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“All I care about is respect and legacy.” The boxer Floyd Mayweather was speaking before his last fight in Las Vegas on Saturday, but his words might well be echoed by Tony Blair as he raises his own gloves for a final bow. The question is what Mr Blair’s legacy will be and how much respect posterity will grant him.
In the light of history, 10 years is an eye-blink, but it seems a very long time indeed since Mr Blair swept into Downing Street on May 2, 1997, amid intense excitement. He had it all going for him. It seemed as though he could do anything he liked – and that exalted atmosphere then accounts for the mood of sour disappointment now.
Parts of his legacy appear secure enough, until you look harder and wonder how much they are really his. The British economy has performed well in the Blair decade, though perhaps we should say the Gordon Brown decade.
At the same time it was hard not to smile when Martin Wolf wrote here last week that this success was largely attributable to the “decision to keep the UK out of the European Monetary Union”.
That is doubtless the case, as something like a consensus among economists now holds. But there was once another consensus. Ten years ago it was a central article of faith for the New Labour elite and the Blairite media claque that he would be the most pro-European prime minister the country had ever had, and would take the UK into the single currency as soon as he could, surely within the lifetime of his first parliament. There are few better illustrations of the truth that political leaders sway from planned failure to unplanned success.
Many other hopes that reposed in Mr Blair 10 years ago have not been fulfilled. Some of his most ardent supporters then, such as the writer Will Hutton, insisted that he would prove a radical Keynesian-cum-social democratic reformer, who would strengthen the unions, raise income tax and redistribute wealth. It was Robert Taylor, formerly of the Financial Times, who was more prescient when he wrote before that election: “The New Labour ‘project’ looks increasingly like Margaret Thatcher’s final triumph”.
Whatever the domestic record of the Blair government, there is one terrible dark cloud: nobody who voted for Mr Blair in 1997 or 2001 was voting to invade Iraq. Even his earlier admirers concede that the way Mr Blair took the country to war casts doubt on both his judgment and his honesty, and the subsequent calamity has blighted his name forever.
That is why recent reports that, when he leaves Downing Street, Mr Blair will go to the Middle East as “a roving ambassador” to try to revive the stalled peace process are frankly bizarre. Scarcely anyone alive is less equipped for such a role. Such little repute as Mr Blair still enjoyed in the Middle East after Iraq was finally destroyed last summer. As part of his perverse determination always to stand shoulder to shoulder with the White House, he endorsed the Israeli war in Lebanon, a war which most of his own MPs, and most British people, deplored at the time, and which most Israelis now think was a mistake.
When the prime minister visited the Levant at the end of last year, Marc Sirois of the Beirut Daily Star told the BBC World Service that the mission was pointless. Mr Blair could not possibly act as an honest broker, since: “He is identified so strongly by Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular as somebody who supports the policies of the Bush administration and the United States...George Bush might be hated here but at least he’s respected. Tony Blair doesn’t even have respect”.
That is a bitter truth. Eight years ago, Mr Blair could be acclaimed by an American writer as “the leader of the free world”. Could anyone say that today without inviting derision?
In the 1920s, Neville Chamberlain was an immensely creative minister, transforming local government and much else besides. As chancellor of the exchequer from 1931 to 1937 he rescued the British economy after the depression. And who now remembers Chamberlain’s huge achievements in domestic politics? All is overshadowed by the three years as prime minister when he practised a policy of appeasement.
Maybe Mr Blair might say that he did the opposite. But then Chamberlain was ruined by striving to avert what was truly “a war of necessity and not choice”, whereas Mr Blair took his country into a needless, lawless and finally catastrophic war of choice. And that, sad to say, answers the question about “respect and legacy”.
The writer’s latest book is Yo, Blair!