148. Farewell to Tony Blair


The manner and style of yesterday’s resignation speech showed just how much of a presidential style of politics Tony Blair has brought us. We elected a Prime Minister, and created a President, and I’m sure that was never quite our intention, even if it was maybe his.

blair-bush-baby-by-suzannelong-flickrcomLooking back now, over these past ten years, and the reality which finally emerged from the long-held dream of a Labour government, what should we decide to make of Tony Blair ?

The press reviews are rightly mixed this week, as we witness both British and US soldiers perishing, for the most part pointlessly, each and every day.

And beyond Baghdad and back at home, it’s clear to anyone that this government is tired, and has been lame for far too long as it awaits the departure of the king.

But beneath that time-tarnished shell, I still believe that there is  so much of basic decency visible in the man, and a whole lot more pragmatism, the quality which more than any other enabled him to re-invent the Labour Party throughout the 1990s, and which allowed him to be elected in 1997 and to govern (for the most part successfully) ever since.

time-to-go-by-new-folder-flickrcom.jpgAt times (and 1997 was undoubtedly one of those) Blair managed to capture and interpret the mood of the country. But his great mistake at home was a puzzling failure to realise that the two landslide victories he won really were a mandate for change. His refusal at key moments to grasp the nettle and be radical enough.

As one example, Blair’s reluctance to push forward with the European cause was arguably the greatest of missed opportunities. By the time of his re-election in 2001, he might finally have felt brave enough to take on that challenge, but the moment had passed and he could do little more than spinelessly postpone progress for yet another Parliament. Or two.

Another illustration comes from the House of Lords, so ripe already for overhaul and replacement in 1997. Yet it took almost ten years and massively concerted efforts from well beyond the front benches for that process to advance further than the half-baked compromise which the government had meaninglessly preferred.

And even a ban on fox-hunting – that was another cause where change took years for individuals to achieve, when it was surely begging for action from the very first days whilst the Gallaghers were still schmoozing around No. 10.

downing-street-by-anaulin-flickrcom.jpgConversely, and at other times, Blair’s zeal-like fervour to carry through his own will against passionate and informed criticism did neither him nor us any favours.

Iraq appears more than often enough in these pages, but university top-up fees are something else I won’t forget.

That wonderful gift of free university education which I, and Tony Blair, and so many others received – such a marvellous statement of belief in the young people of this country, from all income backgrounds.

And that great gift is no more.

tony-is-still-here-crop-by-trois-tetes-flickrcom.jpgThose two errors were massively different in scale, of course, but each in their own way served to undermine the capabilities, economic potential, cherished values and international future of this country.

By 2005, I certainly wasn’t alone amongst centre-left voters in wishing that the UK electoral system could have given just the faintest chance of voting a Liberal Democrat government into power, with a policies which were more internationally aware and some way to the left of Labour.

tony-really-loves-his-wmd-hembo-pagi-flickrcom.jpgIf it is inevitable that Blair’s legacy (at least for now) is Iraq, then what are his achievements ? A stable economy, thanks to Gordon Brown and the independence of the Bank of England, Northern Ireland, and the (relatively) healthy survival, against enormous pressures, of the National Health Service and state school education.

Those contributions are surely not to be ignored, and will bring enduring benefits for years and generations to come.

Looking forwards now, the scent of the wind beyond our shores (particularly in the US) now suggests that the economy may not have such an easy ride under Gordon Brown, a man much more interested in principle and action than in electoral mastery or spin.

downing-street-crop-by-the-pip-absolut-flickr.jpgAnd so strangely, now at last that we will likely have a leader who is more willing to take the radical decisions and to push for real change where change is needed, now the voters may be more fickle and decide that they just might look at other options instead.

Tony Blair is going to be a tough act to follow, and in more ways than one.

Related articles:
84. Election Special
87. One morning in May
15. Sorrowful hills – the Space Shuttle Disaster and war clouds in Iraq
17. It’s puzzling – a letter on Iraq, to Tony Blair
71. How the West Was Won – Iraq implodes
46. On the front line – Crawley’s echoes of Madrid

2 responses to “148. Farewell to Tony Blair

  1. A very good analysis — or at least one which I agree with!

    You’re right about the disappointment of student fees. It’s horrible that a generation who benefited so handsomely from a free education has seen fit to impose charges on the generations to follow. That makes me uncomfortable.

    My own particular disappointment is public transport. Tracy Temple wasn’t the only one excited by Prescott in the early days. He was going to be the saviour, the magician who would conjure order out of chaos, and produce a green and joined-up transport system.

    Not only did it not happen, but like another initiative that seemed important to Blair pre-1997 — electoral reform — no lip service was wasted on it. Its function seemed to be nothing more than a pre-election headline-grabber and vote-winner. The emptiest of empty gestures.

    All rather sad really, as it amounts to disillusionment not just with Blair but ultimately, with politics at large.

    I’m veering towards the view of Doctor George Sheehan, that sport is the true reality, and that politics and economics are the diversions.

  2. Thanks, Andy, and very good to hear from you.

    I’m doing the Stratford-upon-Avon Sprint Triathlon this weekend, so perhaps the idea of a limply failed third term should be foremost in my mind today.

    ‘A joined-up transport system.’ Now there’s an idea. It mystifies me how countries like France, Norway, Germany, er … almost all other countries really, manage to achieve that goal, whilst we seem to have not the faintest idea of integrated transport, let alone how to achieve it.

    In Guildford, my home town, we are just about to embark on building a brand new bus station. It’s 400m and a ten-minute walk away from the train station. How daft is that ?

    Here in Stratford-upon-Avon, where I grew up, the old Cattle Market site, right next to the train station, is being offered for development. It is the perfect site for a bus and coach station (the town has none) or even a decent-sized station car park with car hire facilities – the current version has only about 40 spaces and not even a shuttle bus into town. For a world-class tourist destination, that’s just pathetic.

    I lived in Switzerland for some years, and in the whole country there are very few places which aren’t linked into the national transport infrastructure and the rest of the world beyond.

    From my old front door in Bern I could reach every village in the country, as well as downtown San Francisco (via Zurich airport) entirely on public transport (if you counted Swissair in that loop). The furthest I had to walk on all those trips was to the gate to catch my flight.

    Here in Stratford, the only way to reach the nearby village of Loxley (it’s just 4 miles away) is to drive (or run – on a road without a footpath – the village is atop a 1 in 7 hill so very tough to reach by cycle). There is no bus..

    Every supermarket here lies out of town, without a bus link. You have to drive to shop. People blame the tourists, but I’ll tell you, it’s just no mystery as to why the roads here are choked with traffic, all day long.

    Transport – yes, I agree, it’s been a real failure of this government, and of just about every British government, actually. We just don’t seem to understand the issues, or the opportunities.

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