Historical Reflections: The Blair Years

By Campaign Agent Euan Stone

The mere mention of the name Tony Blair regularly elicits division in opinion like no other politician of modern times and is now inescapably synonymous with the label: “war criminal”.

However, with last year marking the 20th anniversary of New Labour’s remarkable triumph in May 1997, we were reminded that such an outcome was certainly not ordained from the outset. As Blair addressed the crowd on that historic election night with an unprecedented majority of 179 seats, he triumphantly declared “a new dawn has broken has it not?” Yet one decade later and despite two further substantial election victories, these lofty expectations had crumbled into a premiership that is now viewed as being as controversial as that of any modern Prime Minister.

The Good.

The first key decision made by New Labour was to hand control of interest rates to the Bank of England just days after taking office. This extremely significant and also surprising move represented the granting of historic independence to the bank, releasing it from the clutches of political control. Such a momentous measure, so early on in their first term, signified a substantial shift from the politics of business-as-usual and allowed Blair and Brown to appear on the front foot in implementing their reform agenda. In hindsight, the policy can also be convincingly argued as a positive one, with inflation following this largely being reduced as a primary concern for businesses and households. More significantly though, the decision itself saw Blair circumvent Cabinet discussion on the issue, which proved to be a sign of things to come as power became unprecedentedly centralised within a small number of close confidants and advisers. “Sofa Government” had been born.

Education, Education, Education.” For a Prime Minister fully versed in the power of soundbites, Blair’s flagship commitment to prioritise education as part of the New Labour project saw real hope that Britain’s schools, colleges and universities would receive renewed investment and see rising standards. Increased funding certainly wasn’t a problem (as was also seen with the NHS) with Blair’s decade in office seeing an investment increase of 48% per pupil and 35,000 new teachers working on a 19% real term pay increase. Standards too can be said to have increased dramatically, with pupils achieving ‘five good GCSEs with English and Maths’ rising from 36% to 45% and test results in primary schools rising in English (+16%), Maths (+14%) and Science (+18%). Less popular were changes to higher education, with Labour’s decision to both introduce and then raise university fees going directly against campaign promises not to do so and angering students across the country in the process. A policy reversal no party would surely repeat…

Historic structural change was also witnessed through the Blair Government’s devolution reforms, with the home countries gaining swathes of new powers and establishing national assemblies in both Edinburgh and Cardiff. Not only did these measures distribute a range of new competencies in important areas such as education, but they also created prominent and very visible roles for leaders such as Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who is now seen to play an indispensable and active role in the UK political process. Interestingly, however, Blair himself acknowledged the “mistake” his Government made in failing to pay adequate attention “to work even stronger for a sense of UK national identity”. A fact so evidently brought out in the bitter Scottish referendum campaign during the summer of 2014.

Any analysis of Blair’s record can also not ignore the historic success in securing the Good Friday Agreement that in 1998 saw the PM famously reject “soundbites” in declaring “I feel the hand of history upon our shoulders.” In bringing an end to The Troubles and 30 years of sectarian conflict, Blair secured a substantial and historic achievement that continues to endure today. Whilst it can be said that the agreement has failed to achieve a definitive end to sectarianism, peace in the region and a strong and productive UK-Irish relationship has largely been sustained ever since.

The Agreement also symbolised the lofty heights of Blair’s relationship with his “political soulmate” Bill Clinton, with whom he worked closely on the Irish question. For a brief period of time, both men’s undeniable charisma, individual confidence and shared “Third Way” political ideology prompted genuine hope in the success of progressive liberalism as a means to effect real change around the world. Yet for many, the image of Clinton and Blair sitting together at this month’s 20-year anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, proved only to act as a stark reminder of the puzzling juxtaposition of events that followed in the transatlantic “special relationship”.

Whilst the long shadow of the Iraq War became an inescapable noose around Blair’s neck, it can be argued that, prior to this, he delivered a number of successes on the world stage. In both Kosovo and Sierra Leone, Blair directly intervened in the conflicts in a way that halted ethnic cleansing and bloodshed. Blair’s conviction-led foreign policy in these early interventions revealed a deeper and more personal explanation for his actions on the world stage and saw the birth of the “just war” philosophy of the Blair Doctrine. In Kosovo, Blair was willing to directly challenge and push a reluctant President Clinton into threatening Yugoslav tyrant Slobodan Milosevic with boots-on-the-ground as a military strategy. The subsequent short-term success of these interventions, instilled in Blair a belief in the power of “liberal interventionism” and his own sense of mission in advancing such values around the world. Consequently, the events that followed in Iraq and Afghanistan, can as much be seen as evidence of Blair finding a counterpoint in President Bush around their shared belief in liberal interventionism, as it can in Blair’s desire to strengthen the transatlantic relationship at all costs.

The Bad.

“Iraq”.

Along with President Nixon and “Watergate”, few statesmen in modern times have seen one word become so synonymous with their period of time in office. Despite his best efforts, the Iraq War has undoubtedly become the defining point of the Blair legacy.

As already touched upon, right from the outset Blair had displayed an ideological conviction in the merits of military intervention as a means for western liberal governments to spread democracy around the world. The events of September 11th and the subsequent commitment of the Bush Administration to invade both Afghanistan and Iraq saw Blair commit to both invasions with fervour.

Whilst the 2016 Chilcot Report absolved Blair from any deliberate illegal intent in Iraq, the report was a damning indictment of his failures in the conduct of the war. Chilcot not only found that military action at the time was not a last resort, but also concluded that the judgements about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s WMDs “were presented with a certainty that was not justified.” In the view of Chilcot, the existence of such weapons was “not established beyond doubt.” Blair’s all-too-often capacity to be embroiled in accusations of “spin” were most visibly seen in the “dodgy dossier” that used flawed intelligence assessments to outline the case for Britain’s decision to go to war. The subsequent general distrust in politics that has grown over the last decade undoubtedly finds root in Blair and Alistair Campbell’s approach to politics as so infamously demonstrated in this case.

Severe criticism was also levelled against Blair regarding the post-conflict reconstruction of the country, with Chilcot deeming that the planning and preparations were “wholly inadequate.” Amongst the vast catalogue of failures was the fatal De-Ba’athification policy to completely exclude members of the ruling Baath Party from the political system, as well as the decision to dissolve the entire Iraqi army. The resulting marginalisation of Iraq’s Sunni community and the chaos that this created on its streets, saw British presence in Iraq continue for a further eight years. By the UK’s eventual exit, 179 British servicemen and women had been killed, with at least 150,000 Iraqis dead and over a million displaced. The subsequent instability in the Middle East and the rise of groups such as ISIS also finds strong origins in the conduct of the Iraq War and the exploitation of the situation by emboldened terrorist leaders such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Legacy?

The legacy of Tony Blair has arguably been most viscerally felt within the Labour Party itself, with the lines of delineation within the Party continuing to be organised along the parameters of “Blairites vs. Brownites” or “Blairites vs. Corbynites.” The intensity of genuine loathing for Blair within some sections of the Party unquestionably laid the foundations for catapulting Jeremy Corbyn to its leadership, as a complete and utter rejection of New Labour and all that it represented.

The fallout for Blair personally has been unprecedented. Blair’s perceived failure to display appropriate remorse for his own mistakes in Iraq has left a sour taste in the mouths of many that won’t go away. His own conduct after leaving office has not helped either and his insistence on earning substantial sums of money to advise less than favourable regimes around the world has seen Blair become a much-maligned figure for many in British society.

Nevertheless, what must not be forgotten is the unprecedented electoral success of New Labour and the considerable number of reforms implemented as a result. In this increasingly polarised post-Brexit environment, there is undoubtedly a genuine clamour for the open, progressive and pro-globalist message that Blair’s “Third Way” represented. Yet, ironically, the man responsible for once leading this vision to such great heights was also ultimately responsible for its subsequent failure and rejection. Because of this, as Blair himself admits, he will forever be a figure too divisive and polarising to ever successfully lead such a charge again.

Sources & Further Reading:

Image Credit: Chatham House @ Flickr


TalkPolitics is proud to be supported by Audible. For 50% off your new membership, click here.