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In 1997, Tony Blair won the sort of victory that few politicians ever do: a landslide election win, near-North Korean personal approval levels, and a completely disorganized and hopeless opposition. Almost no obstacles to fundamentally remaking British government and society presented themselves. His failure to do just that is explored deeply by Bower’s book, and it argues that Blair (and New Labour in general) simply weren’t up to the task. Blair’s incredible belief in himself, his distaste for introspection or reflection and his tendency toward an oversimplified and moralistic view of matters continually lead him awry, and his “big picture” thinking led him to avoid crucial details that invariably snowballed into major crises, such as his Brexit-precipitating immigration rules. (Incidentally, when you consider these traits of his personality, the “inexplicable” friendship with George W. Bush becomes a lot more comprehensible–they’re deeply similar people.)

Bower also makes a strong case that Blair was in some ways a remarkably weak leader, particularly in his dealings with Gordon Brown, who formed the only effective obstacle to his ability to make change. Rather than firing Brown or otherwise seeking to reduce his influence, Blair simply declined to deal with him, and gave his subordinate veto power over domestic policy out of his own fear of losing power.

Blair’s ignorance of history, geopolitics and the basics of government comes into play continuously. And his preferred management method–setting ambitious targets in the press for, say, energy, failing to follow up, and then weathering a crisis when bad headlines arrive–is not exactly something that makes any sort of intuitive sense if you want results, though it does if you only care about what the media is saying. This is not to mention his, ahem, checkered post-political career, though Bower convincingly connects the secretive and money-obsessed modern Blair with his political self, and all those donor scandals, among other things. Overall, the man comes off as a slippery salesman: an absolute believer in whatever he’s selling you, kept going by a corresponding belief in himself, but any ethical principles, genuine morality or depth are merely an illusion, part of the sell. The principal difference between his political career and afterward was the product: first himself, then his influence. I enjoyed the book quite a bit–there is an editorial slant and elements of it have been disputed, but it’s an undeniably coherent and plausible take on the subject matter, not to mention readable.

It is interesting to read the book in the light of the still quite recent downfall of one of Blair’s biggest acolytes, David Cameron. There’s considerable irony to their trajectories. Comparing the Iraq War to the Brexit referendum is more than a little facile: one caused numerous deaths and destroyed a state, the other will most likely have indirect economic effects. Still, in both cases, the leader saw political problems through the primary lens of media management. Both were more salesman than statesman. And while Blair may arguably have broken the Labour Party beyond repair–absent the balm of election wins, its ancient and vituperative rivalries have snarled once again–Cameron’s legacy may likely be sacrificing his country’s future to win an election. It’s enough to make a person bemoan the combination of boundless self-confidence, crudely oversimplified morality, and a taste for power bereft of real substance that has caused countless damage over the past decade. The system truly is broken.

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I’m currently reading Broken Vows: Tony Blair, The Tragedy Of Power by Tom Bower. Verdict so far: there’s definitely a slant to it that gets annoying at times, but it compellingly argues that New Labour and Tony Blair himself were fatally compromised on a conceptual level, sales pitches in search of a product. The book links many of Blair’s failings to his lack of knowledge of history and governance, as well as to his disinterest in many areas of policy and in the details of policy implementation. He wasn’t a forceful leader in many respects and wasn’t much of a judge of ability. To my mind, he comes across as not particularly smart or sophisticated, bleating ever on about “modernizing” every aspect of Britain without realizing that the term has no inherent meaning and was merely an indirect way of calling the Tories old, and blaming civil servants for the conceptual muddle of his own thinking. It’s a highly readable book, though one that relies upon a fairly high level of knowledge of British governmental structures that goes over my head on occasion. It’s particularly good on getting into all that war business, though. I liked this part about Admiral Mike Boyce, the UK equivalent to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs at the time of Iraq, with whom Blair had a very strained relationship. The level of insight here is astonishing:

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Love the punchline. Fourteen years later, it’s still good advice that nobody seems inclined to take. There’s also a great section in which Boyce yells at Blair for wanting to fight in Iraq after deploying the army to slaughter cows with “mad cow” disease and to deal with flooding. Blair liked using the army for domestic chores because they wouldn’t ask any questions, you see. Surely nobody could have predicted he’d become a lackey to autocrats around the world…

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We can stipulate that Jeremy Corbyn is essentially right that it’s pointless for Britain to maintain nuclear weapons–the country could fit under the US’s nuclear umbrella, and it’s more about elites not wanting to not have nuclear weapons and fall out of that club (and have yet another sign of military decline after five straight decades of such). But leading is about smoothing out differences and finding common ground, and Corbyn would rather be right than pick his battles, and would divide his party on a low-salience issue just to make a point. That’s not good.

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I remember a time when David Cameron was a pretty popular figure among American liberals–roughly the timespan from the Republican Primaries of 2008 until 2010, when the true intent of his thing became apparent. Lots of liberals looked forward to a time when ostentatious moderation would be the Republican Party’s calling card, though many (myself included) had the hubris to think it would start right away after Obama won. It might seem like a stupid statement, but if David Cameron had been a different person, he might have been great–if his role had been filled with someone with substance, rather than a phony pragmatist and an ideologue who only cared about abstractions, who knows how much good he could have done? What positive impact he may have had on conservative parties across the world? Clearly, our mistake was assuming a career marketer had any substance.

It also seems worth it to mull over the wages of austerity for a moment. Austerity was, as any number of Paul Krugman columns have cogently argued throughout the years, improvised economics based on academic flim-flam by a political class desperate to point the finger for the financial crisis at anyone but themselves. And it sorta worked, but the unintended consequences have been shattered lives, the collapse of mainstream politics in much of Europe and the rise of the extremist fringe, ironically going first to gobble up the center-rightists like Cameron and Merkel who indirectly created them, as well as the EU apparatus that forced their doctrines upon them. I would say that history will judge them poorly but it’s not as though they’re faring particularly well in the present either…

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This article (via Larison) makes for a good read as to why the EU has so few defenders, but I don’t quite agree with this:

All of which raises the question: what it is about the EU that does appeal to its supporters? But that question misses the point. This is not black magic – there is no secret subtext that only EU initiates can decipher. There really is nothing appealing about the EU. As a pragmatic, political arrangement, which has done terrible damage to whole nations, it is steadfastly rebarbative. Its supporters cannot be attracted to it. They see its flaws, the way it treats people, its flight from accountability. So, no, they’re not attracted to the EU – they’re repelled towards it, repelled by the sight of ordinary people being able to determine their political future, by the spectre of the democratic will, in all its grubby uncontrollability and aspiration. It is fear of people, not love of the EU, that makes Remainers’ hearts beat that little bit faster.

Certainly, the EU seems to place things over democracy in its goals. But the idea that there’s simply no reason for the EU’s existence other than some romanticizing about the European dream is nonsense. There’s a reason why it exists, a very good reason, though admittedly not one that makes politicians feel good about talking about it in such terms: money.

See, we have something here in America that’s similar: NAFTA. Granted, it doesn’t have all the same features: no new currency (notwithstanding Paulites’ insistence that we’ll all be shopping with Ameros soon), no customs-free travel zone or free movement between countries, and there’s no NAFTA commission that inks trade deals on behalf of the three countries that make it up. But it is a common free trade market like the EU, between three countries with deep economic and cultural ties. And it’s one of the most reviled features of American political life. Liberals hate it because it’s shipped hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs to Mexico (to poor-paying, dangerous, sexual harassment-infested maquiladoras), and it also allows for companies to just threaten a move to pacify workers and get what they want (Out Of Sight is indispensable reading on this subject). Conservatives have a more complicated relationship with it: the free-marketeers like it, but the base clearly doesn’t care for it, and they’ve become less willing to simply accept it after finding their new champion in Donald Trump. But nobody really loves it, in part because it directly benefits almost nobody and directly hurts lots of people. Comparing new free trade agreements to NAFTA has become a standard tactic for opponents of the agreements, showing just how hated it is, as if merely invoking the name of a two decade old treaty is enough win the argument. And, as Trump and Bernie Sanders showed this year, it increasingly is, and for good reason: the consequences of NAFTA were far worse than even the most pessimistic critic claimed back in the day. But of course, nobody in the government appeals to NAFTA as some expression of pan-North American solidarity. No, they promise, they won’t make those mistakes this time, though of course fixing the original ones is off the table (likely because Mexico can’t/won’t reform itself to enforce its own laws on labor and the environment, and even if it did, it would lose its appeal to corporations). And truth be told, while there are undoubtedly some benefits Americans receive from this arrangement, the cost has become increasingly seen as not worth it here.

Which brings us to the EU. It seems crazy to compare it to NAFTA. After all, the EU looks and acts like a government, it has elections and everything. But it’s a government obsessed primarily with economics: raising and spending money, policing how member states raise and spend money, facilitating the movement of goods and people to ensure people make the most money. It doesn’t really do foreign policy. Human rights are an afterthought. It might be moved to make a disapproving utterance when a member country effectively suspends democracy (Hungary) or moves to do so (Poland), but it doesn’t really do anything about it. It handles immigration–a government-y thing to do–but does so purely through the lens of maximizing positive economic activity, no other considerations considered or allowed. And while it does do some redistribution to poorer areas in Europe to develop them, the end goal there is so that they’ll ultimately make more money. The point of the EU is and always has been to make money for its members. What other things it does are oriented to that end. Granted, it’s not as evil as NAFTA is–improverished regions can get development grants that they wouldn’t otherwise get, and avoiding customs lines is wonderful–and despite being thoroughly elitist it does accept some limitations and tradeoffs in protecting people in crafting its regulations, which is more than can be said for some regulatory bodies and political parties you might name. But, on the other hand, you have what it did to Greece (irrelevant as that is to the UK, which is not on the Euro, but nevertheless). People who were sold on this institution as something analogous to the US federal government and that it would have that kind of relationship to its countries now seem to be mad that it clearly is not that at all: the federal government has not seen fit to spend multiple years humiliating, say, Florida for the crime of rebelling against it on economic policy. But that was never the case. It was always about building up Europe to challenge America economically. And I don’t think anyone would argue that it’s done a poor job at that at all. But Europeans are figuring out that this is really what it’s all about, that they’ve been lied to, and it’s causing a spot of bother.

Like I said, were I eligible, I would probably have voted Remain had I lived in the UK, in large part because there are tangible benefits to this arrangement for actual people that are nice, and in part because of the appalling tactics of the Leavers. While it’s possible to support Leave and not be personally racist, just like someone can support Trump and not be racist, throwing your lot in with those people makes a statement all its own. Validating those men and their tactics will lead nowhere good. Anyway, on the positive side, it is nice to have a day where another English-speaking country is being ridiculed for racism, xenophobia and a bullshitting media after nearly a year of it being us all the time. Nice to have a breather.

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It would be pretty surprising if Brexit led to Irish reunification. But given the retreat of the church there and the increasing liberality of the Irish Republic, and Northern Ireland’s desire to remain within Europe, it seems at least conceivable in a way it hasn’t ever been before. You never know.

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I find myself without much of a strong opinion on the issues. If I lived in the UK I figure I would vote Remain, but sometimes I read American writers with really strong opinions and I just don’t see the urgency for us. In or out, life is pretty much going to go on for us as normal for us. What really strikes me is just how uninspiring the British political classes are–my distaste for David Cameron and George Osborne was I thought pretty strong, though Michael Gove and Boris Johnson have easily surpassed it. At this point the Leave people seem to simply be throwing out the names of countries (with the implication that they’d eventually join the EU and add to dreaded immigration totals), even though Turkey is unlikely to ever be a member of the EU and the math just doesn’t work out for a new peasant underclass of Albanians to swamp Britain (the former has about 1/20 the population of the latter, and not all of those are going to leave home, and of those not all are going to go to Britain, etc.). Whatever. Remain probably will win, but not by enough to settle the issue forever.

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