On 2 May 1997, I was standing about 5 metres in front of Tony Blair when, as the newly elected prime minister, he made his famous “a new dawn has broken” speech at the Royal Festival Hall beside the Thames. Standing next to me was a young David Miliband, then a Blair adviser. It was almost six o’clock in the morning and the assembled crowd of Labour diehards was exhausted and euphoric. Shortly after Blair finished speaking, former Labour leader Neil Kinnock gave him the biggest bear hug I’ve ever seen. It was an amazing moment, one I’ll never forget. After 18 bleak years of defeat, schism and humiliation, British Labour had finally triumphed. The New Jerusalem nerve was tingling again.
Ten years later, Blair stepped down, exhausted and diminished. Bullied out of office by a relentless rival, a ravenous media and the accumulated weight of many disappointments, he moved on. Now that the government he led is also gone and Blair has recently published his memoirs, it’s an opportune time to examine his legacy.
Few modern political figures have attracted as much adulation and vilification as Blair. Even fewer have seen their names turned into abstract nouns, denoting a distinct doctrine and adherents. Fewer still have changed global politics in the way Tony Blair did. In the jaundiced world of political insiders, Blair is largely remembered for the invasion of Iraq, the elevation of spin, and a supposed disconnection from the party and movement he led. This perspective is as superficial as it is pervasive. Blair was a transformational figure, equal in significance to Margaret Thatcher.
Far from the apparently rootless postmodern marketing guru he is often portrayed as, Blair is in fact a creature of British history. His desire to heal the hundred-year breach between British liberalism and socialism, his resemblance to nineteenth-century British prime minister William Ewart Gladstone, his devotion to obscure Scottish philosopher John Macmurray all speak of a man deeply immersed in the history and culture of his country. Many politicians appropriate such symbols for political convenience; Blair’s attachment to his origins is clearly more substantial.
Sadly, this link with the United Kingdom’s past contributed to some tragic outcomes. A sense of imperial mission lurks close to the surface in Tony Blair’s personality, almost as if he were a reincarnation of Charles James Napier, Charles George Gordon or John Sanctuary Nicholson. Coupled with the postwar bond with the United States that still dominates British psychology, this characteristic helped lead him to the terrible decision to support George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq. There’s little doubt that the decision did enormous damage to Blair’s standing, at home and abroad.
In part, this is because he offered something different, something less cynical, more ethical and more considered than national leaders usually do. He set the bar very high, then failed to clear it. Had a clever schemer and trimmer such as Harold Wilson, the former Labour prime minister, made the equivalent choice and taken the UK into Vietnam, it would have done his stature a lot of harm, but few would have been surprised. Blair soared high in the popular imagination, so had much further to fall. His slightly Messianic style made him vulnerable.
I was and remain a committed opponent of the Iraq conquest but I don’t doubt Tony Blair’s sincerity. He refused to take the path of cheap popularity that tempted Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder, and allowed his imperial instincts to get the better of him. His muscular liberalism was at least relatively consistent: these instincts also drove British intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and Sierra Leone in 2000. Non-involvement is usually easy. The risks of intervention are huge. In supporting Bush on Iraq, Blair made a terrible misjudgement that will forever diminish his legacy.
Blair did manage to go one step further than Gladstone’s Home Rule efforts in Ireland, producing a surprisingly durable peace agreement in 1998 that required major departures from traditional imperial thinking. Perhaps his latent Catholicism and his experience of nasty sectarianism within his own extended family gave him an ability to empathise with the nationalist minority in Northern Ireland that his predecessors mostly lacked. The ingrained British sense of superiority over the Irish has been a formidable obstacle to peace and justice in Ireland for centuries. From any perspective, Blair’s Good Friday Agreement and the ensuing process of normalisation in Northern Ireland is an extraordinary achievement.
Disappointment over Iraq has tended to overshadow Blair’s genuinely progressive stance on other issues, such as climate change and civil unions for gay couples. He drove a considerable increase in the UK’s international aid effort, and played a key role in pushing other major economies to improve their commitment in areas such as debt forgiveness.
Blair’s domestic policy record is rather mixed. Underneath the hype surrounding major education funding increases lie some genuine achievements. When I visited Britain in 2005 I was struck by my cousin’s comments about the substantial improvements in his children’s primary school that had flowed from Blair government initiatives. Yet there was also a downside: the proliferation of targets and form-filling distorted the focus of administration in schools, with inevitable impacts on actual schooling.
Changes to the National Health Service were more problematic. The introduction of “primary care trusts” and managed competition, accompanied by enormous funding increases, appears to have benefited producer interests, such as doctors, much more than patients. In mainstream domestic policy, Blair’s instincts were usually good but he seemed to lack the interest in detail and implementation necessary to carry them through into practice effectively. Whether deference to then Chancellor Gordon Brown in such areas was unavoidable is difficult to say, but it seemed to reflect his natural orientation. A barrister, an actor, a marketer, Blair was always more at home in the big-picture world of rhetorical flourish and sweeping initiative.
Blair’s approach to Europe was complicated, reflecting an underlying tension between his innate internationalism and his economic liberalism. He deserves credit for navigating a way through the treacherous shoals of Euro-politics, which offer little but trouble for British leaders. He managed to develop and sustain fairly good relationships with major European leaders in spite of some fundamental differences. His clear interest in the euro currency was perhaps fortuitously doused by Gordon Brown, who read the structural economic challenges more clearly.
Blair’s biggest domestic failure was really Brown’s responsibility: inadequate regulatory oversight of the financial sector and substantial budget deficits that contributed to the global financial crisis, Labour’s defeat in 2010 and the dreadful recession that is yet to fully abate. However powerful Brown may have been within the government, Blair cannot escape responsibility for the lax economic stewardship of the latter part of his prime ministership. Running large budget deficits and having mounting public debt in a time of strong growth driven by financial services and rising asset prices is a prescription for disaster. The UK is now living through that catastrophe. While Blair and Brown can point to some important economic reforms, such as formal independence for the Bank of England, the minimum wage and the creation of media regulator Ofcom, the overall economic record is heavily clouded by the global financial crisis.
Blair’s constitutional reform is also mixed. The creation of regional governments in Wales and Scotland will stand the test of time. Modest attempts to reform the House of Lords, a medieval anachronism that should be laughed out of existence, produced modest results. Labour self-interest precluded long-overdue electoral reform.
At his heart, Blair was really a nineteenth-century evangelical, a direct descendant of William Wilberforce, Lord Shaftesbury and William Gladstone. While the political and religious orientations of such giants of British history varied, their burning zeal to do good can be observed in Blair’s character. He was able to find a home in Labour because its longstanding Methodist instincts still lingered, and a renewal of internationalism in the labour movement suited his natural inclinations.
In 2006 the abrupt abrogation of the UK’s Serious Fraud Office inquiry into defence company BAE Systems’ alleged bribery of Saudi princes was hardly a shining moment for ethical foreign policy. Yet Blair’s rather forlorn decision to accept the role of Israeli–Palestinian peace interlocutor in retirement attests to his missionary spirit. Not satisfied with success in Northern Ireland, clearly deeply troubled by Iraq, he continues to seek redemption in the world’s most troubled region. His angling for the European Union presidency can be seen in the same light. You can still hear a faint echo of ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ in the background.
Blair has left an enormous mark on global politics, both on style and substance. He will forever be associated with the concept of spin. To many, Blair epitomises the slick, superficial marketing politician who is always grasping for glib slogan (“the hand of history”, “the people’s princess”) ahead of policy prescription. Yet beneath this unappealing appearance lie some genuine and lasting innovations in political campaigning and presentation. The five-point pledge card first used in the 1997 campaign has been widely imitated in Australia. During my brief involvement in that campaign I was quickly cured of any cynicism about such clever innovations when I discovered that in Labour’s previous campaign in 1992 the main written communication with voters was mass letterboxing of the formal party manifesto.
Shortly after he retired, Blair delivered a speech to Reuters news agency in which he reflected very frankly on the role of the media in British politics. He conveyed a sense of how it feels to be at the centre of the media whirlwind. The UK has the best and worst media in the world. Responding to widespread cynicism about the dominance of spin, Blair suggests that governing without a serious media operation is “like asking a batsman to face bodyline bowling without pads or headgear”. It’s hard to disagree with him.
Yet the kind of media operation required to survive in the world of the Daily Mail, the Sun and the News of the World inevitably corrupts its masters. Blair must accept a lot of the responsibility for the misuse of targets, the triumph of appearances over substance, and the mounting cynicism that took hold in British politics during his ascendancy. Labour policy adviser Jo Moore was widely castigated for suggesting in an internal government email that 11 September 2001 would be a great day to tip out bad news. Few asked why she thought her colleagues would regard this as a useful suggestion. The putrid culture that now pervades politics in many parts of the world has its origins in the Machiavellian scheming that seemed to permeate Blair’s administration. In many respects, Tony Blair gained the world whilst losing his soul.
In spite of this central position in the rogue’s gallery of spin, in my view Blair’s greatest significance lies in his intellectual overhaul of mainstream Left politics. It is easy to forget the decrepit, shambolic circus that Blair entered when he was elected to parliament in 1983. The spirit of the ’30s Jarrow Marchers and the ’50s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament activists still pervaded British Labour, magnified and distorted by the rise of the Militant Tendency during the late ’70s and early ’80s. However noble its origins, the naive nostalgia and shrill fundamentalism that characterised the party made the ’80s a political wasteland for Labour. Blair didn’t just usher in a better team of marketing consultants: he confronted these issues head on. He took on and won the battle to change Clause Four, the constitutional provision committing Labour to socialise the means of production, distribution and exchange that lacked the pragmatic qualifying clause of its Australian counterpart. He swept away the instinctive woolly-headed liberalism in Labour’s attitude to crime and punishment. He embraced the notion of economic aspiration, and accepted many of Margaret Thatcher’s reforms. He accelerated Labour’s transition to a pro-European perspective. In the mid 1970s, the most powerful anti–European Union voice in British politics was the Labour Left. With the help of wider trends, Blair’s advocacy helped to undermine this antediluvian nationalism lurking in the breasts of supposedly committed internationalists.
As the spiritual leader of the Third Way, he is easy to ridicule. The Third Way was always little more than an intellectually vapid melange, which failed to withstand serious scrutiny. It wasn’t even original. In large part, it reflected decisions taken by Australian Labor in government under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating in the 1980s. Perhaps the label was a necessary evil, required to dispel the notion that Labour was moving from state socialism to empty careerism. In a party as ideological as British Labour, the new regime needed some intellectual clothing. But at a more fundamental level, away from the distracting glare of glib slogans and media shorthand, Blair’s intellectual makeover of mainstream Left politics was profoundly important. More than any other individual, he drove a change in thinking across the social democratic world that is still reverberating through western politics.
Postwar European politics was dominated by the historic settlement between socialism and capitalism. Traditional ruling elites conceded welfare state protection and other benefits to industrial workers in order to ward off the threat of communism. With prosperity widening inexorably, this made the 1950s and 1960s a golden era for social democracy. By the 1970s, this model had run out of steam. The apparent demise of Keynesian economics and the oil shocks wiped out the comfortable social democratic consensus that underpinned what historian Eric Hobsbawm famously called “the forward march of labour”.
Much more fundamental structural change, though, was underway. Changes in the family, the production process, technology and in once-backward former colonies were eroding the 1950s model. Traditional corporate and aristocratic elites and unionised industrial labour no longer completely dominated the landscape. Yet their political parties, Conservative and Labour, had barely changed since the days of Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee.
The task of modernising their respective parties fell to Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. Thatcher wiped out remaining vestiges of feudalism that still permeated the Conservatives, and made Toryism safe for the lower middle class. Blair eliminated the remains of state socialism that still lingered in Labour, and made the party viable for the aspirational working class. In each case, they destroyed a mindset that was decades out-of-date: condescending paternalism in the Tories, and shop-floor myopia in Labour.
Blair’s most important intellectual legacies are internationalism and acceptance of markets. When he addressed the Australian Parliament in March 2006, shortly before he left office, I was struck by his assertion that societies all around the world faced a critical choice: whether to be open or closed. Some years earlier, I published a book, Open Australia, which put the same question about Australia’s future. I realised then how much Blair’s approach had indirectly influenced my own thinking, even though I had explicitly rejected the Third Way as shallow sloganising.
Blair’s acceptance of markets as a positive force in modern societies has helped change social democratic thinking around the world. He’s not alone in these endeavours, but I believe he will be seen as the single most important figure in this transformation in global thinking. Bill Clinton was also an important figure but no one talks of Clintonism.
To understand the wider impact of Blairite thinking, it is instructive to look at Latin America. Lula da Silva refashioned the thinking of the Brazilian Workers’ Party in office essentially on Blairite lines, and has been stunningly successful. While the commodities boom has helped, the dramatic improvements in living standards, poverty alleviation and Brazil’s international standing have stood in stark contrast to the now obviously intellectually bankrupt left-wing populism that has been so prominent in Latin American history. The intellectual imperatives that have caused this rethinking reflect, amongst other things, the changes in social democratic thought in the western world that Blair was central in driving.
History will not let Blair escape lightly for his mistakes, and nor should he. He will carry significant responsibility for the emergence of a toxic style of politics that erodes the quality of public debate and breeds cynicism and disengagement. But beyond these flaws, his role in advancing the cause of internationalism and widening the mainstream Left’s perspective beyond postwar industrialism will cement his position as one of the most important figures in world politics of the modern era. While pharisees on the Left will never forgive Blair for his role in Iraq and will never concede any merit in his other contributions to British and world politics, I believe both need to be acknowledged. For those who have a narrower focus, his role in making British Labour politically viable should never be forgotten. However much they might disparage his legacy, emerging generations of Labour activists owe Tony Blair a substantial debt for this achievement alone.
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