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.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty