By Campaign Agent Matthew Waterfield
A couple of weeks ago, Tony Blair visited King’s College London to speak to students studying his time as Prime Minister. Blair answered a range of questions, from more general ones like what his greatest achievement was, to more in-depth ones, pertaining to the Murdoch press and New Labour’s relationship with celebrities.
However, his Q&A session at KCL was unusual in that discussion of him more often than not highly emotionally charged, even after more than a decade after he left Downing Street. Although his supporters are often keen to point out what the achievements of the last Labour government, they are usually met with the inevitable mention of Iraq, the war that will forever colour Blair's legacy.
I was born at the tail-end of Blair’s first term in office, so I don’t remember him in his prime, when he was admired by millions at home and abroad. On the other hand, this means that I don’t feel the same bitter resentment towards him that some Conservatives do for keeping them out of power for 13 years. Due to my lack of memories from the Blair era, I’ve instead read nearly every book and watched every documentary on his time in power I could find, coming to this conclusion – on balance, his legacy is a positive one.
It is worth saying that I’ve decided to avoid writing about the Iraq War in this piece; analysis of Blair’s time in office is often dominated by discussion of Iraq and I feel that it often leads to other events and policies being overlooked. Moreover, for the purpose of brevity, I’ll also only focus on his time in Number 10, as I'd like to concentrate solely on what he did in his capacity as Prime Minister.
I first became interested in politics mid-way through the coalition years and one of my earliest political recollections is the passage of gay marriage. Though I understand the arguments against, I was, and am, supportive of it, in line with the progressive views on LGBT+ rights that the vast majority of my generation hold. So, it came as a shock when I found out that Section 28, the primary impact of which was the closure of many support clubs for LGBT students, hadn’t been repealed until 2003. I’m aware that my generation is more socially liberal than previous generations (as is usually the case), but it was still a shock to find out that there had been indisputably homophobic legislation in place during my lifetime. Moreover, it was disappointing to learn that a Conservative government had introduced it. My views on Margaret Thatcher’s policies are overwhelmingly positive, but the fact that she presided over the passage of this awful clause is a stain on her legacy.
The reason I’ve used this as an example is that in 2018, the situation couldn’t be any more different. David Cameron was instrumental in propelling gay marriage through Parliament in 2013, as was the then home secretary Theresa May. Although this is the most memorable and significant thing the Conservatives have done for LGBT rights, they’ve also now accepted other reforms passed under Blair, including gay adoption and civil partnerships. The question is, would the Conservatives have come around to the idea of LGBT rights had Blair stayed a barrister? Almost certainly – but it would have taken much longer. Blair’s electoral success led to the modernisation of the Conservative Party, who understood that they had to accept social liberalism if they wanted to return to power. In the same way that Thatcher once described her proudest achievement as New Labour, the best thing I can say about Blair is that the moderate stances of today’s Conservative Party owe a fair bit to him.
While it would take too long to list them all, there are other changes he made that I consider sensible and necessary too. The removal of most hereditary peers was the right thing to do, as was the introduction of the minimum wage, the bombing of Yugoslavia and the creation of the Supreme Court, to name but a few.
However, there are two key areas in which Blair failed. The primary reason I could never support Labour is summarised neatly in a couple of sentences from a Guardian article in 2017, titled ‘The making of an education catastrophe – schools in Knowsley were dubbed 'wacky warehouses'. Describing Knowsley Council’s adoption of one of Labour’s education initiatives, the article says “all 11 secondary schools in the borough were flattened and seven new ones constructed at a cost of £157m”. It later goes on to state that many of the schools were built without walls, with so-called ‘base areas’ “instead of classrooms and corridors”. The facts are stark: one hundred and fifty-seven million pounds, spent in one borough, to knock down eleven schools before building seven new ones, some of which didn’t even have walls. In today’s austere economic climate, the ways in which the government could’ve spent that £157m in a constructive and more efficient manner are endless. The whole experiment, called ‘Building Schools for the Future’ failed, unsurprisingly. The project was consigned to the dustbin of history, its legacy being hundreds of children in one of the poorest areas of the country having their education ruined by a piece of 'blue skies thinking' that should’ve never made it out of the brainstorming session.
This is far from the only example of the Blair government wasting taxpayers’ money – the Child Trust Fund scheme, which wasn’t even means tested, is another case study in squandering public funds. So whenever I see an article about the government cutting the size of the armed forces or struggling to find more money for the NHS, I remember that Blair had money to spare during his time in power, but he wasted it on projects and initiatives that should never have seen the light of day.
The other problem with Blair was his attitude towards the European Union; he is, after all, an unwitting architect of Brexit. Euroscepticism has always existed in Britain. In 1975, a third of the electorate – more than 8 million people - voted for Britain to leave the European Community. UKIP was founded in 1993, with its forerunner, the Anti-Federalist League having been set up in 1991. Conservative divisions over Europe were a key factor in them losing the 1997 election.
However, Euroscepticism only really gained popular support after 2004, when EU8 workers were allowed to travel freely to Britain. The Blair government predicted that around 13,000 people would come to Britain each year, but in reality, more than a million Eastern Europeans ended up immigrating to the UK, in an unprecedented wave of mass immigration. Rightly or wrongly, this triggered a huge backlash from much of the public, which arguably set off a chain of events leading up to 23 June 2016, when Britain voted to leave the European Union.
To conclude, I think it is fair to say that, as well as having a substantial impact on the UK, Tony Blair has also influenced the Conservatives more than many would like to admit. David Cameron, the self-titled ‘heir to Blair’, was elected as Conservative leader largely because the party realised that the party needed to become more moderate in order to be electable. And their conclusion that 'moderate = electable' was formed on the back of Labour winning a third term in office after eight years of social reforms.
In the increasingly partisan world in which we live, it’s worth reflecting on the politicians who have affected parties other than their own. So before people uniformly attack their opponents’ policies, they should consider the possibility that some of them may have some merit – and that one day, they may agree with them too.
Sources and Further Reading:
- John Rentoul, 'Tony Blair in full and uncut: the former PM defends his record to students of his government', The Independent (1 April 2018)
- 'Same-sex marriage becomes law in England and Wales', BBC (17 July 2013)
- Audrey Gillan, 'Section 28 gone ... but not forgotten', The Guardian (17 November
- Nick Duffy, 'From gay rights opponent to 'unsung hero' of equal marriage: Theresa May's surprising evolution on LGBT rights', Pink News (11 July 2016)
- 'Margaret Thatcher's greatest achievement: New Labour ', conservativehome (11 April 2008)
- Stephen Howard, 'Supreme Court move separates Parliament from judiciary ', The Independent (1 October 2009)
- Ian Cobain, 'The making of an education catastrophe – schools in Knowsley were dubbed 'wacky warehouses'', The Guardian (29 January 2017)
- 'Q&A: Choosing a Child Trust Fund', BBC (6 April 2005)
- Politics 97 (BBC), 1 May 1997
- Alice Phillipson, 'Labour made a 'spectacular mistake' on immigration, admits Jack Straw', The Telegraph (13 November 2003)
Image: Andrew Newton @Flickr