Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Blair's place in history

Hats off to the Observer for its magnificent retrospective on the Blair Years on Sunday, the centrepiece of which was a magisterial essay from the essential chronicler of those years, Andrew Rawnsley.

Predictably for one who has always been seen as something of a New Labour boulevardier, Rawnsley's ultimate conclusion on the Blair premiership is a positive one.

"Some Prime Ministers merely preside over their time. Better Prime Ministers change their time. When Tony Blair's portrait goes up on the staircase wall at Number 10, he will leave office with a good claim to belong to that select company of Prime Ministers who change the future," he says.

To its credit, however, the Ob makes room for an alternative perspective from historian Dominic Sandbrook, who writes: "Truly great Prime Ministers challenge the status quo. They do not simply accept it. Blair seems destined to be remembered therefore as a consummately skilled political operator with brilliant tactical instincts but no radical or compelling long-term vision."

It probably won't surprise many people to know that I'm with Sandbrook on this. Any leftward shift in the political centre of gravity under Blair has been marginal when compared with the huge rightward shift under Thatcher which, by and large, her successor-but-one has accepted.

For me, he will go down in history as someone who had a historic opportunity to rebuild a social democratic political consensus in the UK, but who wasted his first term worrying about getting re-elected, his second on the disaster of Iraq, and his third on his preoccupation with his own legacy.

As Sandbrook writes: "Blair could have used his massive majorities to ram through radical changes in the health service, reorganise the railways, reconstitute the House of Lords, overhaul the pensions system, reform the electoral system, push for greater integration in the EU, even write a new constitution.

"If he had managed two or three - perfectly plausible in 10 years as Attlee could have told him, his domestic legacy would be uncontestable. But he never did."

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Stephen Rouse said...

Agree with your/Sandbrook's assessment Paul. I thought the overall thrust of the Rawnsley piece was heading the same way - i.e. a great opportunity missed. The last few upbeat paragraphs seemed oddly tacked on, as though he'd thought "Blimey, I need to say something positive here."

skipper said...

I think Rawnsley was genuine in his final comments as he has always rather admired Blair and there is now Ulster to put on the legacy mantle-piece, after all. I agree with Paul re opportunities missed and with Anthony Seldon whose superb biography of the man says something similar to Paul at much greater length. He stayed too long and he messed up so big time over Iraq that no-one now wants to credit him with any real achievements.

Richard Bailey said...

That's a lovely post. Your four line summary of Blair is quite perfect.
I should have been appalled if Blair had actually done have the things he threatened with the majorities he had, but you'd have to respect his right to do it.
How anyone could achieve so little with so much is unfathomable.

Still, my 90 year old grandmother told me recently that actually people don't want politicians to change anything. It just upsets them and causes division.

james higham said...

...he will leave office with a good claim to belong to that select company of Prime Ministers who change the future...

Sort of like Saddam and Adolph, yes?