As when Bill Clinton won the presidency here in the States in 1992, also in a three-way race, Tony Blair presented a moderately leftward agenda, one that traditional Labourites could grudgingly accept and that voters who liked the policies of the Tories but hated that party's perceived smarminess after years of Margaret Thatcher and of Thatcher-Lite under John Major, could vote for.
After a decade of Blair in 10 Downing Street, it's tempting to compare him to Churchill or Thatcher. One wants to speak of a Blair Era. But the analogies to historically significant PMs don't work at several levels.
First, Blair's tenure had less to do with public excitement over a proactive new Labour agenda than with the public's reaction to the continuing failure of either the Conservative Party or of the less likely Liberal Democrats to get their acts together. The Tories have been especially pathetic, failing throughout Blair's time in office to offer Britons a credible competing vision. Year in and year out, seeing Blair's contests with the Conservatives was a little like watching a game between the Indianapolis Colts and the local eight-year old peewee football team. His opposition made winning elections easy for Blair and his Labour compatriots.
Second, while Britain has the strongest of the European economies, there are widespread suspicions that this has less to do with Blair than with Britain's central bank and with chancellor Gordon Brown, who kept the PM mostly in the dark about economic and financial policies. But besides all that, there are fears that the current boom is shallow, a house of cards built on inflated real estate valuations, among other things.
Third, as was true of Clinton, the President who, after getting his nose bloodied in the battle for a national health care system, decided to talk about such pressing national issues as school uniforms, there's also a feeling that Tony Blair, for the most part, accomplished very little. He was so busy triangulating, this argument goes, that he did little to improve education or health services, two areas where he promised reform when he came to power.
Of course, there may be a bit of the twenty-first century's penchant for truculence in this criticism. An article in Slate notes:
..in opinion polls...many of the British say—bafflingly on the face of it—that they are worse off, or worse served by the National Health Service, than they were 10 years ago. The statistical evidence shows that this cannot be so...In other words, things are better for the British and Blair has done more for them than the public thinks, but none of it is quite enough. We see that sort of "don't-confuse-me-with-the-facts" whininess by voters in this country, whether our Presidents and Congresses are Democratic or Republican.
There have also been notable achievements during Blair's tenure, among them devolution in Scotland and Wales and the extraordinary power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland. These often are overlooked.
The fourth and most notable thing beclouding Blair's legacy is his stance on Iraq. In his own country, the PM's decision to push Britain into the war and the troubled peace in Iraq, has made him deeply unpopular, although not so much so as to cause him to be ousted in the most recent elections.
Blair is a likable character--bright, articulate, eloquent, undeniably brilliant. (Republicans in this country who supported the War in Iraq often wished that he were President, feeling that he presented the case for the conflict much more convincingly than George W. Bush.) Blair is also savvy. The Queen, highly fictionalized as it is, made clear just how attuned Blair can be to public sentiment.
But that may be the source of greatest difficulty that people today have and which future historians will have in evaluating the Blair era. Great leaders tune into public sentiment, then figure out how to marshall it to achieve great objectives. Many will say today that all Tony Blair did with his ability to read the public was get elected Prime Minister three times.
Only the passage of time, with the revelation of heretofore undisclosed documentation and the opportunity for sober reflection, will tell us if that assessment is fair or not. But this we do know: Mr. Blair's avuncular successor and longtime Labour rival, Gordon Brown, is unlikely to live at 10 Downing for nearly as long as Tony has.
(For more see here and here.)
(Also go here to see my earlier musings on Blair's departure from government.)
[THANKS TO: Joe Gandelman of The Moderate Voice for linking to this post.]