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Tony Blair's decade of peace and war

Britain's leader, who announced he will step down June 27, leaves a mixed legacy, from Northern Ireland to Iraq.

By Mark Rice-OxleyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 11, 2007


On a balmy Friday morning a decade ago, Britain's last and youngest prime minister of the 20th century emerged bleary-eyed into the spring sunshine and promised the country a different society: fair, modern, progressive – less cynical and divisive. The tune from an all-night victory party still resounded: Things can only get better.

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On Thursday, 10 years and eight days from that heady May morning, Tony Blair finally resigned as Labour Party leader, setting his departure for June 27. He did so to a muted response.

Much of the promise of 1997 has evaporated in the harsh glare of Iraq, a war that detractors say utterly overshadowed Mr. Blair's domestic program. Not so, say admirers, who tick off transformations they say have left Britain more prosperous, progressive, and democratic than ever before: strong economic growth, peace in Northern Ireland, an antipoverty campaign and modernization of public services like health and education.

"Prime ministers tend to get one sentence in history books and in Blair's case that will probably be Iraq," says John Rentoul, a Blair biographer. "But he has been prime minister for quite a long time, so he might get another sentence on how he made Britain a fairer place."

Or, as Blair put it in his resignation speech Thursday, "There is only one government since 1945 that can say all of the following: more jobs, fewer unemployed, better health and education results, lower crime, and economic growth in every quarter."

How the world looked in 1997

When Blair came to power, Al Qaeda was virtually unknown, broadband Internet was in its infancy, Bill Clinton was in the White House, and reality TV was just a fantasy. Few foreigners played soccer for the top clubs (now few Englishmen do), Hong Kong was still part of Britain, and the euro was still just a concept.

Some changes since then are not Blair's doing: Immigration and asylum are global problems, as is climate change. The older demographic has loomed for a generation. Spin was around long before Blair, though he took it to new levels.

The problem with generalizing about the Blair era is that it invites immediate contradiction. He banned fox hunting – but it still goes on. He introduced a Human Rights Act – but made life harder for asylum seekers. He increased police numbers – and tied them down with bureaucratic form-filling. He initiated reform of the House of Lords – but became embroiled in a scandal amid allegations that people who had loaned money to the party had been promised seats. He presided over low inflation and unemployment and strong growth – but passed on only a modest slice of that increased prosperity to the bottom third of society. After 10 years of "Blairism," surveys show that child deprivation is as bad in Britain as anywhere in Europe.

"Blairism stands for the claim that you can combine economic efficiency with social justice," says Wyn Grant, a professor of politics at Warwick University. "The economy on the whole has been a success compared to past British performance. Delivering the social-justice side of it is more difficult, and the record there has been ... more mixed."

Blair championed greater powers for the United Kingdom's constituent parts, winning plaudits for the settlement in Northern Ireland but inadvertently encouraging those in Scotland and Wales who would like to break away from Britain.

"If one's looking at his big achievements, you have to look at the settlement of Northern Ireland," Professor Grant says, adding that the constitutional changes amount to "an important and irreversible change which may alter the whole nature of UK politics."

But when it comes to Iraq, there is less equivocation. Surveys show that about 7 Britons in 10 believe it will tarnish his legacy. An informal Monitor survey inviting Britons for their views of the best and worst of Blair moments elicited a broad range of positives – the minimum wage, better hospitals, an independent Bank of England, even free museums – but one four-letter word kept cropping up.

"Whatever good he did for this country – actually quite a lot – is totally overshadowed by his crimes in Iraq," says Andrew Sparke, a Londoner.

Iraq brought out the best and worst in Blair: memorable oratory – particularly an impassioned speech to Parliament on the eve of the war – and less glorious attempts to justify the war amid a succession of inquiries into the absence of weapons of mass destruction.

But some would argue that Iraq was part of a broader foreign strategy that did bring some success, most notably in Kosovo and Sierra Leone.

10 years at Downing Street

May 2, 1997 – Wins landslide victory. Approval rating exceeds 60 percent.

April 1999 – Supports NATO in Kosovo.

June 8, 2001 – Wins second landslide election victory with approval rating at about 50 percent.

March 2003 – Parliament approves Iraq invasion.

Sept 30, 2004 – Says he will step down.

May 5, 2005 – Wins third term.

July 6, 2005 – Blair's lobbying helps win 2012 Olympics for Britain.

July 7, 2005 – London bombings kill 52.

Dec 14, 2006 – Blair questioned by detectives in the cash-for-honors inquiry.

May 10, 2007 – Blair says he will resign with 33 percent approval rating.