As Blair steps down as Britain’s prime minister this June 27th, I find myself thinking about his legacy after a decade in office.
I still recall the optimism and euphoria of Cool Britannia as he lead the Labour party into a landslide victory in 1997, bringing 18 years of Conservative rule to a spectacular end. Back then, the telegenic and media savvy New Labour leader could do no wrong. Employing PR and advertising teams for his political campaigns (headed by spinmeister Alaistair Campbell), Blair’s packaged his manifesto to appeal to the voting class, promising change for the better. Fed up with the corruption and stodginess of the Tories, the Brits voted New Labour into power to revamp the Great Britain that was increasingly out of touch with its people and the world at large. Though not a British citizen, I bought into the hype and had high expectations for this Oxford-educated barrister.
Ten years down the line, I sit down to examine his track record and I come away with mixed feelings. I am no political scientist but my thoughts about Blair’s impact on the following areas are as below:
1. Impact on global leadership and decision-making
I read with keen interest Tony Blair’s essay in the Economist (June2nd-8th 2007) titled “What I’ve learned”. In this piece, he reflects on the lessons of his decade as Britain’s PM.
I quote his thoughts on international politics verbatim: “..international politics should not be simply a game of interests but also of beliefs, things we stand for and fight for. It is also why we should be prepared to intervene, if necessary militarily, to prevent genocide, oppression, the deep injustice too often inflicted on the vulnerable”.
What strikes me most about this statement is how Blair holds on to his ideals despite having firsthand experience in the highly calculating nature of international relations. I always believe international relations to be about “political horse-trading”- negotiations characterised by hard bargaining and shrewd exchanges. Many a times, even if not perpetrators of atrocities, leaders of nations close an eye to the ugly for the preservation/advancement of national interests. A vote in the UN security council against a UN sanction on a rogue nation is traded in return for a promised multi-billion dollar arms deal. It is almost Machiavellian in its argument of how ‘”ends justify the means”. In addition to horse-trading, economic factors come into play. Why interfere with the affairs and policies of another country especially if it is backed by economic powerhouses which take up more than 50% of your domestic exports?
Although I am of the view that Blair’s lofty ideals are not always be practicable in the real world, I deeply wish for more global leadership and decision making to be based on these ideals and not merely on vested interests. Blair’s successful military intervention in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan and his championing of poverty alleviation in Africa are testament that it CAN be achieved. It has set the bar that much higher. If there is anything the world needs, it is more world leaders with the guts to listen to the voice of their conscience.
2. Impact on foreign affairs
Britain under Blair has certainly not adopted an isolationist foreign policy. British troops have seen active engagement in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq. Britain’s overt alignment of interests with America has also seen Blair’s detractors label him as “Bush’s poodle”. As a consequence of military action in the Middle East, terrorist threats have been brought closer to home as witnessed by the London Underground bombings. In Northern Ireland, Blair enjoyed better success, bringing peace to Belfast and co-operation between the Unionists and the IRA after years of bloodshed
However, Blair’s track record in foreign affairs will always be marred by Iraq. Iraq is different from Afghanistan in that (i) the threat was not justified (no WMD were eventually found) and (ii) it did not have the sanction of the international community (UN). The question history will judge him by is this: was Blair cognisant of the inaccuracy of the military intelligence? If he was made aware that the information was not 100% reliable and yet led his country to war, “shoulder to shoulder” with America despite massive anti-war protests at home and abroad, he rightly deserves his tarnished reputation. Blair is often quoted “Hand on heart, I did what I thought was right” on his decision to go to war. Yet, this does not exonerate him from the volatile situation in Iraq now. Neither does that help ease the pain of the grieving families of the 151 troops who have died on active service to-date since the 2003 invasion.
3. Impact on domestic affairs
I am not qualified to comment on this aspect, having only spent 4 years in the UK as a student. I have not experienced firsthand the public sector reforms in the NHS (National Health Service), education system, & transport services as promised by Blair’s government to fairly comment on its success or failure.
Based on published statistics, substantial investments in the public sector have been made by the Labour government. In the case of the health sector, spending on the NHS has more than doubled since 1997. There are now over 32,000 more doctors and 85,000 more nurses. This has collectively led to a reduction of waiting times for appointments and operations. Despite these improvements, those who work within the system claim that changes within the NHS have been largely cosmetic. In essence, the public is demanding greater “returns on investments” of public funds spent on these reforms and not change for the sake of change. In addition, greater private sector involvement in the provision of these basic services has brought a sense of alarm to voters concerned about rising costs.
On the economic front, Britain’s commendable economic performance is more directly attributed to the stewardship of his Chancellor of Exchequer, Gordon Brown than to Blair himself. Quarterly GDP growth has consistently been above 1.5% p.a. since 2002 and inflation has largely been contained.
4. Impact on the Labour party
On this front, Blair has undeniably reshaped the course of this 106 year-old organisation. He radically reformed the party, moving it from its Left-Wing leanings to the Centre-Left, or as he calls it, ‘the Third Way’. Given Labour’s historical origins in trade unionism, he made New Labour relevant again by making the values of the socialist democratic party compatible with the pro-business values of free market Britain.
In 2005, Blair also made party history as he lead New Labour to its first ever 3rd consecutive term in government in 2005. His resignation in 2007 now allows for his successor, Gordon Brown to consolidate his position before the next general election in 2009.
What does the future hold now for Mr. Blair?
Given his experience, personal convictions and stature among world leaders, it is evident Blair now sees himself with a role to play in the international arena. There are talks he may be elected Middle East envoy for the quartet of the US, European Union, UN and Russia. Should he take up this post, it would be interesting to watch what he will accomplish as a global statesman.