I can remember the media storm then as we witness another now. In the dying weeks of Blair’s premiership before Brown finally took office, the longest ever serving Labour Prime Minister criss-crossed the country, controlled the airwaves, plastered the newspapers with his grey, weary image. It was all so desperate, so futile. A man who had done so much to secure his place in the history books but had also not achieved enough. A man who had done too much in some instances so that all his other work was overshadowed. I remember his helicopter landing at one of his much praised academy schools on the news, the crowds of children ordered to gather in bemusement at the fading celebrity anxious to go out with a bang, anxious not to be forgotten. All it all did was remind everyone what they disliked about him and enable Gordon Brown’s honeymoon period, in which the gruff Scott dealt with crisis after crisis, got on with the job, unconcerned by image.
Three years on so much has changed in British politics and Blair returns. How strange it seems to recall that Brown seemed the perfect antidote to years of Blair’s charm, that Cameron was perhaps weeks away from swift election defeat. Who could have predicted a Lib-Con pact that seems to have ushered in a new political era and at the very least left the Labour party isolated and leaderless? In one newspaper today the totality of media coverage achieved by the release of Blair’s memoir, A Journey, is compared to that of a budget and this is testament to how his legacy provokes a response from any British voter. It is impossible to be indifferent to Blair. Just as the average voter will passionately launch a diatribe against the Chancellor for raising fuel or cider duty, they will relish the opportunity to vent their feelings on Blair. Unfortunately for him and a man once so dependent on popularity his legacy is overshadowed by one thing: Iraq.
In many ways the issue of Iraq stands totally separate to all other aspects of Blair’s legacy but looms larger than everything else. So for example Blair can still be talked about as one of the top three post-war British Prime Ministers along with Atlee and Thatcher. He can still rightly be hailed as the architect of New Labour, a man whose visions and whims steered the course of history. Journalists and commentators still refer to him as the benchmark of the modern British leader, even the current Conservative Prime Minister does not shy from the title “heir to Blair”. Cameron’s reorganisation of his party in Blair’s style and the coalition’s continuation of Blairite reforms in areas like education, show just how successful Blair was in occupying the centre ground of politics so totally that it shifted to the left. His overwhelming electoral success redefined the British political landscape and leaves the Labour party with an enormous task in replacing him. And yet despite the continuing significance of his influence in the everyday struggle of British politics and indeed across the globe many believe he missed opportunities and even he now recognises this.
In his interview with Andrew Marr, Marr challenged Blair that he should have achieved more given the commanding nature of his majorities and the time he had in power. Blair’s direct response was a defence of what he did achieve but elsewhere in the interview true regrets and the motivation behind the title of A Journey for his memoir emerged. Blair admitted that he did not acquire a true vision until towards the end of his time in office, a vision about the structural reform of the state and modernising public services. In the beginning he had been “trying to please all of the people all of the time”. The most significant and influential strand of Blair’s legacy today relates directly to this in that people look to him for a master class in winning elections. In terms of policy Blair has only a handful of achievements he has now willing to enthusiastically champion as his successes and admits he left it too late to start initiating meaningful reform he took time to acquire a passion for. Prior to this costly, late revelation that occurred long after he had the surge of popular backing to properly carry it through, it seems he was content to leave matters of expenditure and policy largely to the Treasury, and to the statist agenda of Gordon Brown he so criticises.
Throughout his time in office though, Blair was enthusiastically active in areas of foreign policy. He embraced the doctrine of “liberal interventionism” and with the exception of Iraq was successful in both achieving results and convincing the British people of the necessity of action. Large chunks of his recent interview with Andrew Marr inevitably focused on Iraq and the morality of the decision to go to war, but Blair was also asked about Iran. He made it clear that if he were still Prime Minister he would not rule out military action to stop the Iranians acquiring nuclear weapons and that to allow them to have such weapons would be unthinkable. Now of course the argument as to whether or not Britain should ever intervene militarily in Iran, especially given the lessons of Iraq, will be long and fierce. But Blair is not wrong to insist it should remain an option; Britain should have the capability. And yet at the moment a ballooning deficit and the extent of government overspend would mean an overstretched, slim line MOD mobilising to invade Iran at short notice.
This then is perhaps one of the worst aspects of Blair’s legacy. I do not disagree with his passionate moral crusade in many areas of foreign policy and his preference for interventionism. Britain still has a role to play as a civilized, developed nation and a proud history of just conflict. However Blair’s inaction whilst in office when it came to the restructure of the state leaves Britain underprepared for the decisions he believes to be right now and may partly explain his guilty donation of the proceeds of his book to the British Legion. Blair appears to be aware he asked too much of the armed forces. He now claims he would have taken a different path than Gordon Brown out of recession, a “New Labour” path that modernised welfare through the combination of public and private and reduced statist spending. He says he wants to see more power in the hands of individuals. Controversially he appears to praise the coalition at the end of his book, but insists he wants neither a bigger or smaller but “reshaped” state. If this was truly the case during his tenure as Prime Minister, then surely Blair could have recognised that some areas of government can only have “big government” solutions, as I have said in previous articles. One of these areas would be defence and yet the armed forces felt cutbacks during the New Labour years, unlike most other departments. An area where more private involvement could have been encouraged was in health, but the NHS budget swelled to become the government’s biggest burden.
An Iran with nuclear weapons is a threat far more real than Saddam Hussein ever was. This time the evidence is undoubtedly there. Iran and Israel poised with their fingers on nuclear triggers is surely not a recipe for a peaceful Middle East, not a stable environment for a young Iraqi democracy, not a safe haven for energy companies in ever growing need of oil, not the right backdrop for the fight against terrorism and slow withdrawal in Afghanistan. Tony Blair rightly insists Britain should be involved if global consensus is reached and action is taken, but the choices he made or failed to make whilst in government shall make it hard for any Prime Minister to commit to a successful intervention in which the lives of our service men and women are best protected. Whether or not Blair was right or wrong about Iraq he failed to introduce seismic change in government on the same scale as he did in politics, paving the way for the coalition to tackle New Labour’s excess excessively. The challenge for Blair’s eventual Labour successor, after winning the party and the country over, will be to find a middle way that promotes sustainable growth and equality, whilst not turning off voters.
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It seems certain that the next leader of the Labour party will have the surname Miliband. The leadership contest so far has largely been a quiet, muted, good natured affair, perhaps mainly because of the brothers’ boring pact not to attack each other but also disappointingly by the failure of a third serious contender to emerge. In a previous article (A Two Ed Race? 28th June) I praised the vigour with which both Ed Miliband and Ed Balls took to opposition, whilst questioning the tame safety of David’s approach. Sadly whilst Balls has continued to display a dynamism on policy not matched by the other candidates it’s clear he has failed to gain enough support to make the battle a more interesting three way clash. Doubts also still remain about the benefits of either Miliband becoming the next leader.
With David the worry is stagnation. At a time when the Labour party requires a rebirth the elder Miliband brother may only offer repetition; a repetition of the failures of New Labour. For whilst David may rightly defend the successes of the Blair and Brown administrations against unfair rewrites of history by both the Tories and some within the party, to not make a decisive break with the past and all New Labour did wrong will not reinvigorate or cleanse the party in the eyes of the public. And the party needs a new lease of life. At the moment the Lib Dems are fragmenting, getting cold feet at the helm of power but not enough to pull the plug on a Conservative government. The cuts in public spending and particularly to the welfare state ought to provide a catalyst for a new generation of Labour activists to take the fight to the next election with renewed gusto. That election could come at any time, as who knows how precarious the coalition will become as tensions mount within the Lib Dems, especially once the holy referendum has passed. David Miliband is the walk-in Prime Minster candidate of this Labour leadership election, but would his Labour party reinvent itself sufficiently to win back voters?
With Ed there are perhaps more worries, more unknowns but the concern is not lack of change. He has enthusiastically denounced the Iraq war, a significant break with the failed past of New Labour. He has also advocated alternatives to tuition fees and made it clear Labour needs to win back the worker, the ordinary man the party’s foundations were built upon. It seems that a Labour party under his stewardship would be undoubtedly more left wing. An article in the Guardian today claims that Ed is the only Miliband to offer the Labour party the change it needs but others worry a realignment too far to the left, coupled with an inexperienced leader, would be catastrophic. I too have expressed concern that Ed Miliband would take the axe too severely to the Lib Dems, hacking away Labour’s chances of a coalition in a new era of closely fought, compromise politics. Both Milibands however must be aware of the drawbacks of their respective bids for power and I would therefore suspect a plan.
I’m not talking about the sort of shadowy deals that are now infamously connected to New Labour. I don’t think either Ed or David has seized the napkin at a family dinner, hastily sketched out his cabinet, a timeline of power and then thrust it across the table for their sibling’s signature. I think they are both genuinely contesting the leadership. However it shall be interesting to see exactly where the losing Miliband turns up in the shadow cabinet. Could David settle again at the Foreign Office and will Ed feel confident enough to demand the Treasury? The answers to these questions shall no doubt prove interesting as they unravel. More realistically though I would hope that Ed, on becoming leader, would divert his energy and verve to the creation of policy and the opposition of coalition policy, rather than simply targeting Lib Dem voters. Clearly winning back those who defected to the Lib Dems is one method of rebuilding Labour’s electoral strength but it does not go far enough to undo the damage and Ed’s current course of rhetoric sets him on a collision course that would make a Lib-Lab coalition unworkable when it could be likely. He calls Nick Clegg a traitor to Liberalism for example but they share many policy objectives and Ed would do better to emphasise similarities between his refreshed Labour and the Lib Dems than continually hammer on about the differences. An emphasis on similarities would still have the benefit of highlighting Labour’s new liberal credentials to undecided voters, whilst also sowing seeds of doubt within the coalition and laying the ground for a future alliance. Ed must surely be aware of all this and this leads me to suspect he will tone down his approach if elected, but keep playing the role of the change candidate for now.
David’s plan must be a bigger secret. He has so far revealed very little about the direction he would take Labour in, playing it safe with well meaning but fluffy talk about reconnecting with local activists and restoring trust. Today he acquired the backing of Jon Cruddas, an influential, left wing backbencher. Does Jon know something we don’t? You might have expected him to back Ed, whose programme of realignment towards the left so far seems much more radical. David must surely have plans to refresh his party, even if he disagrees that it needs a complete rebirth he must see the craving for new direction from its members and voters and the opportunities presented by a cutting coalition. He might be playing a very clever game; slowly accumulating the backing of his party before wrong footing the Conservatives with the revelation of his vision, an accessible, popular, new Labour party. If he does not have a plan then Labour supporters and perhaps the country should worry. Labour could find itself with either an unattractive, bland continuity figure unable to shake the legacy of Brown or an equally unelectable young, left wing scaremonger. We might find ourselves hoping for a third Miliband; a fusion of the two. This Miliband would be experienced, Prime Minister material and yet youthful, detached from New Labour but proud of its achievements, passionate about change but wary of not alienating middle class voters and, perhaps, a woman.
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