Farwell to Britain’s ‘acting’ Prime Minister…

Alex Kane reckons history will not be too kind to Tony Blair. And he believes that his basic problem has been “that there isn’t an ideological bone in his body”: or a weather vane rather than a sign post as Tony Benn is endless heard to say on BBC Parliament these days.By Alex Kane

There is a wonderful scene in the film Adam’s Rib (married lawyers find themselves on opposing sides in a murder case) when Spencer Tracy demonstrates to Katherine Hepburn how he can win over a jury by crying at will and faking sincerity. As I watched Tony Blair wringing the withers in the first of his orchestrated farewells to a grateful nation, I couldn’t help thinking that he would have given Tracy a run for his money when it comes to acting.

Regular readers will know that I am no fan of our bye-byeing Prime Minister. He arrived in office on a tidal wave of goodwill and with a majority of 179. The outgoing Conservatives, although mired in sleaze and run out of steam, had left the country in good shape economically; and Mrs Thatcher’s efforts between 1979 and 1990 had ensured that the big un-tackled problems of the 1960s and 1970s had been addressed and reasonably well resolved. Better still, there was very little happening on the international scene which would have given an incoming Prime Minister much cause for sleepless nights.

In other words, he was uniquely placed to concentrate on key domestic issues like education and health. As one editorial put it: “Unlike Lady Thatcher, who took over when Britain needed rescuing, or Clement Atlee, who became Prime Minister when it needed rebuilding, Mr Blair was not required to effect the kind of transformation that his political talents seemed to demand. His challenge was more modest—to do no harm.”

Mr Blair has done a great deal of harm. In May 1997, he boasted, that, “mine is the first generation able to contemplate the possibility that we may live our entire lives without going to war or sending our children to war.” Yet, acting on duff information and even dodgier moral grounds, he committed this country to a pointless and un-winnable war in Iraq.

I am no peacenik and I do accept that war must be a legitimate option if the interests and security of the United Kingdom are under threat: but I do not believe that it is the job of a British Prime Minister to lecture other nations about their supposed moral, political and philosophical shortcomings and to endorse regime change within them, while he himself serves as poodle to an intellectually and ethically vacuous U.S. President. Indeed, the “Yo, Blair” greeting from Bush at the G-8 summit in St Petersburg summed up the exact nature of the relationship. He has damaged the reputation of the United Kingdom and left it open to charges of hypocrisy and double standards.

On the home front he has squandered his decade in office, too. He may insist that educational standards and health provision have improved, but they haven’t. Making less demands of pupils and making it easier to get more and more of them onto worthless degree courses in hole-in-the-hedge universities is not the same as raising standards and promoting the best. Similarly, cutting the time it takes to be seen in a hospital is not the same as addressing the central problem of why the numbers needing treatment continues to grow.

The underlying problem with Blair is that there isn’t an ideological bone in his body. Along with his closest allies, Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, he turned the Labour Party into nothing more than an election machine, geared to no purpose higher than that of winning elections for the mere sake of winning them. The United Kingdom has been sliced into bite-sized constitutional chunks, while its people have been further sliced into focus groups, to be rounded up as and when required come elections. It is no longer a party with core values. There is no belief, tradition, policy or legacy that won’t be ditched in the name of clinging onto office; and no fad, incident or tragedy that won’t be hijacked for the purposes of pleasing some sort of voting group.

Blair, himself, brings passion to drivel, reduces supposedly great ideas to easily digestible soundbites and deploys the lump in the throat and the one-eyed tear for entirely cosmetic effect. All of which may explain why his personal approval ratings have plunged from plus 65 in 1997, to minus 40 a decade later. It may explain why voter turnout has dropped to its lowest ever levels. It may explain why his reputation lies in tatters and his legacy looks like it won’t amount to a hill of beans.

I won’t deny that his contribution to a political settlement in Northern Ireland was important, but nor will I rush to the view that it will always be regarded as the jewel in his crown. It is too early to make that call. It needs to be remembered that one of his first acts as Prime Minister was to usher Sinn Fein into the Talks Process in advance of decommissioning, even though the decision carried the very real risk that all of unionism would then withdraw. He later reneged on every pledge he gave during the referendum and, five years later, utterly shafted the UUP and hung a helpless David Trimble out to dry. In essence, Blair’s contribution was driven by a willingness to appease extremes rather than shore up the centre ground.

My overall view is that Tony Blair leaves the United Kingdom in a worse condition than when he assumed office. He has diminished its key political institutions and undermined its reputation as an honest broker on the international stage. He may make a fortune after Number 10, but I sense that history won’t be kind to him. He had huge talent and great opportunities: his personal tragedy is that he squandered both.

First published in the Newsletter on Monday 21st May 2007.

,

  • Aquifer

    “he turned the Labour Party into nothing more than an election machine” if only the UUP were as wicked

  • Máírtáúín

    “On the home front he has squandered his decade in office, too. He may insist that educational standards and health provision have improved, but they haven’t. Making less demands of pupils and making it easier to get more and more of them onto worthless degree courses in hole-in-the-hedge universities is not the same as raising standards and promoting the best. Similarly, cutting the time it takes to be seen in a hospital is not the same as addressing the central problem of why the numbers needing treatment continues to grow.”

    Hack journalism of the worst kind. The numbers needing treatment continue to grow because the population has grown. Or am I missing something?

    My overall view is that Tony Blair leaves the United Kingdom in a worse condition than when he assumed office. He has diminished its key political institutions and undermined its reputation as an honest broker on the international stage.

    Some background on the key political institutions bit would be nice. As for honest broker; in the words of Wayne Campbell “Pshaw, right!”

  • T.Ruth

    The people to blame for Blair’s decade of crass failure to build on the platform created for him by previous administarations and the opportune circumstances of the time are the people who voted for him,not once, but twice and then a third time.Here is a man who lacks principle,any coherent political philosophy and who is a stranger to truth. Here is a man committed to facing down what he considers to be terrorism abroad rewarding terrorists here with a place in the executive level of government.History will look on him as an abject failure and a clown.Yo Yo Blair.
    T.Ruth

  • pith

    I’m not overly keen on Blair myself but I sincerely hope T.Ruth never writes a history book.

  • Doncha just lurve these instant historians.

    It wasn’t so long ago that the same great intellects were telling us that Blair was too rigid, too commmitted to a set of values.

    [1] In 1997, there was “very little happening on the international scene”? Well, provided one ignores the Taleban, massacres in Algeria, Rwanda etc, crises in Kosovo and over Iraqi attempt to disguise WMD (check ’em out!), the Sandline affair, Sri Lanka etc … It was, indeed, a golden age … or not.

    [2] “He may insist that educational standards and health provision have improved, but they haven’t.”
    Huh. Visit any school or hospital and compare the working conditions that persisted through the Tory years and now. As for “standards”, I thought the accusation was “micro-management”, too many targets, too much interference. Is this smartarse suggesting that the aim was deliberately to reduce standards thereby?

    “… cutting the time it takes to be seen in a hospital is not the same as addressing the central problem of why the numbers needing treatment continues to grow”. What does that mean? Is life expectancy not increasing, quite dramatically? 39% of male and 53% of female deaths are attributed to cancers: does Kane have the cure? Over 65, the most common cause of death is circulatory disease: can Kane not think of progress there (or was that simply the “nanny state” interfering to prevent us eating, drinking and smoking ourselves to death?)?

    [3] “duff information and even dodgier moral grounds, he committed this country to a pointless and un-winnable war in Iraq”.
    Gosh, it wasn’t a fascist, murdering dictatorship in Baghdad. And we all knew that there weren’t WMDs before the invasion (pity Hans Blick wasn’t so convinced). That is a re-write of history. The “morality” of allowing Ba’athism to persist, please?

    My reading is that a lot of cunning manipulation went on, fixing the data, and very little of that was in Downing Street. The accusations should be that the intelligence community failed, and the politicians were too trusting.

    [4] . Poor old Trimble. But I thought the British Government started sub-rosa conversations with the IRA in February 1993?

    etc. etc.

    I know this argument is unwinnable because our journos are so indoctrinated in snide “Sunday Times” negativism, and their readership rarely trips onto or into anything positive.

    Partiality among journos is a way of life. The mood of the time is an aversion to reality and facts, an ability to reconstruct the past in line with no more than visceral prejudice, ex-cathedra statements which exist and persist in the poisonous stew of carefully-composed fictions.

    No politico needs my (or anyone else’s) sympathy. But facts are worth protesting for.

  • slabbering

    ‘undermined its reputation as an honest broker’

    This is a strange comment.

    The Tories’ obstinate policy of pursuing tactics which obfuscated and negated any substantial political or military intervention in Bosnia, rendered them profoundly dishonest in the eyes of the rest of the E.U and the U.S.

    The likes of Hurd, Riffkind and Hogg did everything in their power to stymie U.S attempts to lift the arms embargo so that the Bosnians could protect themselves from Serb and Croat aggression. They hindered attempts to establish no fly zones and war tribunals. And then they closed British borders to Bosnian refugees, telling them to seek help in Belgrade, of all places. The Tories refused to view Bosnia chiefly as the result of Serbian expansionism, and in its lieu made a moral equivocation between Serbs and Bosnians.

    To such an extent that British/U.S relations became soured over Bosnia, that U.S State department officials compared it to Suez.

  • Let me tidy up a couple of loose ends here.

    The uncredited editorial, “Unlike Lady Thatcher, who took over when Britain needed rescuing…” should have acknowledged the Economist of 12th May. It’s a pity Kane didn’t plagiarise the rest:

    [1] “well-meaning targets for everything for eliminating child poverty to reducing carbon dioxide emissions and increasing literacy and numeracy … he has made some progress, but not as much as he said he would.”

    [2] “… he was accused of being a Tory in disguise. That is wrong. Mr Blair is part of a middle-class, urban, baby-booming Britain which harbours hostility to a privileged Tory establishment that looks down on it, sometimes from the back of a horse.” Yup; that’s ideological enough for most of us.

    I could go on, taking apart Kane sentence by sentence. Why bother? The Economist leader is on line at http://www.economist.com/PrinterFriendly.cfm?story_id=9150734, and does it far better. It is far more balanced and favourable to Blair than Kane might imply.

    Kane is entitled to opinions, even when they totally escape from reality or facts. I only wish someone would pay me for such inflated claptrap. He is not entitled to ignorance: Britain never had a Prime Minister “Atlee”.

  • Alex.

    A better film for Blair right now might be ‘The Long Goodbye’.

    The film also features a man “cast adrift in a selfish, self-obsessed society where lives can be thrown away without a backward glance…and any notions of friendship and loyalty are meaningless” (Daniel O’Brien, “Robert Altman: Hollywood Survivor”).

    I agree about Blair’s lack of ideology making it hard to know what the man stands for, but was infecting Northern Ireland with his blandness – where we had too much ideology – a good or a bad thing?

  • dodrade

    I suspect that, Iraq apart, Blair’s standing will go up out of office more quickly than most would expect.

    There are precedents, Jimmy Carter is more respected now than he ever was as President.