ONE thing no one warns you about being middle-aged is how often you worry: This week’s example was the realization that it’s been a quarter of a century since Tony Blair first entered at number 10 Downing Street.
I should be used to that – it sometimes happens on a Saturday morning, when Paul Gambaccini casually mentions that a song on Pick of the Pops is from “this week’s chart 42 years ago”, and I remember buying the single at Shawlands Arcade. Yet it doesn’t seem possible that 25 years have passed since that morning, when the Royal Festival Hall was full of ecstatic Labor supporters and Professor Brian Cox’s band endlessly proclaiming that ‘things can only get better and Sir Tony (as he was not then) prodigiously declaring, “A new dawn has dawned, has it not?”
Young readers, most of whom seem to take it as an article of faith that Sir Tony is a war criminal, far worse than Hitler and almost as bad as Mrs Thatcher, may find it hard to believe how popular he was at that time. that time. . They must consider the thoughtless, even deranged adoration in which the left holds Jeremy Corbyn; Tony Blair was that popular, but with everyone. Well, almost everyone, if they weren’t working, as I did then, as a columnist for the Daily Telegraph.
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But he was. You might as well have weighed the Labor majority, and he won two other elections almost as generously – by far the best record of any leader in his party (Harold Wilson technically won four elections, but one was suspended and produced one coalition, and two had very narrow majorities; it was not until 1966 that it achieved a massive vote). In fact, Tony Blair is now the only living Labor leader to have won a general election.
Yet when he emerged last weekend with a campaign video endorsing Sir Keir Starmer’s Labor party, you got the distinct impression that much of his own party was moving in the opposite direction. In part, that’s because many of them were still wrong enough to be fans of Mr Corbyn who, unlike Sir Tony’s three landslide majorities, had the worst result of any leader in history party.
Most of it, however, is due to the feeling that Blair’s legacy is completely tarnished by the war in Iraq, which was quite unpopular even at the time. Now that everyone knows we went there under false pretenses, and that it was incredibly mishandled, it’s almost universally unpopular and so, as the main architect and defender, it is. The whole thing, of course, isn’t quite as clear cut – and there’s not much to object to getting rid of Saddam Hussein – but the question has almost completely clouded the rest of the balance sheet. of Sir Tony.
It would seem even stranger if it weren’t for the inconvenient fact that, when you look at this record, it’s not, in political terms, all that remarkable. People who politically approve of New Labour, which, it will be remembered, was at one time the vast majority of the whole country, party member or not, can cite a few obvious achievements: minimum wages, peace in Northern Ireland (although the process started under John Major), and the introduction of devolution (a double-edged sword for Labour, as it turned out).
The rest, while initially looking good on paper, was largely about sticking to a broad economic course the Conservatives had already set – which has produced more than a decade of growth – and spending more money for public services, especially health and education, which, whether you think it’s a desirable thing or not, is not in itself a kind of reform or innovation.
The biggest shame, for those of us who were skeptical of “The Third Way” from the start, but were trying to see some kind of silver lining, is that the Blair government failed to do some of the things which – on the Nixon in Principle of China – would have been much easier for Labor than for the Tories: NHS reform; restructuring of pensions and provident insurance; long-term care planning and housing shortages. All of these problems have been looming for decades, but nothing has been done to solve them.
Indeed, in his attitude towards the EU (which it is suspected he has always planned to become president), Sir Tony has made matters worse and laid the groundwork for growing Euroscepticism. Had he limited or at least graduated the timeline for the influx of Eastern European workers from the candidate states, it is far less likely that the issue would have become so contentious. But we should be grateful, I suppose, that Gordon Brown at least had the good sense to thwart his plans to bring us into the euro.
The UK is clearly a completely different place after Blair, but the transformation is not the kind of structural or economic transformation that took place under the Thatcher government. Instead, it’s in the attitudes. Some of them, especially more liberal positions on social issues, such as minority rights, most people will wholeheartedly approve of – as have subsequent Conservative governments, unlike their counterparts before Blair. It probably would have happened anyway, but a lot happened on his watch.
But others are more nebulous and less obvious improvements. Sir Tony asked to be released from something (I had long forgotten what but looking at it I see it exempted Formula 1 from the tobacco advertising ban after receiving a donation from Bernie Ecclestone ) on the grounds that he was “a pretty straight guy”. That’s not the current consensus, but it’s the approach taken by quite a few politicians, and even other public figures, who demand to be judged on their good intentions, rather than the often appalling results they produce, and to be excused for their mistakes because, well, because of anything, really.
It is quite characteristic that Sir Tony’s memoir was titled A Journey. This piece of X-Factor spiel – everything from a talent show to a political career is now a journey – encapsulates the superficiality of modern Britain, in which appearance, presentation and submission to passing fads are much more important than fuddy-duddy notions like competence, responsibility and public service. Sir Tony’s remarkable success at the time in selling this package should not mask the fact that there wasn’t much substance under the wrapper.
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