Saturday, June 23, 2007

The final reckoning

My Saturday column in today's Newcastle Journal represents my final word (for now!) on Tony Blair, his place in history, and why Andy Marr was right to say "We're all Thatcher's children now." The concluding paragraphs also pay homage to Tim Ireland, for a great idea.

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And so the turbulent premiership of Tony Blair draws to an almost eerily peaceful conclusion, the first since Harold Wilson's to end neither in electoral defeat nor in an internal party coup.

By this time next week, we will doubtless be poring over the entrails of Labour's deputy leadership election result, to be announced tomorrow, and Gordon Brown's first reshuffle, due on Wednesday.

The new Cabinet line-up may well feature up to 10 new names, but they will apparently include neither that of Lord Ashdown nor any other Liberal Democrat politician.

Mr Brown's attempt to get the Lib Dems to leap aboard his new political bandwagon is one of the more extraordinary episodes in modern politics and will keep commentators and future historians busy for many a year.

But that's for another day and another column. For this week, it would be almost indecent not to focus on the outgoing Prime Minister.

It was appropriate that the broadcaster Andrew Marr's televised magnum opus, A History of Modern Britain, should conclude in this, Mr Blair's penultimate week as premier.

As political editor of the BBC, Marr was famously close to New Labour, informing the great British public on the day of David Kelly's death that Alastair Campbell was a great guy who would be devastated by the tragedy.

But Marr the historian seems to have acquired a new objectivity, and the last two programmes in particular would not necessarily have made comfortable viewing for Mr Blair.

In the first, broadcast a week ago last Tuesday, he charted the immense changes of the Thatcher years, concluding that, for good or ill, it was she who shaped the Britain we now live in.

By comparison with that, the man who was hailed as having had the most impact on the way we live now during the Blair era was not the Prime Minister himself, but Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web.

Mr Blair has, according to is detractors, long been obsessed with his place in history, and to be fair to them, he has done little over the past three years to counter the suggestion.

So where, in the end, will he stand in that pantheon of past Prime Ministers whose portraits line the staircase at No 10, and where his own portrait will be placed next Wednesday?

Well, there are some Prime Ministers who were clearly in the category of abject failures, who will be remembered primarily for getting the key question of their premierships wrong

Neville Chamberlain, for Munich and the failure to re-arm, and Sir Anthony Eden for Suez, are the two 20th century premiers who fall most clearly into this group.

Then there are others who were quite competent administrators and who did some things right, but who were defeated by events or let down by the people they should have been able to count on.

Jim Callaghan, destroyed by the very unions whose cause he had always championed, and John Major, who endured five years of guerrilla warfare from the Maastricht rebels, spring to mind here.

Next there are the likes of Harold Wilson and Stanley Baldwin, men who didn't change a great deal but, through skilful political management, kept their parties together and won more elections than they lost.

And there are those such as Edward Heath whose otherwise troubled premierships were redeemed by a single great achievement - in his case, taking Britain into Europe.

The very top rank, though, is reserved for those who were either called upon to lead the nation in its darkest days of war, or who irreversibly shifted the political consensus in peacetime.

In the past 100 years, there have been just four of these: David Lloyd George, Sir Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher.

Where does Mr Blair rank in all this? Well, to my mind, the two past premiers he most closely resembles are the Liberal Herbert Henry Asquith, and the Tory Harold Macmillan.

Asquith led a reforming government which lost its way a bit, became embroiled in a rather difficult war, and was finally elbowed aside by his ambitious Chancellor, Lloyd George

Meanwhile Macmillan was the first true master of spin, who told the electorate they had "never had it so good" while generally doing little to change the country's overall direction.

Both Asquith and Macmillan will go down as premiers who were neither a disaster, nor who entered the top rank, and that, in the final analysis, is where I would place Tony Blair.

Mr Blair's admirers have always argued that he was a consensus-shifter like Mrs Thatcher - that by shifting the Labour Party to the right, he was able to shift the overall centre of political gravity to the left.

That may well have been the idea, but we have in fact ended up in a situation in this country in which, while a right-wing party may be able to "talk left," a left-wing one has to "act right" to prove its fitness to govern.

This is the conundrum Labour found itself in during the 1980s and 1990s, and it is still essentially the same conundrum that faces Mr Brown today as he prepares to take power.

As Andrew Marr pointed out, we in this country are not Blair's children, or Major's, or Callaghan's. Like it or not, we are all still Thatcher's children really.

Fans of the spoof gangster movie Bugsy Malone will remember the song that goes: "We could have been anything that we wanted to be, with all the talent we had. No doubt about it, let's shout about it, we're the very best at being bad."

Well, to make the last bit an epitaph for the Blair premiership would be a trifle unfair. Although his government has done some bad things, there have been badder ones.

But with all his talent - and public goodwill - Tony Blair really could have been anything that he wanted to be, really could have been up there with Clem, Sir Winnie and the Iron Lady.

He will have a very long retirement in which to ponder that lost opportunity.

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3 comments:

skipper said...

Martin Kettle in the Grauniad today places Blair well down in the historical league- in the 'third division' in fact. Top were the likes of WC, Attlee, Thatcher.

MatGB said...

An excellent summary and article Paul, so glad to have sorted my feeds out and started reading blogs again.

Not sure I agree with your assesment of Chamberlain; he was in the process of re-arming after all, it was the military that told him they weren't ready pre-Munich, but beyond that, spot-on.

Stephen Rouse said...

Did you see John Simms as The Master on Dr Who? That Oasis haircut Blair sported in the early days, an ambitious wife, a hypnotic effect on voters who can't remember exactly why they backed him. They even played Things Can Only Get Better on Dr Who Confidential. It may not be the legacy Blair wanted, but being made a Dr Who villain is a kind of immortality.