Tony Blair: poodle or visionary?

Editor's Note: Last week, Tony Blair announced that, after ten years as prime minister of Great Britain, he would step down from office this June. To mark what has been a historic run as one of the world's most visible leaders, TNR Online asked three experts for their take on Blair and his legacy. Here are their responses.

Oliver Kamm
Alex Massie
David Fontana


Oliver Kamm

Tony Blair is the dominant European politician of his generation. Having won three general elections, he is the most successful British Labour leader ever. Of British statesmen since 1945, only Margaret Thatcher and Ernest Bevin rival his prominence in international affairs. Yet he leaves office denigrated and even reviled at home by those who enthused over his landslide election ten years ago. A columnist for The Independent expressed a common sentiment: "Was he rascal or madman? Was he, perhaps more likely, both?"

The truth is more prosaic. Blair was a consummately effective politician. When he was first elected to Parliament, in 1983, the Labour Party--through extremism, infighting, and patent incredibility--might easily have suffered a slow extinction on the model of the French communists. When he became leader of the opposition, in 1994, Labour had lost four successive elections. Many doubted that it would ever hold office again. Blair reshaped the political landscape. He made Labour--for the first time ever--not only a natural, but the obvious, party of government.

There germinated the seeds for the widespread contempt felt for Blair today by the commentariat. (That view is apparently not held by the electorate. A Guardian/ICM poll this week showed Blair's ratings remained high among Labour supporters and that he retained the respect of voters of all parties.) Even commentators hostile to Labour found Blair plausible, articulate, and emollient. What they failed to notice was that Blair augured little and promised less--deliberately so. He dealt in symbols: greater probity in government; openness to Europe; fiscal responsibility; and a rejection of even Labour's nominal historic commitment to socialism. But he represented a tabula rasa on which a heterogeneous collection of declared sympathizers could write their own political programs. Some were bound to be disappointed. The more self-obsessed among them would feel personally betrayed.

In truth, Blair has presided over significant constitutional and social reform: central bank independence; devolved government for Scotland and Wales; civil partnerships for same-sex couples; political accommodation, if not strictly peace, in Northern Ireland; and the development of a broad political consensus about the scale, organization and distributional aims of the welfare state. He has occasionally erred in the direction of populism and illiberalism. But the balance of achievement in domestic policy is substantial.

The principal source of hostility to Blair is his instinctive alliance with the United States. Aspersions against "Bush's poodle" are as ubiquitous as they are ill-conceived. Blair's belief in humanitarian intervention predates President Bush. It is principally due to Blair that Slobodan Milosevic's genocidal aggression was stymied in Kosovo and that murderous hand-lopping rebels in Sierra Leone were rebuffed.

After September 11, Blair stood with the United States not out of deference but because he understood two great facts of the international order since the cold war. First, a new variant of theocratic terrorism gains sustenance from the pathologies of tyranny in the Middle East. Second, in the absence of a supranational organization that exercises the sovereignty necessary to implement international law, the United States is the guarantor of order and liberty. The place of democratic nations, benefiting from those global public goods, is alongside the United States. The maladministration and disasters of post-Saddam Iraq are legion. The prospect of a conclusive resolution to that war is slim. But much the same was true of Harry Truman's commitment of troops to Korea, now a largely "forgotten" war that nonetheless needed to be fought in response to direct totalitarian aggression.

Tony Blair believes the overthrow of Baathist tyranny in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan will be historically vindicated while remaining politically unpopular. I believe he is right. Blair has been a good and effective prime minister. He will also be--unexpectedly, and with no obvious previous interest in foreign affairs--an outstanding figure in diplomatic history and the defense of Western civilization.


Alex Massie

Once upon a time, long ago, an American president asked a Labour prime minister for help in an unpopular war. In 1966, Lyndon Johnson asked Britain to contribute to the Vietnam war effort. According to Prime Minister Harold Wilson, the president had told him that "a platoon of bagpipers would be sufficient, it was the British flag that was needed." He refused. Two years later Secretary of State Dean Rusk lamented, "All we needed was a regiment. The Black Watch would have done." Wilson had bucked Great Britain's orthodox (and default) foreign policy position of deferring to its American ally and patron.

Whatever else he may be accused of, no one, I think, can deny that Tony Blair has more than made up for Wilson's unwillingness to involve Britain in America's imperial adventures. The Black Watch has played its part, too, serving with distinction in Mesopotamia. And that may be Blair's legacy as much as anything else.

Blair swept into Downing Street declaring he wanted Britain to be at the "heart of Europe," yet the Blair years have sometimes suggested that the English Channel is broader than the Atlantic Ocean. The prime minister's belief that Great Britain can be a bridge between the United States and Europe has been sorely tested since Bush took office. Sometimes, it has seemed as though traffic runs only one way.

But that analysis ignores the real influence Blair has had upon Washington--not least in convincing many Democrats that the war was justified and prudent. (Whether his influence was beneficial is an entirely different matter.) That's why Labourite Gordon Brown's biggest challenge may be to balance Great Britain's interests in Europe with its commitment to the Atlantic alliance. We may expect some subtle distancing from Washington, if only to demonstrate that Brown is his own man.

It won't be an easy task to show independence, given that Brown is instinctively and intellectually even more of an Atlanticist than Blair was when he became prime minister. Where Blair prefers to holiday in Tuscany or Catalonia, Brown spends part of each summer in New England.

Brown's favorite political biography is Robert Caro's monumental study of Lyndon Johnson, of which he wrote in 2002, "[S]urprisingly with LBJ there is real achievement. He made the desirable possible. Without the debacle of Vietnam he was heading to be one of the great domestic policy Presidents." Swap Iraq for Vietnam and it might once have seemed possible to say the same of Tony Blair.

Blair claimed last week that, on his watch, "Britain is not a follower. It is a leader." But many of his countrymen would dispute the first half of that sentiment while wondering quite where the prime minister was intent on leading the country. It's a question Brown will have to answer because Blair failed to.


David Fontana

What, exactly, is Tony Blair's legacy? With Iraq at the center of the news, much of the coverage of his decision to step down as prime minister next month concluded that his legacy is nothing too substantial. Indeed, The New York Times reported that Blair is not widely considered to be "one of Britain's greatest prime ministers" and is instead in a "secondary tier" of British leaders.

This is only half right. Blair has done as much to change the policy and constitutional structure of his country as any British leader in several hundred years--and more than perhaps any other Western leader in the past generation. But, because it appears that he did not realign the political and electoral life of his country behind his Labour Party, his legacy will be that of an important policy transformer--but not a political transformer.

Blair was in power for only ten years, but the changes he pushed through during those ten years make your head spin. The United Kingdom has been, for several hundred years, one of the more centralized countries in the Western world. Led by Blair, Scotland now has a Parliament, and so does Wales; Northern Ireland exercises more self-government than it has in some time; and cities like London now govern themselves much more than before, with their own elected mayors. For hundreds of years, Britain has had a substantially hereditary second branch of the legislature, the House of Lords; Blair led the process of reforming the House of Lords by removing almost all hereditary peers. Blair changed the way that health care and education operate, by creating market mechanisms and other similar systems of quality control. The United Kingdom has for the past several decades been one of the few democracies in the world without a written constitution enforced by courts; so, in 1998, Blair pushed through Parliament the passage of the Human Rights Act, which creates a de facto written constitutional regime, with a new Supreme Court at front and center.

And, of course, as Blair said in his speech last Thursday announcing his resignation, when it comes to its role in the world, "Britain is not a follower, it is a leader." We might not remember this now in the context of the failed role that Britain has played in Iraq, but Blair also led efforts to halt genocide in the Balkans, to create peace in Sierra Leone, and to banish poverty and disease from Africa.

Still, with all of these revolutionary changes in the way Britain operates, both at home and in the world, Blair might be remembered as much for his failure to create a lasting change in the political dynamics of his country as for his policy triumphs. Blair won huge landslides in 1997 and 2001, but much less so in 2005. Membership in the Labour Party--and political identification with the Labour Party--never really seemed set to grow in the long-term under his watch, and, in the short term at least, it may have decreased. In many ways, indeed, Blair has simply continued to pursue a version of the centrist political coalitions that Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher used to stay in office for twelve years.

So, decades from now, we will surely remember Blair as a transformative leader. But, unlike figures like FDR or Reagan, we won't be talking about him for being a transformative leader when it comes to politics as well as policy; rather, Blair's legacy is in Britain's policies.

By David Fontana