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.
LONDON — 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.
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.
Stephen Twigg, a former Labour Member of Parliament and Blairite minister, says that Blair passionately believed democracies could not ignore dictators perpetrating genocide.
"The previous decade had seen the horrors of Rwanda and Bosnia, and Blair wanted to see a situation where the world would not sit by while ethnic cleansing and genocide went ahead," he says. Yet the legacy of Iraq may make it harder for Blair's successor, Gordon Brown, to mount similar missions.
The legacy of Iraq was also an aggravated terror threat. Though Blair argues that Britain was a target long before the Iraq war, the July 7 bombers invoked the war in their suicide video.
Blair's immediate response was statesmanlike and assured. Throughout his tenure, he impressed on the big occasion. But on law and order – 7/7 was the biggest such challenge – he played tough.
Naheed Rahmani, a first-generation Briton born to parents from the subcontinent, says that although she believes that Britain remains a tolerant and inclusive society, Muslims feel a backlash from the antiterror effort most keenly. "There is no doubt that Asians, and Muslims in particular, face a greater degree of scrutiny than ever before, with nationality tests, debates over immigrants and language, raids on Muslim homes, and national debates on veil wearing," she says.
But a new authoritarian streak also affects asylum seekers, who face more complex procedures. Criminals face tougher sentences; the prison population has almost doubled. A new catch-all crime of antisocial behavior has snared all sorts of troubled souls, from local nuisances to the unstable and marginalized. Blair once said minor delinquents should be frogmarched to ATM machines to pay fines.
"When he promised to be tough on ... the causes of crime, he must have found an 'r' on the floor of Downing Street, and became tough on the causers of crime," says Lord David Ramsbotham, a former chief inspector of prisons who regrets the lack of effort to deal with problems that give rise to crime. "There have been torrents of legislation ... which have merely resulted in increasing the prisoner rate."
"It's a more totalitarian society, with much more direction and minute control from above," he adds.
Surveillance and CCTV have soared; ID cards are to be introduced. Information Commissioner Richard Thomas has warned of "sleepwalking to a surveillance society." The latest idea is for a talking CCTV camera to relay orders to miscreants.
Health, education, transport reform
The centerpiece of Blair's domestic agenda was reform of public services. Opinion is deeply divided as to whether tens of billions of extra pounds pumped into health, education, and transport systems have rescued the nation's infrastructure from a generation of chronic underinvestment. Blair claims hospital waiting lists are shorter and staff lists longer. He says getting private finance to underwrite new hospitals and schools has accelerated building. His supporters say he has made a big difference to primary education, improving opportunity for all.
"He can take credit for trying to put right the neglect of the Thatcher era which was really serious in the health service and schools," says Paul Whiteley of Essex University. "Investment in public services has clearly made them a lot better."
But critics say that privately built hospitals and schools are proving more costly in the long run. Some hospitals are being downsized. "Despite a huge injection of cash, local health authorities are running out of money," warned Douglas McWilliams, an economics consultant, adding that transport problems were getting worse "despite a near doubling in the transport budget."
But the fact that Blair's Conservative adversary David Cameron has firmly committed his party to the public service renewal agenda vindicates Blair and assures his legacy.
"You could see Cameron as part of Blair's legacy," says Mr. Rentoul, the biographer. "He has brought the Conservatives on to the center ground and in that respect, Blair has won the argument. And not just with things like public services but issues like gay marriages. Blair has shifted the ground of British politics."
"Blairism is just an extension of Thatcherism – it's Thatcherism with a human face," says Whiteley. "It's still an individualist agenda. In an economic sense it has been very successful. People have made money and they like that and they have rewarded Labour.
"But the disaster of Iraq looms over everything. And when the dust has settled, the argument will probably be that Blair is a very good communicator, but he has poor judgment."