Powell, but also to another adviser, Nigel Sheinwald,
as the "al-Jazeera memo" trial showed when he claimed that its release would have "put lives at risk". It also extended to the belief that even when wielding such power, it was others who were so often out of line, such as the police during the "loans for peerages" scandal. Lord Levy, can you believe it, was only informed the night before that he was to be arrested the following day, while Ruth Turner was subjected to arrest in the early morning. They were, in other words, treated exactly like anyone else suspected of a serious crime would be, yet this was little short of an outrage. Worth quoting in full is Powell's view of the position the police were in:

The problem at the core of the whole fiasco was that the police had got themselves in too deep to be able to retreat with dignity. The more they dug themselves a hole, the more they were determined to turn something up.

Remind you of anyone or anything? Powell paints an image of a Blair administration that felt it was essentially above the law, yet which at the same time also saw itself as hemmed in by enemies who threatened everything regardless of their weakness or righteousness. Unable to see parallels, or rather, refusing to see them, it's difficult to come to any other conclusion than if hadn't been for the transition of power, Blair and his aides would have eventually collapsed under the weight of their own contradictions. Instead, set free and remunerated for their observances, they've been able to carry on believing they were right and everyone else was wrong, challenged even less than they were then.

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No Prime minister like going to war, then why do it, unless of course you can make a pile of money out of it, which Blair did.
Brown may well have been a great politician, he was a crap leader.

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