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.