Saturday, June 23, 2007

Tony Blair retires

Well, not quite. He has a few days to go, but his all nighter at the EU summit was his last strut upon the stage. An interesting article in the Grauniad today attempts to assess his place in history.

Martin Kettle recalls a conversation between Dick Morris and Bill Clinton which ranked American presidents in the following way: In his first rank of presidents, Morris placed George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. His second comprised Andrew Jackson, James Polk, Chester Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan. For his third rank, Morris nominated James Madison, Andrew Johnson, Grover Cleveland, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and George Bush Sr. Clinton himself, Morris suggested, was "borderline third tier" - though this was a pre-impeachment conversation. The rest were nowhere.

In a similar way Kettle has attempted to rank British Prime Ministers: Since the 1832 Reform Act - and we have to draw a starting line - this country has had 30 prime ministers up to and including Blair (but excluding the Duke of Wellington's brief caretaker government of 1834). In chronological order, the following 16 have some claim, on various criteria, to be counted as outstanding PMs: Grey, Peel, Palmerston, Disraeli, Gladstone, Salisbury, Asquith, Lloyd George, Baldwin, Churchill, Attlee, Macmillan, Wilson, Heath, Thatcher and Blair. That means excluding (again in chronological order) the following 14: Melbourne, Russell, Derby, Aberdeen, Rosebery, Balfour, Campbell-Bannerman, Bonar Law, MacDonald, Chamberlain, Eden, Douglas-Home, Callaghan and Major.

If we use Morris's three ranks to sort the 16 survivors, then Peel, Gladstone, Asquith, Churchill, Attlee and Thatcher have claims to be in the first rank, doing great things in great times. In the second rank, I would place Grey, Disraeli, Baldwin, Macmillan and Heath (achieving great things in less compelling times). My third rank (great but mixed) would contain Palmerston, Salisbury, Lloyd George, Wilson and Blair.

As you might imagine, responders in subsequent comments had much to disagree with, but most surprising for a left wing newspaper there was almost universal condemnation of Tony Blair, in the view of some incomparably the worst British Prime Minister ever.

The views of Amery encapsulate the feeling.
1. Causing the death of 100,000s in wars of aggression.
2. Making Britain hated around the world, a curse handed down to our children, our children's' children, and probably longer.
3. Elevating lying, spinning and obfuscation to the central form of government
4. Destroying the health service and lying about it.
5. Taxing us by stealth, relentlessly and in ever-increasing amounts to fund his wars and incompetent schemes.
6. Corruption, the sale of honours and the "reform" of the house of Lords in favour of an appointed, not elected body so as to remove the last vestiges of independence.
7. The erosion of civil liberties - SOCPA, the anti-terrorist legislation (we are all terrorists now), the civil contingencies bill - a perfect legal framework for totalitarianism.
8. Fawning obedience to the catastrophic US foreign policy.
9. Fawning deference to Mr Putin and sundry dictators.
10. Fomenting the housing bubble and promoting the culture of debt.
11. Allowing the ultra-rich to pay no taxes while the rest of us pay more and more.
12. Laying the foundations for civil strife in the UK by giving Wales and Scotland their own elected bodies, but allowing none for England.
13. Welcoming the mafia to run casinos to leech the poor even more.

It might well be expected that Guardian readers would hate Tony Blair. There is no doubt that he has compromised the ideals of the left in order to get a left wing government elected.

Let's take the points in order:
1. Is he responsible for 100,000 deaths? Certainly not in the way that Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung or Pol Pot were responsible for millions of deaths. His interventionist foreign policy saved lives in Kosovo, Bosnia and Sierra Leone. In Afghanistan virtually every country in the world approved of the policy of getting rid of the Taliban. As for Iraq, there is a tendency to look back on Saddam era with rose-tinted spectacles. A case can certainly be made for the removal of Saddam on humanitarian grounds. The major failure has been in the lack of any effective plan for the reconstruction of the country after the war. It has to be remembered that the responsibility for this is primarily George Bush's rather than Tony Blair's but in his continued support for his ally he has certainly diminished his current reputation.
2. Now that is pure exaggeration. There may have been some anti-British feeling in the Eurovision Song Contest voting, but that will be temporary.
3. There is some merit in that charge. Manipulating the media was something that Sir Bernard Ingram, Lady Thatcher's press secretary, was was famous for, but Alistair Campbell took the art to a new low. I am not convinced that all his untruths were mendacious. The justification for the Iraq war was an exaggeration, but perhaps one deriving from genuine lack of knowledge rather than a deliberate lie. More telling has been the dissembling over tax increases. He criticised the Tories over stealth taxes, but his Chancellor has become the unchallenged king of the subject.
4. This is certainly not true. The NHS performs better than when New Labor came into government, but still suffers from the same problems that it had under the Tories - lack of funds. Billions have been invested but not enough. Expenditure per head has just about reached the level that it was in America in 1980. More tellingly, despite a promise to increase funding to the European average, as a proportion of GDP it has only just reached the level that Germany was at when Tony Blair made the promise 10 years ago. Undoubtedly the money is better spent than in any other health service, but nevertheless a lot has been wasted, on PFI, on management consultants, on endless rounds of reorganisations, on computer systems that don't work, on top-down regulations and on MTAS.
5. I have already mentioned stealth taxes. Until someone has the courage to raise income tax, surely the fairest type of taxation, all taxes will be stealth taxes. What is more worrying is the proportion of our money taken by the government to do their things which might not be our priorities.
6. Sleaze? This was why the Tory Government fell. New Labor has been far worse. It started with Bernie Ecclestone and has gone from bad to worse. Blair's biggest failing is his failure to sack people. Prescott should have gone. Blunkett and Mandelson should never have come back. Byers stayed too long.
7. Civil liberties is a very difficult problem. Most people feel that their liberties are being eroded, but undoubtedly the threat is much greater than it was, even when the IRA was active. I don't particularly mind that we have more CCTV cameras than the rest of Europe and I am quite happy for my DNA to be on record. I would happily have an ID card. I am not so sure about someone locking me up for 90 days without charge as the government wanted. Some of the problems are of the government's own making. Buying into the Human Rights Act without quibble and accepting unrestricted immigration and tolerating the growth of an unreformed Muslim community under the guise of multiculturalism have made matters worse.
8. A misjudgement surely. He thought he would be able to influence George Bush, but there is little evidence that this is so. I imagine that the Middle East has not worked out as he intended, but had he taken the attitude of say, Chiriac would anything have been different?
9. I'm not sure that this charge sticks. Putin is at the head of a state with vast oil wealth and nuclear weapons. He can do pretty well what he likes.
10. This one is off the wall. Immigration has been one great driver for this, but the other side of the coin is a vibrant economy. Fewer marriages and more singles - but how is that his fault? Low interest rates? Surely a good thing.
11. Again a product of a vibrant economy, and anyway down to the Prime Minister-in-waiting rather than TB.
12. I'll agree with this one.
13. And with this one.

All this has to be set alongside other things in his legacy.
1. He made Labor electable.
2. He sorted or helped to sort foreign wars in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Sierra Leone. After the disgrace of Rwanda this was crucial.
3. He contributed greatly to the peace in Ulster, though John Major deserves some of the credit.
4. He prevented the undoing of much of the Thatcher legislation that has been responsible for Britain's healthy economy. Many on the left were baying for this.
5. He introduced a minimum wage.
6. City Academies may not be perfect, but at least they go some way to address the problem of education.

It is too close for now to assess his long term legacy. Churchill would certainly not have been counted a success in 1939 and even in 1945 was unpopular enough to be thown out of government.


Anonymous said...

First of all, Dick Morris is a hack and not a respected hack at that. He is a venal political junkie, and is famous only for flip-flopping on the candidates he works for (Republican for most of his life, then Clinton, now back to Republicans). His rankings are suspect. (It's a no-brainer to put Washington and Lincoln at the top of the list.)

I have no comment on British history, except to say that the Brits didn't have a stellar reputation around the world. However, India, South Africa, Rhodesia, the US, Canada, Australia and many other places around the world certainly benefitted by having been colonized by England. (For a contrasting history, see Bolivar in South America. He refused to give up power, appointing himself basically ruler for life. You can see where that led.)

Blair is an excellent speaker, making more sense on his worst day than Bush could hope for on his best day. He is also solid on the war on terror.

History will judge both Bush and Blair. We are too close to really have a good perspective. Right now, I'd put Bush near the bottom of the barrel.

People like me give him decent marks on the war on terror, but fairly or not, one's career hinges on the fate at war. Bush has chosen poorly in those he has picked to run the war. Lincoln, one should remember, was roundly expected to lose his bid for re-election because of the failures in the Civil War, and it was only Sherman's taking of Atlanta that brought Lincoln victory.

Terry Hamblin said...

The final verdict on Blair may take decades to unfold. His major opponents are now on the left which is a remarkable turn around from when he took over the Labor Party. He was undoubtedly the best actor, ever to lead a political party in Britain. He was a brilliant speaker, he handled an increasingly critical media expertly, and he rode most events well, but like all leaders he was eventually dislodged by 'events'. Backing Bush on Iraq seemed to be the right thing to do at the time, but clearly it has turned out to be a disaster for him. Had there been a result in Iraq even as good as the result in Afghanistan he would have been up there with the best PMs. But the way things have turned out has exposed some of his other poor decisions and obscured his good decisions.

My objection has not been over Iraq, but over the sleaze he has allowed to creep in, despite his attack on the Tories for the very same thing.

Cash for honors is a longstanding tradition, but Blair let it become as blatant as under Lloyd George. Delaying the tobacco ban on Formula one car racing after a gift of one million pounds to the Labor Party from the man who owns the races, was an early sign of how the government was run. Favors by the Home Secretary for the woman with whom he was having an adulterous affair showed how they thought they could get away with things. "A good day to break bad news" became a strategy of concealing the truth from the electorate.

Margaret Thatcher suffered from the same problem. Many of her followers demonstrated that they were not people of integrity and Blair's people have demonstrated the same character flaws.

Does a politicians personal life matter? Of course it does. Telling lies becomes too easy.

More stories continue to emerge. Prescott's reckless carrying on with his Social Secretary, a young female MP driven to drinking herself to death after being hit upon by a leading member of the Cabinet; the Labor leaders under Blair, far from showing themselves as men of steel revealed themselves as men of straw.