British Prime Minister Tony Blair, winner of three consecutive elections and in power for a decade, has announced that he will submit his resignation to the Queen on June 27th. This leaves him with about a month in power, enough time to embark on a whirlwind, worldwide international farewell tour, the first stop of which was to congratulate newly elected French President, Nicholas Sarkozy.
Blair was elected in a crushing landslide victory for Labour in 1997 at the young age of 43, the youngest PM in nearly two centuries. He was so young that he had not been in power during the disastrous and dysfunctional Labour governments of the pre-Thatcher era. The dominance of the Conservatives and the public’s acceptance of the market consensus rubbed off on him, leading him to infamously declare in a campaign ad, “Look, the Tories didn’t get everything wrong in the 80’s, let’s just be honest about that. Admit it. But Britain can be better.”
After 18 years of the Conservatives, first under Margaret Thatcher and then her successor John Major, Britain was ready for a change, and previous Labour leaders proved uninspiring. Blair’s rise, to be certain, was lucky; John Smith, who was going to lead Labour into the 1997 election, died of a heart attack in 1994 and Blair had the opportunity of a lifetime. This he seized, leading New Labour to a landslide victory in 1997 and to subsequent victories in 2001 and 2005, becoming the first Labour leader to win three elections.
Blair was elected in 1997 on incredibly high public expectations. These turned out to be expectations that Blair could not meet, although it is unlikely that anyone else could have either. After 18 years of Tory dominance, the country was ready for a change, and Blair promised much, including improved public services, a more stable economy, and a comprehensive response to globalization. While the Tories had torn themselves asunder over “The Question of Europe,” Blair talked of greater inclusion into the European project.
Some say that “politics never changes,” and Blair, for all his energy and political brilliance, could not accomplish nearly as much as he wanted to. The public services received huge increases in investment, but this was not matched by higher returns in quality. Blair’s first term was marked by optimism about Britain’s integration into Europe, but a fierce debate over the Euro, as well as Euroskepticism, shattered Blair’s idealism about the promise of greater involvement in the European Union. His foreign policy—both with regards to Iraq and otherwise—grew increasingly unpopular as time passed.
His memoirs will probably not be written until after his successor, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, is out of office, but Blair will be remembered as a better Prime Minister than current sentiment seems to indicate. Labour was crushed in the local elections of April, dropping hundreds of local council seats to the Conservatives, in what was a referendum on Gordon Brown much more than it was about Blair.
Tony Blair changed British politics, forever. It’s hard to imagine the dorky John Major ever winning an election now. David Cameron, the leader of the Conservatives and the current recipient of a 14-point polling lead over Gordon Brown, owes his entire political style to Blair.
It is interesting to consider what Blair’s legacy would have been had he not joined the U.S. in the Iraq War. For someone who usually has a good sense of political consequences, joining the Iraq War midway through his second term is a decision that will define his premiership negatively. Perhaps the outcome of the war will ultimately redeem Blair, although that seems unlikely.
Britain may not ever realize just how good they had it under Blair and New Labour. Gordon Brown is set to become the Prime Minister, although he’s likely to lose to David Cameron in the next general election. Brown, the dour, brooding counterpoint to Blair’s sprightly optimism, lacks the political abilities and natural charisma of his predecessor and probably won’t be given much of a chance by the British people. Blair’s legacy, then, is encapsulated by David Cameron, another press-savvy and charismatic politician, with the same centrist sensibilities. Without Blair, there would have been no Cameron, and the latter should be keen to remember that if he eventually assumes the duties of office.