Oh, the fun we had in the early hours of May 2nd 1997. 22 years old, just a year out of university, still aglow with the enthusiasm/naivete of youth, staying up all night at a friend’s house watching the hated Tories get booted out of power. How we laughed when David Mellor was defeated, how we cheered as Malcolm Rifkind and Norman Lamont succumbed, how we howled with uncontrollable glee when Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo lost his seat in Enfield Southgate. Happy times, great memories. It honestly felt like a huge cloud had lifted from the country, that some sort of re-birth was underway. But now it doesn’t so much feel like a decade ago as an entirely different universe altogether.
So now Tony Blair has finally stopped prevaricating and has declared an official leaving date, I’m not really sure what I feel. Insouciance, mostly. Which is what I’ve experienced for much of his ten years in office anyway, so it’s just business as usual. Wasn’t that the whole point of New Labour anyway? The stage managed, on-message, self publicising machine that existed only to make Labour electable in the first place? Everything else was kind of tacked on as an afterthought and as far as I and many others were concerned, it was good enough that they simply Weren’t The Tories.
Tony Blair’s problem was that the expectation was too high and his government did too little in the first term, preoccupied as it was with ensuring a second term and having spent such a long time thinking about getting into power, they had few tangible policies to set into motion once they did. They inherited a buoyant economy – a first for a Labour administration who had previously inherited only mess, which they then proceeded to make worse – requiring little more than ‘lights on’ maintenance. It would have taken spectacular incompetence on an unprecedented scale to have thrown that away. Handing control of interest rates to the Bank of England was a shrewd move, single-handedly demonstrating to the City and to the left that they were not intending to deviate from monetarist policy. And it is pretty clear to even the harshest of critics that the last ten years have witnessed uninterrupted economic growth, low unemployment, stable inflation and historically low interest rates. Yet with that has come a barrage of stealth taxes and a swollen, inefficient public sector. I’m staggered at the amount of money that has been poured into the NHS and education, yielding only negligible improvements. Gordon Brown will now have the dubious honour of overseeing what happens next in the social arena and I suspect he will be weighed down by the baggage of being a key decision maker in an administration that has pumped billions of pounds into dilapidated infrastructure for next to no return.
Blair will undoubtedly be remembered most for his foreign policy decisions, the most divisive of which was the involvement in the Iraq war and the close partnership he forged with America, inviting critics to describe him as Bush’s ‘poodle’. An inaccurate criticism given that, with British involvement in Kosovo in 1999 and Sierra Leone in 2000, British forces had already been dispatched to halt genocide and topple vile regimes while Bush was still an isolationist governor of Texas. Blair and Bill Clinton had also ordered air strikes against Iraq in December 1998 when it was clear that Saddam Hussein was continuing to resist compliance with UN weapons inspections. An interventionist foreign policy was already a reality under this prime minister. Meanwhile, September 11th 2001 changed everything. Blair was one of the first to recognise this fact and the immediate decision to stand shoulder to shoulder with the US was without question the right thing to do – Republican president or not. Some battles trump ideological differences and the threat – actual and, more crucially, potentially – from Islamist terrorism is one such example.
A mixed bag for Tony Blair then. Disappointing to non-effectual on the domestic front, but a huge legacy in the realm of foreign policy, it’s too early to say how he will be remembered. The peace process (hopefully) finally being settled in Northern Ireland also looks like another late victory that can stand as a genuine achievement, but will it be overshadowed by the allegations of sleaze and nepotism that also tarnished the Blair years?
What Tony Blair really demonstrated was that a gifted politician with something of the people’s touch could forge a presidential style of leadership that encouraged the electorate to give less consideration to the party as a whole and vote instead for a populist individual. Something that the Conservative Party have finally twigged and whose current tactic of keeping quiet about policy and instead stressing their own reinvention is finally making them look electable again. Their entire strategy has been torn from the New Labour Guidebook To Electoral Success (1994-97).
As Nick Robinson, the BBC’s political editor, put it: “Tony Blair’s legacy? It comes down to two words: David Cameron.”