St. Andrews, Scotland — Last Friday morning, Britain awoke to the devastation of war. The destruction came not in villages leveled and lives destroyed, but in the annihilation of a political party. Though Labour still retains control of Parliament, Tony Blair's party was reduced to a smoking ruin in nationwide council elections.
It's a sorry end for Mr. Blair, who says he's ready to step down after a decade as prime minister. The man who re-invented the socialist Labour Party into a modern, third-way political dynamo now sees the Iraq war dismantling one of the most formidable political machines in British history.
When anger fades and regret settles in, historians will judge the Iraq war a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. Blair is not the first leader to disregard the complicated political history of the Middle East, but Britons expected better of this deeply intelligent man. Despite all the evidence of perfidy, he seems to have had a noble purpose, but that makes his failure all the more tragic. He believed that Britain, because of its historical status, was duty bound to intervene and that it was uniquely placed to act as a moderating influence on President Bush. Mr. Bush, however, was immune to moderation. British statecraft was crushed by American adventurism.
The Iraq fiasco muddles the assessment of Blair's otherwise enormously successful prime ministership. Without the war, Labour would still dominate the polls, and the fate of the Tory Party leader David Cameron would look painfully similar to that of his three hapless predecessors. The past 10 years have brought genuine Labour dominance, and the Tories no longer seem to be the natural party of government.
That achievement will in time come to dwarf the Iraq debacle. The Blair decade will rightly be seen as a revolution in British politics more profound and long- lasting than that of Margaret Thatcher. When I came to Britain in 1980, Ms. Thatcher had cleaved the country, dividing the population into "them" and "us." Politics was a ritual of identity, an expression of antagonism. One knew whom to hate by the sound of their accent.
Today, thanks to Blair, issues are blurred, labels largely irrelevant. Class and party lines are no longer precisely drawn. Tory politicians pretend to be progressive, while Labour promotes illiberal policies such as identity cards and electronic tagging. The word "socialism" is hardly ever used, certainly never with sincerity.
Thatcher dominated politics in the 1980s by turning acrimony into advantage. She did not seem to mind that more than half the nation hated her. Blair's domination was entirely different. Like Thatcher, he appeared invincible, yet, unlike her, few cared. The most remarkable feature of the Blair years was the absence of strife. Blair was a consensus politician, the best Britain has ever seen. He removed the dogmatism from politics; he erased the party line.
Consensus came at the cost of ideology. Government today is based not on beliefs, but on short-term considerations of political prudence. Today, British politics is often a case of "may the best cynic win."
Before Blair, the British electoral system forced Labour to be inclusive; in order to have any possibility of governing, it had to embrace socialists, workers, and middle-class liberals. Though a broad church, it always had devout believers. Fervent values restricted the party's success.
While the Tories knew how to trim their policies to the political wind, Labour was anchored by principle. There were too many party members addicted to the purity of a lost cause – be it socialism or unilateral nuclear disarmament. Blair cured Labour of the "curse" of principle. In his quest, he benefited immensely from the demise of liberalism and the discrediting of socialism across the Western world.
His longevity as leader owed much to the fact that he was not burdened by sacred truths. Nor, it seems, were the British people. As the Blair decade has demonstrated, a people who believe in nothing are immensely easy to govern. And what of the future? Blair will soon hand off to Gordon Brown, his long-serving chancellor of the exchequer, who inherits a party in ruins. Despite his prominence, Mr. Brown remains a mystery man. He is said to have opposed the Iraq intervention and might even retain socialist sympathies.
Do not, however, bet on the rebirth of ideology in Britain. Brown's success will be determined largely by his willingness to abandon principle. In years to come, historians will argue whether Blair was an architect of destiny or a floater on the tide of circumstance. History students will assess his credentials as a great man. No one, however, will doubt his status as a harbinger of an age when ideology is nothing and power everything.
• Gerard DeGroot is a professor of history at the University of St. Andrews.