Saturday, May 12, 2007

Blair - a preliminary verdict

Some of you thought I was being a bit flippant, or even peevish, in my rather light-hearted run-through of Tony Blair's "achievements" the other day. Well, a rather more considered asssessment appears in my column in today's Newcastle Journal and I reproduce it in full here.


And so, the deed is finally done. Tony Blair has announced his resignation as Labour leader and on June 27, when he ceases to be Prime Minister, an era in British politics will draw to a close.

As I wrote last week, it's come about four years too late, but let's not quibble about the minor details - the important thing for the Labour Party and the country is that he's going.

"I've been prime minister of this country for just over 10 years. I think that's long enough for me, but more especially for the country," he told his constituents at Trimdon Labour Club in County Durham.

And in what might have been a moment of self-knowledge he added: "Sometimes, the only way you conquer the pull of power is to set it down."

Earlier this year, Mr Blair told the BBC that he would not "beg for his character in front of anyone." Well, it sounded very much to me like he was begging for it on Thursday.

The gist of his farewell message to the nation seemed to be that, even though he might have got some things wrong, he wanted us to believe that he always acted out of the best of motives.

It wasn't one of his greatest efforts, to tell the truth. But it did, however, have the merit of humility, of acknowledging that his premiership had fallen short of expectations.

"The visions are painted in the colours of the rainbow and the reality is sketched in the duller tones of black and white and grey," he said. It's as good a comment on the Blair years as any.

The sense of disappointment, of lost hopes and unfulfilled promise that has accompanied the Blair era is felt by different people in different ways.

For many, it will be the extent to which he allowed his mission to reform the public services to become diverted by the "war on terror," culminating in the terrible morass of Iraq.

For others, it will be his failure to grasp the historic opportunity of his 1997 landslide to fashion a political realignment on the centre-left, or a new relationship with Europe.

For me, it will always be his failure, as the first Labour Prime Minister in 18 years, to heal the social and economic divisions of Thatcherism, and to have presided instead over an increase in inequality.

So what will be Mr Blair's lasting legacy? Well, the case against him is well known, and has been articulated in a fair amount of detail in this column down the years.

In a nutshell, it can be summed up in two words, Iraq and spin - two words that, taken together, have deepened the loss of public trust in politics that has occurred over the past decade.

But what of the case for him? Well, this rests primarily in my view on the extent to which he succeeded in bringing about what has been termed "social justice by stealth."

Mr Blair's admirers argue that, in spite of appearances to the contrary, he was actually responsible for a huge redistribution of wealth to the less well-off that has made a significant and lasting impact on society.

Now admittedly, there is something in this. Much higher benefits allied to new tax credits to the low paid mean around 600,000 fewer children are now below what the EU defines as the "poverty line."

But the very fact that Mr Blair felt unable to boast about this considerable achievement for fear of alienating Middle England demonstrates that he did not, in the end, alter the political consensus.

In any case, the argument that the Blair government was responsible for making a major dent in poverty also depends on whether you define poverty in absolute or relative terms.

Under the former definition, it is undeniably true that most people are much better off under New Labour. But at the same time, it is also undeniably the case that the gap between rich and poor was widened.

Nowhere, of course, is this dichotomy more pronounced than in the North-East. It would be churlish to deny that the region has experienced a major growth in prosperity over recent years.

But with other regions forging ahead at an even faster rate, the economic divide between North and South has widened on most measures during the Blair decade.

His government has been, at best, disinclined to address the North-South gap and, at worst it has actively pursued policies that have exacerbated it, such as the huge transport infrastructure investment in London and the South-East.

And his attempts at institutional reform in the region were a disaster, with the North-East Assembly referendum going down as one of the great debacles of his premiership.

So what next? Well, a curiosity of the week's political events was that Mr Blair did not even manage to stage the most sensational resignation. That distinction belonged to John Reid.

Was the Home Secretary's decision not to challenge Gordon Brown for the leadership simply an acknowledgement that he is unbeatable? Well, probably.

Mr Blair's generous endorsement of the Chancellor's bid to succeed him yesterday masks the fact that, for months, the Blairites have tried in vain to find an alternative contender.

Ultimately they were defeated by two things - the arithmetic of Labour's electoral college, and South Shields MP David Miliband's reluctance to be their standard-bearer.

So in the end, Mr Blair was telling the truth in his conference speech last autumn when he said he wanted to "heal" the party's wounds to build a platform for election victory.

He deserves credit for that, and for saving Labour, at the last, from a civil war that would certainly have lost it that election.

As the Prime Minister told us on Thursday: "Believe one thing, if nothing else. I did what I thought was right for our country."

For once, in staging the orderly transition that has been so long awaited, he has.

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Unknown said...

'Social justice (income redistribution) by stealth'. His admirer's could claim that was his greatest positive achievement.

But he hardly mentioned it. Was it because he really, in his farewell speech, didn't want to upset Middle England? More likely, he doesn't understand its impact. Or if he does, he probably (correctly) assumes it is to the credit of GB rather than himself.

But maybe his most significant political legacy is the emergence of David Cameron. Would a Hague-lead tory party have done as well in last week's local elections? Doubtful. Could DC's approach have beaten John Major in 1992? Probably not.

MorrisOx said...

There is a curious synergy between both of his major failures.

Blair only really got into gear in his second term, the first having been wasted because neither he nor his acolytes had properly planned out the delivery of their vision.

And it then got blown off course by Iraq. I don't think he was wrong to stand 'should to shoulder' with Bush and take on someone who had a proven track record of lies, deceit and murder on an industrial scale (that's Saddam, by the way!), because even if the intelligence was over-played the suspicion that somewhere, somehow he'd got something hidden was shared by a much wider community than you might think.

Where he goofed - again - was in not pressing Bush anywhere near hard enough to have a plan for what happened after the victory. What happened was Rumsfeld, a man who many thoughtful people in the American military loathe.

The spin, which initially served him so well when the Tories began to disintegrate and Labour had to be rallied, instead had to take centre stage when substantial achievement failed to materialise.

What then happened was one of the oldest and least convincing tricks in the book: keep shifting the chairs to achieve the illusion of progress. Progress there was, but at massive cost, and some departments and agencies got wrecked in the process.

But it is not worse now than it was before. I don't think Blair was a bad PM. As bad as Iraq is, it could have been even worse if he hadn't nailed his colours to the mast and got involved. And unlike so many previous administrations there has been broad progress rather than the inevitability of crash and burn.

Brown does not inherit a poisoned chalice (though he may come to regard his constant off-stage sniping as time ill-spent). He does not inherit the economic good fortune of earlier years.

But he still inherits an opportunity.

skipper said...

Good article Paul. On Iraq, I could see the reason to invade to remove a dangerous despot but I thought the rule of avoiding violent interference in the affairs of others was more important, if only because violence renders politics beyond predictability.

The lack of UN approval should have ruled it totally out of bounds but the real error was the failure to plan what came after military victory. But Blair should have surely known he was only a peripheral influence at best and if unable to control events he should have stayed well clear of what proved to be his nemesis.

Apart from Iraq and spin- so closely related in the end to the same events- his record compares very well with any post-war prime ministers.

Giles Marshall said...

I wonder if you aren't being a little too kind when you suggest that his comment about 'setting down power' was a last little bit of self-knowledge. It did sound awfully like a man who desperately wanted to cling to power making the best of his forced removal and, once again, spinning an awkward fact in a different direction. Or is that a bit too cynical?

On skipper's point, while I invariably find your comments shrewd and illuminating, even when I disagree, I remain unconvinced about the suggestion that 'his record compares very well with any post-war prime ministers'. Even radical areas such as constitutional change were marked by short-termist planning and a high level of incompleteness, while the effect his brand of 'spinning', to put it politely, has had on British political discourse will take years to recover from. But I freely admit to a high level of emotive bias that maybe prevents a more objective view!

Anonymous said...

The Third Way was all about saying two different things in the same sentence, appealing to two different constituencies, and implying that somehow Tony could deliver both. "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", "Making globalisation work for the poor" and the 2001 Labour Party speech that suggested that LP members could have all the nice international things they wanted and have an unquestioning alliance with the USA as well. Spin was always required to make the trick work, to keep the focus off the places where the two different agendas might contradict. Those who did manage to focus on the potential contradictions could be branded as Luddites or anti-American. So it's no surprise that Tony doesn't talk about actions that may have helped the poor because that might frighten Middle England: everything in the last 10 years has been calculated to not frighten Middle England.

Perhaps they should be given a fright about what is happeneing in the rest of the world and what is just over the time horizon. Shouldn't they be reminded that the presence of the oil industry in the Niger Delta is part of globalisation, and the chaos there is not at all good for the poor? Shouldn't they be reminded that sometimes the UK might have to choose between international law and its relationship with the USA?