Politics & Policy

Blair’s Legacy

An assessment.

On Thursday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair formally announced he will be stepping down next month. To mark the occasion, National Review Online asked a group of British political observers to assess Blair’s legacy.

Gerard Baker

“All political careers end in failure,” an uncommonly successful British politician once said. His brutal judgment is a reminder not only of the virtues of American-style term limits but also of the limitations of the instant verdicts that accompany a departing political leader.

#ad#In Blair’s case, as with other prime ministers who left office after they should have but before they wanted, history’s judgment will be kinder than the one his contemporaries offer.

He leaves Britain a more prosperous, more dynamic, and more open society than when he arrived. Unfortunately, he can claim little credit for that. Britain’s success came in spite of Labor’s efforts not because of them. He spent most of his last five years trying to undo the mistakes of his first five, largely failing to roll back the bloated state and higher taxes Labor imposed when they came in.

That failure is outweighed by two bigger successes. His patient efforts secured the foundations for a lasting peace in Northern Ireland and on the really defining challenge of our age, he not only got it right, but sacrificed his political career for it.

He understood quickly the threat to free societies posed by Islamist terrorism and by the tyranny that nurtures it. He saw that American will and power is the only plausible defense against it. It was his misfortune, but not his fault, that he tied himself to a U.S. administration whose competence and commitment never matched its rhetoric and idealism.

 – Gerard Baker is U.S. editor of the London Times.

John Blundell

There is no Blair legacy in power as there was a massive Thatcher legacy of privatization, bringing the unions back under the rule of law, sales of public housing, and the reining in of inflation to mention but four of a dozen massive achievements. He leaves under the twin clouds of corruption and failure to deliver. He might well soon appear in court giving evidence as close colleagues possibly head to prison for offering honors for donations to the Labor party. It is not out of the question that he will himself be charged.

Still Mrs. Blair is said to be a good attorney.

Reelected in 2001 he stood in his usual earnest prayerful hands locked together stance in Downing Street and told us that the vote was an instruction to deliver improvements in so-called public services. Well as police officers are as rare as a hen’s teeth, hospitals crumble (you get ill at your peril — Walter Reed writ wide), 25 percent of school leavers cannot find “plumber” in the yellow pages, and welfare explodes and immiserates he sure has delivered, delivered a society in need, desperate need of another Lady Thatcher.

I do however credit him with reforming the Labor party when in opposition and removing Clause 4 of its constitution which has previously committed it to nationalization of the commanding heights of the economy. And he kept much of Thatcherism intact. But to say after ten years as prime minister that your sole pluses are what you did before you came to power and what you did to preserve somebody else’s legacy is pretty sad, very sad indeed.

Cheer up, things are getting worse, so bad we might soon have a chance for real reform on public services, regulation, and the awful, corrupt, corrupting, unelected and unaccountable shower that meets in secret overseas in Bruxelles. And if we never again get to hear his irritating upper-class voice telling us how much he feels the hand of history on his shoulder it will not be a day too soon.

 – John Blundell is the director general of IEA (the Institute of Economic Affairs) in London.

 

Peter Brookes

Tony Blair did a great deal to keep the U.S.-U.K. special relationship special during his years in ten years in office. We can thank him for that. 

Though not without fault, he was a solid ally in the days following 9/11, and in the wars on terror, Iraq and Afghanistan.  His stepping down clearly marks the end of an era in U.S.-British relations.

But, more importantly, what about the future?   

Unfortunately, the cross-Atlantic relationship is likely to be a little less special under Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown.

Initially, he’s likely to tack left toward the Labor party’s base — and away from positions that are unpopular in Britain, including a number that involve the U.S.

We’re also likely to see a move away from a personal relationship with President Bush, who has worked well — and closely — with Blair over the last six years.

That may mean trouble ahead on a number of vital national security issues, including continued British support in Iraq, dealing with Iran’s nuclear aspirations, and, even, keeping NATO as the center of European defense.

Brown, a green-eye shade type, and with major counterterrorism problems at home, may also let British defense spending slip even further than Blair.

Military intervention and pre-emption will be very hard sells with Brown.

He will likely focus his foreign policy on issues such as global warming, poverty reduction, development and trade.  Think: “Soft power,” not “hard power.” 

Brown is likely to be a strong Atlanticist. He even holidays in New England — but it’s often with Democratic strategist friends, who likely shape his views. 

Brown isn’t likely to be a disaster for U.S. foreign policy — but an initial distancing from Washington is likely, if for no other reason than to escape Blair’s shadow. 

In the end, under Brown, ties with the U.S. may not be so close as they were under Blair — a bloody shame for both London and Washington.

 – Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense.

Matthew Elliott

Thursday afternoon, after Tony Blair had delivered his farewell speech as prime minister, my mobile rang. It was a friend calling from a taxi on his way to a TV studio to deliver his verdict on the closing chapter of the Blair premiership. “What should I say?” he asked. Coming from a journalist who has been one of this government’s severest critics, it seemed an odd question, but as the day wore on I found that most of my friends and colleagues were equally bemused.

Yes, we care passionately about shrinking the state and cutting taxes, and over the past decade the tax burden has shot up from 39 percent of GDP to over 42 percent and council tax (Britain’s property tax) has doubled in real terms, but where does the blame for this lie? Was it Tony Blair or his Chancellor Gordon Brown’s fault?

When Gordon Brown agreed to step aside for Tony Blair in the Labor party’s leadership election of 1994, Blair agreed to give Brown unprecedented control over British domestic policy, and Brown has guarded this power and used it to massively increase the size of the state in Britain.

Blair’s instincts are not as interventionist as Brown’s and he should have done much more to reign in the treasury, but when Blair closed his speech yesterday by describing Britain as “a blessed nation … the greatest nation on earth” — language which is never used by the right in Britain — a shiver of national pride went through the hearts of many people.

Blair was a showman, and there is a chance that history will judge him as a statesman. But he was famously lousy with figures and, unfortunately for Britain, it shows.

 – Matthew Elliott is chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, Britain’s grassroots campaign for lower taxes.

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Andrew Haldenby

Let’s consider “Blair’s legacy” in terms of the country that Gordon Brown will inherit. It is wealthier (including the poorest), healthier (ditto), and arguably better educated (from a low base). It is more consumerist. All income groups, including the poorest again, have benefited from the advances of technology in communications and travel. The labor market is still free, the economy continues to modernize, and monetary policy is good. It’s pretty good and crucially it gives the ideal base for the necessary reforms to Britain’s outdated welfare state.

#ad#That’s not to say that the Blair governments have contributed a great deal to this positive outlook. The key positive economic trends have been in place since the 1980s (labor markets, rising disposable income) or the early 1990s (low and stable inflation). If anything, his policies — higher taxes and spending without reform in the public sector — have hindered progress. But it would be wrong for either Gordon Brown or the Conservative party to paint the picture entirely black. Their challenge is not to start again at year zero but to find ways to continue and accelerate economic growth and ensure a wide spread of opportunity. Above all this means tax reductions and education reform.

 – Andrew Haldenby is director of research at the London free-market think tank Reform.

Tim Montgomerie

A couple of years ago one diehard Republican bought me an expensive bottle of champagne when he found out that I was from “Tony Blair’s Britain.”

British Tories are much less keen on Mr. Blair than American conservatives. That may be something to do with the fact that we have to live with the fact that taxes have never been higher in Britain. Dependence on the state has also grown throughout the Brown-Blair decade. Family breakdown and rates of abortion have accelerated. Blair has also presided over a collapse in confidence in the political system. At the height of his awesome political powers he was trusted by three-quarters of voters. Now, only 21 percent trust him.

American hawks will overlook the domestic record because of Tony Blair’s post-9/11 support for the U.S.A. But Britain is not the ally it should be. Blair’s tough talk on fighting terrorism hides great weakness. Extremist Muslim community groups have been showered with public subsidies during the Blair years. Poorly equipped British servicemen are known as “borrowers” by American soldiers. Our borders are very badly policed.

Tony Blair is now heading your way to join the American lecture circuit. British conservatives won’t be sorry to see him go. 

 – Tim Montgomerie is editor of ConservativeHome.com and BritainAndAmerica.com.

Iain Murray

Blairism was born in 1994, the summer of Britpop, and for a while seemed to embody a Britain of revolutionary art, fashion, and music in political terms. Yet just as Cool Britannia faded after the death of its royal figurehead, the Princess of Wales, Blairism turned quickly from a new form of politics into meddlesome managerialism. Proving the truth of Burke’s adage, “To innovate is not to reform,” Blair’s government innovated away, bulldozing centuries-old institutions and customs without adequate replacement. He attacked freedom of speech, the right of self-defense, trial by jury, double-jeopardy protections, pre-trial protections, the independence of local government, and other institutions you might recognize from the Bill of Rights.

Occasionally, his vision stood out from this, though. He recognized the serious risk to the vital institution of the monarchy after Diana’s death and he recognized the real threat of terrorism after 9/11 and 7/7. Yet on the latter occasions, his addiction to managing the news let him down. His perceived spinning of the imminent threat of Iraq’s WMDs fatally wounded his credibility.

Yet one thing cannot be disputed. He was the undoubted master of British politics for a decade. He destroyed all opposition he faced and almost finished the Conservative party, which resorted to Blair-like tactics to stop the rot. In that respect, in the words of Britpop band Oasis, his legacy will Live Forever.

 – Iain Murray is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Stephen Pollard

Blair is misunderstood even in his own county, let alone in the U.S. He has been a traditional tax and spend social democrat — no more, no less — but with the political genius to make that ideology popular with the mass middle classes who decide elections.

Yes, he has been pragmatic in his application of tax and spend, understanding that contracting out the provision of services to the private sector can work, and that it is self-defeating for the left to be wedded to models of provision emanating in an era of state ownership and rationing.

But the vast tax increases under Labor have not been an unfortunate mistake forced on Blair by his chancellor, Gordon Brown, but the very basis of Labor’s purpose in office — taxing income to spend it ‘better’ than people can spend it themselves.

His political skills have rendered it impossible for opponents to oppose. The Left’s old delivery mechanisms look — and are — archaic. But even the Right’s prescription of a limited state and low taxes has been shattered, since it has been portrayed as mean spirited and dated.

So Blair’s legacy has been to change the dynamics of British politics, leaving social democracy as the centre ground around which elections are fought and from which political debates emerge.

 – Stephen Pollard is president of the Centre for the New Europe in Brussels.

Peter Rodman

The most important question from my point of view is: In what state does Blair leave the Anglo-American partnership? It has clearly taken a beating in Britain. Blair’s steadfastness over Iraq was heroic, and the travails of the policy are hardly his fault. But his tendency to compensate by pushing Britain deeper into European institutions, especially a new EU defense policy, was a negative. I’m afraid much of that will survive him as well.

Britain has pulled off a brilliant balancing act since 1973 — being a natural leader in Europe but having the second option of a role on the world stage as our partner. As Blair has correctly said, Britain doesn’t have to choose. It’s de Gaulle’s nightmare. The continentals have hated Britain for this and have always wanted to reduce Britain to their dimensions. But it will make even less sense for any Blair successor to play the anti-American card at this point in history, with Germany and France now moving closer to the United States. I hope Gordon Brown and David Cameron both understand that.

  Peter W. Rodman, a former NR senior editor, is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He served until recently as assistant secretary of Defense for international-security affairs.

Andrew Stuttaford

I’ll say this for Tony Blair. He was less damaging for his country than Gordon Brown, his almost certain successor, is likely to be. And if that sounds like faint praise, it’s meant to be. With the exception of real progress in Northern Ireland, the Blair legacy is tawdry, destructive, and for those of us who witnessed the revival in Britain’s economy and influence that followed the election of Mrs. Thatcher, profoundly depressing. He may leave the U.K. richer than he found it, but (for the most part) that’s despite his government’s interventions, not because of them. Other than that, his legacy is a country with a political culture that he has debased, civil liberties that he has trashed, a political unity that he has endangered (with Scots devolution), and a sovereignty (already sadly diminished when he came into office) that he has frittered away in favor of further EU integration. He’s also made a monkey of the Conservative party, something that he will view with pride — but don’t expect me to applaud either that “achievement” or the Blair Lite who now heads the Conservatives, a man who seems set on pushing the center of Britain’s political gravity leftwards. So far as national security is concerned, Blair has made some fine speeches and, whatever your views of the war, showed real political courage in committing (and continuing to commit) the Brits to Iraq, but his administration has also gutted the army, hollowed out the navy, lost control of the borders, and, until very recently, pushed forward the multiculturalism that has done so much to foment Islamic extremism within the U.K. So Tony, good riddance.

 –Andrew Stuttaford, an NRO contributor, writes from New York.

Charlie Wolf

Blair failed significantly in his two main objectives — to improve the National Health Service and as he called it, “Education, education, education.” He piled money into the public sector — almost doubling the national health budget — but without the promised reform or results.

Tax, and especially spending under his chancellor, Gordon Brown — the incoming prime minister — have risen; spending rising an incredible 7.8-percentage points since 2000 to 45.3 percent of GDP with little to show for it.

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His ill-thought-through constitutional reforms has left the Lords denuded of its experienced hereditary peers with no clear indication of what will replace them. This has done irreparable damage to one of Britain’s historic institutions.

Britain seems a coarser, less-mannered, more crime-ridden country since he came to power.

But Tony Blair’s legacy is Iraq. On September 11th Blair saw Islamic terror as an enemy of not just the United States, but of democracy itself.

Facing fierce and constant opposition from his own party, Britain’s antiwar Left, and Islamists aided and abetted by the BBC and left-wing press, he stuck to his principles and beliefs.  Not the expected stance of a man dedicated to spin and opinion polls.

He understood that relations with America were about more than just personalities or quid pro quo deals. It was about something greater: Defending shared ideals about freedom and liberty. He was far from Bush’s “poodle.”

“I did what I thought was right for our country,” Blair said Thursday. On much he didn’t live up to expectations. But for the single issue of Iraq and the alliance with United States, both Britons and Americans should be grateful.

 – American Charlie Wolf is a London-based talk show host, broadcaster, and writer. He comments on American issues for British radio and television.

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