Why (almost) everything you know about ‘Tony Bliar’ is wrong
Exploding some of the myths about Blair's legacy, which are as misjudged as his war in Iraq.
Now look, we all know, as the old saying goes, that all political careers are destined to end in failure. But this is getting ridiculous. To listen to the deluge of buck-passing attacks on Tony Blair, from his erstwhile allies as much as his enemies, you might think he was personally to blame for everything that has happened in the past decade, from the crises in Iraq or the health service to England’s exit from the World Cup or the return of Take That.
Much of this criticism is shallow, personal and infantile – which some might think appropriate given the level of political debate in the Blair years. Worse, because it reflects surface appearances rather than seeing the political currents below, much of the criticism is plain wrong. Indeed, in many cases the accepted ‘truths’ about Blair are almost the exact opposite.
By all means let us have a cutting assessment of the Blair era. But let’s try to criticise New Labour for the right things. For a start, here are a few of the most common myths about Blair’s political legacy.
‘Blair has destroyed the Labour Party’
In fact Blair and his New Labour allies were able to take over in the first place only because the Labour Party had already been effectively destroyed. With the defeat of the exhausted old left and the labour movement in the 1980s, the party became an empty shell. The New Labour reformers then dumped its traditional political baggage, such as the socialist tokenism of Clause 4, in order to launch their politics-lite electoral machine. But they were only burying what was already a corpse.
True, the rump of the party was always an unwanted encumbrance for the Blair clique. But far from personally destroying the Labour Party, Blair arguably hid the dire state it was in for years. The master of the new politics of personality, he projected an image of power that won elections and disguised the void behind him where the party was supposed to be. As his image has faded, however, we can now see the real state of a party that no longer exists in large parts of the UK. Without the dazzling effect of Blair, the truth about Labour is laid bare.
‘Blair’s governments have been all about spin’
This tired old criticism misses the point that Blair’s governments have more often seemed to be ‘spun’ by the media than spinning it. Contrary to what the conspiracy theorists might suggest, it was not that Blair and Alastair Campbell had a secret master plan that they ruthlessly pursued by manipulating the media. Rather, they have often been guilty of making it up as they go along in response to the latest news story.
It was precisely because New Labour lacked any ‘masterplan’, any firm political foundations or clear vision of where it wanted to go (beyond the wish to be re-elected), that it became so obsessed with its PR image and staging media-friendly stunts. So it became reduced to practising government-by-kneejerk, formulating policy in response to headlines as it was buffeted this way and that by the media, especially on law and order. Far from being the spin-wizard control freaks of myth, Blair and his team have often looked more like out-of-control spinning tops. If they did have a firm grasp of some political principles and were determined to get their message across, politics would be the better for it.
‘Blair didn’t do enough to solve Britain’s problems’
Despite accusations that the government has been doing too little to sort out the health service and education, stop global warming, end poverty or counter anti-social behaviour, Blair has actually done far too much.
New Labour has pushed through hundreds of unnecessary laws and initiatives and targets and tables, introducing big constitutional changes at the drop of a judge’s wig (and withdrawing them again almost as quickly), and increasingly trying to legislate for the micro-management of personal behaviour. Blair’s government has been a restless regime, thrashing about for some sense of purpose. Even when the final collapse of his authority left the government pretty well paralysed in recent months, it has still been issuing almost daily orders for restructuring the health, education and criminal justice systems, like ‘Comical Ali’ ordering Saddam Hussein’s imaginary Iraqi armies into battle. Blair did far too much – and far too little thinking about why. He has exercised a lot of power over 10 years, but without real purpose.
‘Blair’s government has been corrupt and sleazy’
If anything Blair has always made too much of a show of being anti-corruption and sleaze-busting – striking ethical poses rather than getting on with business, turning too much of political debate into the search for the next alleged scandal. New Labour made Tory sleaze rather than policy the main focus of its 1997 election campaign, substituting the pieties of right and wrong for the politics of right and left. From the moment Blair committed his government to be ‘whiter than white’ he was riding for an inevitable fall from the moral high ground; politics should never be confused with the priesthood.
Thus Blair has ended his decade in office with the loans-for-peerages investigation raising the truly scandalous prospect of the police bringing down an elected prime minister over a party funding ‘scandal’ that nobody really cares about. The Blairs certainly seem to have a personal love of money and mixing with the filthy rich. But his government did not make such a mess of things because somebody paid them to do it.
‘Blair was too arrogant to be Labour leader and wouldn’t listen’
Blair has arguably done far more listening than leading over the past decade. Keen to make some sort of a ‘connection’ with the public and overcome the isolation of the political class, New Labour has launched countless consultations, focus groups and private polls alongside stunts like the e-petitions website. None have proved a substitute for political leadership. When it comes to leading, New Labour has too often had neither the courage nor the convictions.
The irony is that the one issue on which Blair exhibited something approaching leadership, for better or worse, has been Iraq. Yet it is here that he is attacked most fiercely – not for going to war (many of his critics support his other overseas interventions), but for being ‘arrogant’ and not listening to their protests. In other words, for once Blair stuck to his guns and did what he thought was right (even if it was his little voice of ‘inner certainty’ that told him so, rather than any objective political analysis). If our leaders took firm stands on the political field more often, we might have a battle worth fighting in Britain.
’But “Tony Bliar’s” war in Iraq destroyed the authority of the Labour government in Britain’
Again, this gets things the wrong way around. It was the fact that Blair’s government lacked political authority at home that helped turn Iraq into such a disaster. In its own terms, the Iraq war is no more or less legitimate than Britain’s other foreign interventions: for example, Blair’s invention of Saddam’s WMDs was no less dubious than Margaret Thatcher’s sudden discovery of the right of 1,800 Falkland islanders to self-determination as a justification for her 1982 war against Argentina.
Some of us have opposed all these wars of intervention on principle. Many others, however, who had supported earlier wars, including Blair’s adventures in the Balkans and Iraq (in 1998), took a quite different attitude to attacking Iraq this time around. The difference was that Blair backed President Bush’s invasion at a time when there was no consensus of political support for his government at home. Lacking the moral authority to see it through, Blair’s Iraq war was lost even before it began, and despite the easy military success against Saddam. Blair hoped that Iraq would help his government create its own version of Thatcher’s ‘Falklands Factor’ and boost its legitimacy back home. But because Britain in 2003 no longer had the nationalist consensus of 1982, this war had the opposite effect. Iraq did not doom the Blair government; his government’s crisis of authority doomed his mission in Iraq.
‘Blair the lame duck has hung around in power far too long’
Yes and no. On one hand, his exhausted government clearly gave up the ghost a long time ago, becoming a phantom administration almost as surely as the one that ‘rules’ Iraq from behind the barricades of Baghdad’s Green Zone. When Blair made clear before the last election that he would not stand again, it signalled the effective end and in the two years since he has lost much of whatever authority remained. On the other hand, why should an elected prime minister be expected to quit – and especially to give in to the Labour Party’s cowardly coup plotters who did not even have the courage to admit what they were up to?
Blair might have made himself look like a lame duck by agreeing to go. But more importantly, how will it be better for the rest of us once he has gone? Anybody fantasising that political life will be reinvigorated by Brown vs Cameron is in for a shock, of the tranquilliser dart variety. Blair still looks like a colossus bestriding the scene compared to the political pygmies to follow.
‘Blair’s real and lasting legacy will be the mess in Iraq’
Ah yes, the infamous ‘legacy’ Blair will leave behind. Everybody seems certain Iraq will overshadow everything. If it does, however, we will be ignoring Blair’s other legacy nearer to home – the transformation of British politics. Just as Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government shifted the terrain and became midwife to New Labour, so Blair has helped shape the ground for mainstream politics in the foreseeable future.
The triumph of managerial politics, personality politics, the politics of low horizons, of fear, and of personal behaviour – this is an unwanted legacy of the Blair years that affects us all. Blair’s legacy here can be seen in everything said and done not only by Brown and Cameron, but also by ‘alternative’ parties such as the Scottish Nationalists, who last week asked voters to tick a ballot paper box marked ‘Alex Salmond for First Minister’ rather than SNP. If you seek Blair’s monument, look around – at the shape of those to follow him. They are the inheritors of Blair’s legacy whether they and we like it or not, until something more substantial emerges to change political life once more.
Prime minister Blair has been responsible for a lot that has happened over the past decade. But the cynical ‘I blame Blair’ response to everything is just an excuse to avoid facing up to much deeper problems in our political culture. In the end, our society gets the leaders it deserves.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
What’s worse than a Blairite? A Blair basher by Brendan O’Neill. Will someone, anyone, please challenge Brown? by Josie Appleton. Scarier than Thatcher the milk snatcher by Jennie Bristow. The road to Baghdad was paved with good intentions by James Heartfield. And coming up on spiked this week: revisiting the Blairites’ tyranny of health; how New Labour intensified community divisions, and more.