Monday, May 28, 2007

It's goodbye from him....

Oh, the fun we had in the early hours of May 2nd 1997. 22 years old, just a year out of university, still aglow with the enthusiasm/naivete of youth, staying up all night at a friend's house watching the hated Tories get booted out of power. How we laughed when David Mellor was defeated, how we cheered as Malcolm Rifkind and Norman Lamont succumbed, how we howled with uncontrollable glee when Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo lost his seat in Enfield Southgate. Happy times, great memories. It honestly felt like a huge cloud had lifted from the country, that some sort of re-birth was underway. But now it doesn't so much feel like a decade ago as an entirely different universe altogether.

So now Tony Blair has finally stopped prevaricating and has declared an official leaving date, I'm not really sure what I feel. Insouciance, mostly. Which is what I've experienced for much of his ten years in office anyway, so it's just business as usual. Wasn't that the whole point of New Labour anyway? The stage managed, on-message, self publicising machine that existed only to make Labour electable in the first place? Everything else was kind of tacked on as an afterthought and as far as I and many others were concerned, it was good enough that they simply Weren't The Tories.

Tony Blair's problem was that the expectation was too high and his government did too little in the first term, preoccupied as it was with ensuring a second term and having spent such a long time thinking about getting into power, they had few tangible policies to set into motion once they did. They inherited a buoyant economy - a first for a Labour administration who had previously inherited only mess, which they then proceeded to make worse - requiring little more than 'lights on' maintenance. It would have taken spectacular incompetence on an unprecedented scale to have thrown that away. Handing control of interest rates to the Bank of England was a shrewd move, single-handedly demonstrating to the City and to the left that they were not intending to deviate from monetarist policy. And it is pretty clear to even the harshest of critics that the last ten years have witnessed uninterrupted economic growth, low unemployment, stable inflation and historically low interest rates. Yet with that has come a barrage of stealth taxes and a swollen, inefficient public sector. I'm staggered at the amount of money that has been poured into the NHS and education, yielding only negligible improvements. Gordon Brown will now have the dubious honour of overseeing what happens next in the social arena and I suspect he will be weighed down by the baggage of being a key decision maker in an administration that has pumped billions of pounds into dilapidated infrastructure for next to no return.

Blair will undoubtedly be remembered most for his foreign policy decisions, the most divisive of which was the involvement in the Iraq war and the close partnership he forged with America, inviting critics to describe him as Bush's 'poodle'. An inaccurate criticism given that, with British involvement in Kosovo in 1999 and Sierra Leone in 2000, British forces had already been dispatched to halt genocide and topple vile regimes while Bush was still an isolationist governor of Texas. Blair and Bill Clinton had also ordered air strikes against Iraq in December 1998 when it was clear that Saddam Hussein was continuing to resist compliance with UN weapons inspections. An interventionist foreign policy was already a reality under this prime minister. Meanwhile, September 11th 2001 changed everything. Blair was one of the first to recognise this fact and the immediate decision to stand shoulder to shoulder with the US was without question the right thing to do - Republican president or not. Some battles trump ideological differences and the threat - actual and, more crucially, potentially - from Islamist terrorism is one such example.

A mixed bag for Tony Blair then. Disappointing to non-effectual on the domestic front, but a huge legacy in the realm of foreign policy, it's too early to say how he will be remembered. The peace process (hopefully) finally being settled in Northern Ireland also looks like another late victory that can stand as a genuine achievement, but will it be overshadowed by the allegations of sleaze and nepotism that also tarnished the Blair years?

What Tony Blair really demonstrated was that a gifted politician with something of the people's touch could forge a presidential style of leadership that encouraged the electorate to give less consideration to the party as a whole and vote instead for a populist individual. Something that the Conservative Party have finally twigged and whose current tactic of keeping quiet about policy and instead stressing their own reinvention is finally making them look electable again. Their entire strategy has been torn from the New Labour Guidebook To Electoral Success (1994-97).

As Nick Robinson, the BBC's political editor, put it: "Tony Blair's legacy? It comes down to two words: David Cameron."


Devil's Advocate said...

Interesting overview of the Blair years.

Re: Kosovo, yes this does show Blair was interventionist before Iraq, but that doesn't excuse him for not therefore intervening in Zimbabwe or even more Sudan (I could go on), or for the spectacular mistake of Iraq. Military action against persistent abusers of UN resolutions (Israel anyone?) is one thing, but attemped regime change is quite another.

Can't entirely agree on Blair's legacy to Cameron either. I'd say some of his strategy had been influenced by Blair (how could it not be?), but would wager a bet that the next Tory manifesto will be significantly more radical than Labour's ever was in 97, or indeed in 2001/2005. They are undergoing a different process to that of New Labour in the 90's - one which does not involve giving up one's fundamental philisophy (they have already won the argument on that), but which, ironically, is likely to be on a much deeper and braver scale policy-wise than Blair et al achieved.

Some of Blair may be a product of Cameron, but never, ever as much as Thatcher was of Blair.

mAc Chaos said...

Sounds like Bush.

ph said...

On the back of handing the setting of interest rates to the B.o.E. it appears that G.B. is to be given the job of P.M.
Looking back this was a bad mistake, as the mismanagement of interests rates has lead to house price inflation that will have serious negative social implications for years. G.B. was/is a man obsessed by money flowing his way, and has little regard for society.
When Mrs Thatcher said there is 'No such thing as Society' the labour party took this to heart and found ways of putting it into practice.
I still beleive that T.B. will go down as one of the worst Prime Ministers and G.B. one of the worst chancellors

Citizen Sane said...

Phew, I've still got some readers left.

DA - I'll reserve judgment in the absence of any sort of tangible policy. Let's face it, they're just waiting for Brown to implode in a couple of years time before they declare what they're really about now.

Mac - That's what his fiercest critics on the left accuse him of. Can't see it myself.

PH - We've had this conversation before and I still don't understand where you're coming from here. Interest rate intervention is used to control inflation. This is the biggest legacy of the Thatcher/Reagan years: unswerving adherence to monetarist policy. The MPC's remit is to keep inflation at an average of 2% with a 1% tolerance swing in either direction. That is it. And, until earlier this year, they did exactly that. So I don't understand how you can say that interest rates have been mismanaged when they have been used to keep inflation low, which is their whole purpose. Your grievance with house price inflation is an entirely different issue for the most part.

ph said...

"used to keep inflation low, which is their whole purpose"

I am not really blaming the B.of.E here, as they did what Brown told them to do(although they need not have been so spineless). But how interest rates are measured is a complete political fudge, to give Brown the figures he wants. Basically he has removed from the calculation items that showed high inflation and included those that show low inflation - (things made in China). If you measure the inflation of things that you have to pay for it is nearer 7%, whereas Brown's IPod index in much lower, and of course IPods are much more important than housing.
Secondly, British poiticians have always understood that house prices had the potential to go through the roof. Comes from living on a small highy populated island. This is one of the reasons that interest rates in the UK were always on the high side. However Brown decided that house prices need not come into the equation(rising house prices = more tax) and as a result the housing market is now a complete disaster - but at least DVD players are cheap.
The problem now is that who do the generation of people priced out of the housing market blame for this monumental cock-up. In the past it would have been the Chancellor, now the waters have been muddied by the presence of the B.of.E. McCavity indeed!!

tafka PP said...

I think I like your analysis better than any of the CIF recent tripe on the same question.

All the same, re how he ends up being remembered: Hindsight does funny things... I often wonder how the self-righteous protesting masses of today who are so keen to accuse TB of being a warmongering poodle would have functioned under the alleged universally agreed-upon Best British Bulldog Prime Minister in the World...Ever! during WW2? (Or maybe wars and international interventions were OK for the British to engage in back then, but aren't now?)

And yes, you still have readers who are glad you are still writing!

ph said...

Yes your fans clamour for more, or is this your policy - "treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen"

mAc Chaos said...

"A mixed bag for Tony Blair then. Disappointing to non-effectual on the domestic front, but a huge legacy in the realm of foreign policy, it's too early to say how he will be remembered."

This is what I was talking about, CS.

Citizen Sane said...

ph - OK, I see your point. And of course politicians will use the figures they find most convenient. I would say that the index we use in the UK is broadly similar to those used in the rest of the western world though, and Brown used exactly the same methodology and index that he inherited from the Conservatives (and they enjoyed fiddling with the index constituents themselves: lower inflation figures = less bargaining power for the unions during pay talks). What Brown did change (in 2003) was to measure versus the CPI instead of the RPI. But the RPI is still out there, and in some guises includes rent, house prices and other essential outgoings. But yes, I definitely heed your point.

Tafka PP = Thanks. But then seeing as the majority of CiF is bilge followed by a cat's chorus of discourteous ranting, that's not difficult! As for WWII, well, there was of course a large movement (comprised of left and right) committed to appeasement and determined to avoid conflict with Germany at all costs. They carried banners saying "We are all Gestapo now" and "No blood for Rhineland". Probably.

Mac - OK, I see your point now, too.