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May 10, 2007 8:54 am
On one thing, admirers and critics can agree. Tony Blair has been the most accomplished politician of his generation. A gifted communicator with an intuitive feel for the national mood, he has dominated Britain’s political landscape. Three consecutive election victories assure him a place in the history books as Labour’s most successful leader. Margaret Thatcher apart, no other prime minister since the Napoleonic wars can claim an uninterrupted decade in 10 Downing Street.
There consensus comes to an abrupt end. The rest, many now say, has been disappointment. Brilliant performance is not the same as solid achievement. A capacity to articulate the nation’s fears and aspirations is one thing, the ability to shape them another. As Mr Blair bows out, many of the epitaphs are about Iraq, about political genius squandered, opportunities lost to a disastrous and deeply unpopular war.
This month’s local election results seem to tell the same story. In the afterglow of that first famous general election victory of May 1997, Mr Blair shattered every record for prime ministerial popularity. Now his ratings touch the low points on the pollsters’ graphs. Elected in the euphoria of expectation, he departs, as most others who have survived so long in office, in the shadow of experience.
Such is the familiar narrative of politics: exaggerated expectations prefigure predictable disillusion. Longevity runs against the reputation of political leaders. As time passes, the soaring rhetoric of their trade grinds ever more painfully against the immutable realities of the modern world. Trust – and Mr Blair had bucketfuls when he first entered Downing Street – is necessarily sacrificed to the grubby compromises of office. Hard now to think of a European, let alone a British, leader in modern times who has departed in the warmth of popular approval.
Yet as far as Mr Blair is concerned this tells only half the story. Angry as many are – about Iraq especially – the people of Britain seem otherwise content. More than half think that, all in all, the prime minister has done a good job. The same voters who repudiate Mr Blair want to hold on to Blairism. The organising idea on which he built his extraordinary political success – that the role of government is to link strong economic performance with a fairer society – seems as prescient now as it was at the birth of New Labour. Strange though it is to say in these jaded times, things have got better since 1997. Britain feels a more modern, progressive nation. Much of what was deemed radical then seems part now of the national furniture.
The images this week of the Democratic Unionist Party’s Ian Paisley and Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness – the firebrand unionist and the IRA commander – side by side at Stormont were the most vivid demonstration of how the exceptional can become almost the unremarkable. A decade ago to suggest such a reconciliation between the extremes in Northern Ireland would have been to invite guffaws. Now the province’s decision to exchange violence for politics is all but taken for granted. Northern Ireland saw Mr Blair at his best – the patience, the resilience and the genius for persuasion But – or perhaps it was because – there were no votes in it.
Elsewhere, a national minimum wage, a parliament in Scotland, an assembly in Wales, incorporation into British law of the European Convention on Human Rights, the defenestration of most of the heritary peers from the House of Lords, a step change in spending on health and education, the introduction of same-sex civil partnerships, equality in the workplace: all have been effortlessly absorbed into the national political consensus.
The Britain of the Blair years has made its peace with the cultural liberalism that respects the growing diversity of modern societies. It has adjusted better than most of its European neighbours to the competitive winds of globalisation. The tensions are there, and in places, sharpening: the disruptions, economic and social, of large scale immigration, the economic insecurities and widening income inequalities flowing from borderless trade and capital flows. But the government has shown broadly the right instincts, combining openness to global change with help for those left behind by the outgoing economic tides.
None of this is to say that Mr Blair’s domestic record is unblemished. Missed opportunities jostle with achievements. The prime minister has had more than his share of good fortune in a relatively benign economic environment, and in Gordon Brown’s stewardship of the Treasury. For all the energy with which he has latterly gripped the notions of choice, competition and diversity, the initial approach to public service reform was painfully timid. Many of the extra billions poured into modernising schools and hospitals was wasted.
Elsewhere, good intentions went unmatched by practice. Mr Blair never mastered the mysteries of management, the ability to turn political intention into administrative achievement. He can claim that he introduced unprecedented transparency into the conduct of government and the funding of politics. Yet even if, as seems likely, the latest furore over cash for peerages eventually amounts to little, he cannot say he has properly respected his own rules. Ten years on, that first promise that his administration would be “purer than pure” leaves a bitter taste.
For all that, Mr Blair has changed the political weather. The shallow, if fashionable, reflection on the past decade is that Mr Blair’s redefinition of politics’ boundaries has done little more than soften the edges of Thatcherism. That judgment is belied by unprecedented investment in health and education, by a discretionary increase in taxes and by a determined, albeit only partially successful, effort to reduce poverty. Mr Blair’s central political insight was to separate the enduring “ends” of a left-of-centre government - a fairer society with a wider spread of opportunity – from his party’s century-long addiction to the socialist “means” of an ever more mighty state. What works pragmatism elbowed aside outdated ideology.
Here, Mr Blair’s distance from his own party – he has never respected Labour’s rituals nor been comfortable in its tribalism – was a strength and a weakness. A strength because it has reassured the middle classes within the New Labour coalition that compassion need not elbow aside aspiration; a weakness because it amplified the accusations of betrayal from those in his party who have always preferred the purity of opposition to the necessary compromises of government. For all that he dazzled them, the prime minister was never much loved by the Labour MPs who rose on his political coat-tails.
The better gauge of his political legacy comes from David Cameron’s Conservatives. During three general elections – the last fought in the dark shadow of Iraq – the prime minister forced the Conservatives on to the arid margins of the far right. Only now, a decade on, has a young Tory leader begun to rescue his party from threatened electoral oblivion. Mr Cameron, claiming the political centre ground so long colonised by New Labour, has broadly accepted the Blair settlement. He presents himself more an heir to the departing prime minister than his ideological opposite.
The complexities of this record hold up a mirror to the many strands of Mr Blair’s character. Criticised at the outset as a flimsy politician mermerised by the ebb and flow of public opinion, he has been latterly condemned as a one too messianic in his convictions. His undoubted charm and persuasiveness have co-existed with a ruthlessness that saw him more than once dispense with the services of close friends and allies. The low politics of sofa government in 10 Downing Street have sat uneasily with his profession of a devout Christian faith. The Gladstonian interventionist willing to gamble his political future on rescuing Kosovo later became a prisoner to belief in his own righteousness.
Abroad, for all the furore about Iraq, Mr Blair still mostly beguiles. In the select club of world political leaders, electoral success is the most important measure of peer-group prestige. Winning three times has earned Mr Blair special status among fellow presidents and prime ministers. Iraq soured some relationships - notably with France’s Jacques Chirac and Germany’s Gerhard Schroder - but for the most part Mr Blair has remained at the centre of the international argument.
He has made friends. A strong relationship with Ireland’s Bertie Ahern was a key to securing a settlement in Northern Ireland. His closeness to George W Bush has never dented an enduring friendship with Bill Clinton. Angela Merkel laments the impending departure of “my friend Tony”, a sentiment shared by the newly-elected Nicolas Sarkozy in France. Vladimir Putin, it is fair to say, will be glad to see him go, but then Mr Blair would not want it otherwise. What surprises even those close to the prime minister is how, after all the disappointments, Mr Blair remains loyal to Mr Bush.
The world stage was the place where he has escaped the bitter rivalry with Gordon Brown, his long-time rival and certain successor. Summitry, with its mix of negotiation, strategic judgment and badinage, has entirely suited Mr Blair’s temperament. Abroad has been an opportunity to deploy his persuasive charm and display his Thespian skills. The bargains at the Gleneagles summit between the world’s leading industrial nations on debt relief for Africa and on action against climate changet were personal as well as political triumphs.
The doctrine of humanitarian interventionism that Mr Blair espoused at the time of Kosovo crisis has been tarnished in the minds of some by the experience of Iraq. Yet his 1999 Chicago speech remains one of the best analyses of the implications of global interdependence and of the case for liberal interventionism in defence of civilised standards. The United Nations has reaffirmed that citizens must be afforded basic human rights that transcend the sovereignty of nation states. Iraq should not be an argument for inaction in, say, Darfur.
The bitter debate about the decision to join George W Bush in removing Saddam Hussein will rage for many years yet. That the subsequent conflict has inflicted terrible bloodshed on Iraq is self-evident. So too has been the startling incompetence of the Bush adminstration in the conduct of what was supposed to be the peace. Yet the commonplace charge that the prime minister lied and cheated Britain into an illegal war by falsifying evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction has failed the test of myriad independent inquiries.
Mr Blair’s mistake was to persuade himself that the victory against Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo could be repeated in Iraq. His war, though, was not the same as Mr Bush’s war. The British prime minister Mr Blair saw in the removal of Saddam Hussein an extension of the doctrine he has enunciated at the time of Kosovo: a determination to uphold the will of the international community. Mr Bush had something quite different in mind - a raw demonstration of American power that defied the spirit of the rules Mr Blair wanted to strengthen. The British prime minister never resolved this contradiction. Nor did he properly understand that in joining the US in a war of choice, he assumed responsibility without power. From the beginning his own reputation was held hostage to US hubris.
The central assumption of Mr Blair’s foreign policy – that Britain is a natural bridge between Europe and North America – buckled under the weight of the divisions in Europe about Iraq. Forced to choose, Mr Blair had sided with Washington. Yet in other respects he could claim some progress. Britain no longer sits on the margins of influence of the Europea Union. It is now something approaching a “normal” member of the club, even if Mr Brown denied Mr Blair his wish to join the single currency. The failure was at home: the prime minister never properly confronted voters with the necessary compromises demanded by engagement, and influence, in Europe.
Historians will argue too about his attitude to the extreme Islamism that brought the destruction of New York’s twin towers and subsequent attacks in London and cities across three continents. Faster than most to grasp the geopolitical consequences of 9/11, there has been too much of the clash of civilisations in his response to radical Islamism. Right to insist this will be a long struggle, waged both at home and at a distance, he has been too ready to see the many difficult conflicts in the Muslim world as part of a single ideological confrontation between political Islam and the west.
What stands out above all from any reckoning – positive or negative – of Mr Blair’s premiership is the extent to which he became the reference point for the nation’s politics. Like Margaret Thatcher, he filled almost all the available political space. For all the troubles that beset his many cabinets, his colleagues were essentially supporting characters, and quite often bystanders, in the drama. Mr Blair can blame no-one else for the judgment of history. That judgment will be a great deal kinder than most of the first drafts that now confront him. It will never escape, though, the shadow of Iraq.
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