Whenever Tony Blair returns to Britain and is interviewed by journalists the blogosphere and Twitter explode with fury, vengeance and vituperation: it’s like Middlesbrough on a Friday night.
The former Prime Minister has recently come back to the UK to publicise the publication of the paperback version of his autobiography. This is a fascinating document – if you want to understand Blair’s perspective then it is a must-read.
When it comes to Blair, however, empathy is in short supply. Reaction to his latest visit has been predictable. Those who think of themselves as being on the left condemn Blair for his role in the Iraq War; others, some of whom might also think of themselves as being on the left – but a very different kind of left – counter by pointing out his sheer political ‘class’.
As this nerdy version of a stare-out contest rages on, I thought it useful to outline what a more sober eye might see in Blair’s record. I’ve written about New Labour over the years, teach undergraduates at Nottingham about its rise and (maybe?) fall and will be producing a second edition of this book in the fullness of time. I can’t claim to be objective – nobody is by the way – but this is my take.
1. Tony Blair won three general elections in a row. This is a unique achievement for a Labour leader – the first two by landslides. Some claim that 1997 was in the bag as Major’s Conservatives had imploded by 1994 but that’s a moot point. What must be admitted is that Blair gave Labour such a boost before 1997 he made the 2001 victory almost inevitable. For a time he talked to the kind of voter who had once seen Labour as beyond the pale.
2. Tony Blair was a social democrat; but a very neo-liberal one. He believed that market mechanisms were generally better at providing public services than the state. That did not make him a Thatcherite: plenty of social democrats across Europe had embraced the market before her as they looked for credible ways of making society more equal.
3. Tony Blair helped improve public services and stopped inequality getting (much) worse. Public spending increased: new hospitals and schools were built, more teachers, nurses and doctors employed. Under Blair the public sector made up for the neglect that had begun under the last Labour government. His record on equality was more mixed – the super-rich got richer while some of the poorest (pensioners; those in work with children) did relatively well. But could Blair have done more in the midst of unprecedented economic growth? Probably.
4. When Tony Blair left office he was deeply unpopular. It is often forgotten that during the 2005 election Blair had to call in Gordon Brown to give him credibility. Blair also had been forced to state that he wouldn’t contest another election. If Brown went on to make matters worse when he finally became Prime Minister, things had already gone badly awry for Labour by the end of Blair’s tenure. He had lost his touch.
5. Tony Blair could not have stopped the Iraq War. But Blair believed he might and, if not, by being inside the tent he could ameliorate mistakes that President Bush on his own would have made. In other words Blair seriously over-estimated his ability to influence the White House – a mistake other Prime Ministers have made in the past.
This is not, I suspect, the time for many people to embrace a balanced view of Tony Blair. There is a process in Britain which means that electorally successful politicians are generally loathed for decades after they have left office. But at some point – when they are dead, dying or ga-ga, Britons begin to realize that they were not all bad: look at the fall and then rise in the reputations of MacDonald, Baldwin and Thatcher.
It’s ironic that Harold Wilson was often cited against Blair. For the former Labour Prime Minister had not allowed British involvement in the Vietnam War despite US pressure. Yet, for much of the 1970s and 1980s Wilson had been a by-word for lack of principle, love of capitalism and even corruption. By the 1990s, after nearly two decades of a Conservative government, historians (myself included) finally began to reassess his record.
I wonder how long Blair will have to wait for rehabilitation?