It was easy to hate Tony Blair. Tony Judt in the New York Times (November 27, 2008) called it ”opportunism with a human face”. He was the poodle to the American Bulldog. He was the liberal interventionist who invaded Afghanistan and Iraq in the pursuit of the so- called Weapons of Mass Destruction. Simon Jenkins in The Sunday Times called this Liberal Intervention “reinventing the middle ages.” To the Conservatives, he was Labour and to the Labour, he leaned too much to the right. With Alistair Campbell on his heels, people thought he accorded unwarranted power to the Press Spokesman and the New Labour was nothing but an articulately stage- managed political machinery run by spin-doctors. He might have been too close to the Mainland for the comfort of the British nationalists. The Glen Hoddle issue where Blair got his viewpoints put across was something totally out of the jurisdiction of 10 Downing Street. Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer in 1997 thought that Britain was closest to a Presidential system that it had ever been in the course of its democratic history. And irrespective of what Lord Hutton said in the inquiry, Alistair Campbell probably had little business sending memos to John Scarlet as the Director of Communications in the Labor Government as he sat in the committee that prepared the dossier that Tony Blair presented to the British Parliament propagating the war in Iraq. The Labour Government spent about 10 Million Pounds per delegate at Gleneagles for the G- 8, yet foreign aid to Africa for the G- 8 in proportion to their GDP fell. Then, there was the Cash- For- Honors that Blair as the head of Labour was responsible for. If he did lie about Iraq, then the Labour probably lied about a lot more things. Maybe, the economic resurgence had more to do with the less suave Gordon Brown at 11 Downing Street than 10 Downing Street. And did Blair grapple power a little too hard and procrastinate his stepping down at the expense of the future of the Labour.
But I am a Blairist and a blatant one at that. I believe in Cool Britannia, a Britain that was young, hip and ready to play the game of Globalization on its terms. The New Labor was the New Britain, and a Britain which I see hardly possible under the leadership of someone like John Major or his ilk. London has taken over New York as the world’s financial capital as endorsed by the money the city receives as inflows and the amount of foreign companies that deem it feasible to be listed there. Something symbolic of the times was the reversing of the natural order of things as Corus, erstwhile British Steel, was sold off to India’s Tata Steel without much hassle. People might argue that money was thrown in public services like NHS, but public services are better and so have the waiting lists come down. The GCSE’s might have been dumbed, but grades are up and more Brits go to universities. Blair might have come amidst a period of sustained global growth and an European Resurgence, but whatever it is, the truth is that under the New Labor, the Brits have increased prosperity levels and on several indicators, live more fulfilling lives. Ask any tourist about the hoards of British Tourists one encounters no matter where you go, and you know there just have been good times. Even though there is always something beautiful about the British having a stiff upper lip and being generally grumpy!
Moreover, the greatest legacy of the Blair Government when the political historian might sit down and pass the verdict on the New Labour would be increased Social Mobility. The New Labor essentially cut across class and party lines, which were as British as the Beatles. Today, New Labor stands with a legacy called the Third Way, best put in the words of the man himself, someone who was never short of words anyway. According to him, “ The Third Way is the route to renewal and success for modern social democracy. It is not simply a compromise between left and right. It seeks to take the essential values of contra and centre- left and apply them to a world of fundamental social and economic change; and to do so free from outdated ideology.“ (footnote) Today, being British, right from Hugh Grant to the Harris Tweed, is sexy. And in the words of Bonzo Dog Doo Dah’s 1967 hit Cool Britannia which came true to life during the Blair era, “Britannia, you are cool..”
To further illustrate the Blair era, I would like to talk about Geoff Mulgan’s account of his seven years at Number 10, Downing Street titled “My time in the Engine Room- Seven years at Number 10 teaches you a lot about the nature of power.” Blair was always thought more to be a Prime Minister that involved himself more in Britain in a global context than most of them, but ironically Britain certainly had better times domestically. You can’t be a success in Foreign Policy if you find yourself embroiled in a war that you should not have been waging at the first place. Not only Iraq, but also Afghanistan faces a resurgent Taliban threat. But this failure in the foreign sphere would be the biggest inherent contradiction of the Blair years, as Tony Blair was always seen as an international statesman, rather than a British Prime Minister. And it is indeed a touch disheartening that this often overshadows major successes of the Blair Government, say for example who would have imagined in 1997 that a day would come Gerry Adams and the rest of the Sinn Fein’s elected MP’s would sit in the same assembly as the Unionists.
Geoff Mulgan worked at Number 10 Downing Street from 1997 to 2004 including as head of the policy unit and director of the strategy unit, and I found his presentation in the University of Montreal summit “Whatever happened to Cool Britannia” enlightening. In his essay that was accompanied with a power point presentation that also appeared in The Guardian on 23d April 2004, he talks about his year sin the administration. He talk about one of the underlying reasons of Labor’s success was that it never played on people’s expectation. The Labor was prudent in making promises to the public which is incredibly difficult in the heat of political campaigns, something validated by the present democratic debates in the run up to the United States 2008 Presidential Elections. But what it did was to communicate them effectively, and also the underlying reasons behind them. Also interesting to note that the Labour Party found policy inspiration in Scandinavians countries rather than conventional models of the bigger economies like the United States, France and Germany.
New Labor stood for a New Britain. And the landslide verdict in 1997 stood testimony to the impatience of the British public for change and how terrible the John Major’s conservative government had been. And the Blair administration had to bring a lot of administrative changes to Whitehall itself to gear up to this thrust for change. For example, Mulgan went and studied countries where incumbents have remained for long, say Canada, Sweden and Japan. And thus came Labor’s policy of constantly reinventing themselves with what the people wanted. This is the hallmark of the Labor; even with a mandate as extensive as its, a willingness to be open. Even though the Iraq War was a severe anomaly to this.
Mulgan also rebuts the claims that the New Labor lacked ideological clarity. He talks about the inherent contradiction between Labor’s clarity in ideology and electoral necessity. After all, the biggest achievement of the Labor is that it won three straight elections, and with the world’s most aggressive media at his heels, Tony Blair was the Prime Minister for ten good years. From David Beckham to the Spice Girls, anyone who is reasonably acquainted with the British media would tell you ten years is awfully long in the British public sphere!
Historians might continue to grapple over the ambiguities of the Blair legacy. But Tony Blair mattered. In Blair’s words, “I may have been wrong. That is your call. But believe in one thing if nothing else; I did what I thought was right for our country. I came into office with high hopes for Britain’s future, and you know, I leave it with even higher hopes….” If nothing else, you cannot beat the man in diction.
Shreshth Dugar, 2007
(For the list of sources, citations and bibliography, please mail me)