The Legacy

     

In 1997 Blair represented a new era in British politics; of a more sentimental and vulnerable Britain, reflected by the watery-eyed crowds and the masses of flowers, teddy bears and messages, that filled public spaces on the death of the “people’s princess”. He represented a Britain confidently walking into the light of a new century. He represented a more informal and liberal Britain, with sofa-styled government, open topped shirts and gay rights.

In 1997, people wanted consensus, and they voted for the ‘Third Way’; Tough On Crime and Tough On The Causes Of Crime, is the perfect example of the meshing together of right and left. People wanted to be looked after, and they voted for investment in public services. They expected more from their politicians, and they voted for “a straight kind of guy”.

Blair’s achievement is that he perceptively read the mood of the nation and skilfully responded. To do so takes an exceptionally gifted politician. It too takes a pretty accomplished actor, and like any actor Blair enjoyed, often visibly, treading the boards. He is Britain’s equivalent of Clinton or perhaps Kennedy, and in a different arena might have amassed a clutch of Oscars.

Inevitably therefore his legacy has raised the stakes. After the blockbusting first release, the pressure is now on to make the sequel, and Blair will quite literally be a tough act to follow. He showed how to win elections, and win them with style. He also leaves a much bigger role for his successors to fill than the one he found, and I don’t prescribe to the view that this is an altogether bad thing.

But it’s also true that behind every good actor there’s a good script. And here comes the academic assessment… How much of it did Blair write?

I should start by saying that I’m not interested in Gordon Brown’s contribution: Devolution, independence of the Bank of England, the minimum wage, the abolition of child poverty, family tax credit, Sure Start, or the winter fuel allowance. Nor, as an aside, am I interested in the destruction of the world’s largest private pensions fund, or the decline of the UK’s competitiveness and productivity. These are largely Gordon Brown’s personal accomplishments, and we should save them for his epitaph. Nonetheless, the ‘clunky fist’ has managed to scribe a large share of Blair’s script.

That said, Blair’s forte has been Education and Healthcare. Here there has been some improvement but only after a vicious increase in spending. Without any plan for reform the money has left an administrative mess, increased inefficiency, and only modest improvements in the quality of provision. As a result Blair’s legacy points in the direction of reform, and is based in the failings of headline-grabbing spending and a lack of strategic thinking. The absence of a reform agenda will probably impede any positive analysis of his legacy on the domestic front.

It seems there has been a gradual realisation that behind the image there is a lack of substance, and as The Economist tells us, this is reflected in the gradual and consistent decline in Tony Blair’s personal approval ratings. It seems that while Blair held the national mood in 1997 and showed the way forward, there is a real sense that he failed to live up to the reviews.

We should move swiftly on to foreign affairs. This, like for Margaret Thatcher, was the next step. This is the equivalent of the move from the West End to Hollywood. It’s a bigger stage, and Blair, thrust on to it after September the 11th 2001, rapidly adapted. At this stage I would say his legacy internationally has been stronger than any domestic legacy, and therefore the verdict of history will largely depend on what happens abroad. However it’s premature, especially in the case of Iraq, to predict whether his international legacy will be positive or negative. Although Iraq is looking a lot like a disaster.

I thought Blair’s resignation on Thursday was quite apt. It was probably one of the best speeches he’s ever delivered. For another twenty minutes he captured the news headlines. He gave his usual routine, the same as he’s given a thousand times before; the same words, each one more empty than ever, the open hand gestures and timely pauses. And what did I feel? I felt a great deal of familiarity and a tinge of sadness. As he looked back to face the cameras he smiled, and it was the very smile I remember when I was ten, and it brought back to me, for a brief moment, what the summer of 1997 felt like.

 

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8 thoughts on “The Legacy

  1. I think your right regarding his legacy in Iraq Dan. I have always thought that it’s too early to call that one. I remember some sketchy details of an anecdote regarding one of Mao’s officials being asked to comment on the consequences of the French Revolution during Mao’s reign, he paused then said “It’s far to early to know that yet”. If Iraq develops in to a stable functioning democracy, though that maybe a long time coming admittedly, that success will be Blair’s legacy.

  2. I’m sure your “tinge of sadness”, Daniel, is shared by many. I certainly, on listening to Blair announce on Thursday his pending resignation, experienced a mix of emotions – One of which, was akin to the sensation I get each year on my Birthday, that my childhood is gradually coming to a conclusion (if it hasn’t already!). It certainly is the end of an era, for me, for you, for Britain, and indeed, beyond (the latter of which is no better evidenced than by Blair’s current ‘world tour’!).

    There are a number of policy areas where Blair should (and will) endure criticism, but for now, he should be proud not least with having won three General Elections during a time of arguably unprecedented world change. Brown (and hopefully Cameron in turn), will surely have an act to follow!

  3. Oh give me a break – shed no tears for this man. He has almost single-handedly destroyed institutions that have lasted almost a full millennium. He has provided the foundations for a very effective police state and has also managed (with the very capable Alistair Campbell) to bring the whole practice of politics in this country into disrepute. However, wiith Macavity, he has finally shown that what public services do not need is more money – but at what a cost! He las given up our EU rebate – for a half-hearted promise that the French would look at the CAP, sometime before 2012 – maybe. I could go on, but you get the picture…

    Daniel, you mention that Blair came to power when you were 10, and so it’s hardly surprising that you feel some familiarity with this shyster. I can only say as someone who voted for him then, that the country badly needed a change – the Major government was reeling from sleeze allegations (that incidentally, this bunch of liars would sweep under the carpet!) and the Conservatives seemed to have run out of steam and believed that they had a god-given right to govern. I can only apologise for voting for this lot (something I have *never* done again!).

    If you get a moment, check out this excellent review of Blair from the Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml;jsessionid=TH1UZGXUI2RV5QFIQMFCFF4AVCBQYIV0?xml=/opinion/2007/05/12/do1201.xml. It is full of excellent comments and the one I find most illuminating is this one;

    Excellent article. Probably the best thing any future government could do is to reverse everything that Blair and Brown have done and start again. Taking advice from the right people this time, if they are still around.

    I’d only add to that – “and send the bill to the Labour party”.

  4. Daniel, of course, by ‘familiarity with this shyster’ I do not meant to imply that you have anything in common with him!

  5. The story of tony blair is one that could rival any aristotelean tragedy. his personality captured the imaginations, hopes and fears of a nation, he had Britain in the palm of his hand. From this heady height he has most definetly fallen and landed quite ungracfully, practically being pushed out of office. his fatal flaw, his hamartia was his insistance on doing what he thought right regardless. this will surely be is mid term legacy.

    Tony Blair has been a very able politician he did what the country needed at the time, but ultimatly he has dissapointed and become misguided it is time for a change, not coronation, but change.

  6. The potential of Blair was so great, but I think it squandered its first few years in office, it really wasn’t ready for government, this is an area where Cameron’s Conservatives can seperate themselves. They need to be a government in waiting and not rely on the civil servants.

    If Blair had laid a better foundation in the early years of his Labour government perhaps, other failures would have not required so much spin.

  7. It is ironic….Blair proves to be as devisive as Thatcher in his legacy. I know who I prefer as im sure you all do too! However I do not take away from Tony Blair his (perhaps limited) achievements nor the fact that he is, as Dan rightly points out, an exceptional actor and gifted politician. He can talk the talk and no-one can deny that. For me crucially he has never sought to deny the Thatcher legacy, he has never bowed to the left, he didnt rebrand Labour…he ditched it and created a whole new party willing to embrace elements of thatcherite policy. For this alone he deserves due credit. Indeed for me, Thatcher and many others the Blair legacy is bitter sweet. Blair himself said that thing were done in the 80’s that were neccessary. Thatcher herslef aknowledged “We don’t need someone who can beat Mr Blair…we need someone like Mr Blair!”. As an opposition party, whether Labour or Tory, it is easy to complain and criticise about the other side, and with Blair there is plenty to criticise, however it all the harder to congratulate or say “yeh he was good in that” and Blair does deserve some credit.

    Oh an just incase I haven’t mentioned her enough in this post….Thatcher Thatcher Thatcher!!!! Apologies!

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