Thursday, May 10, 2007

So farewell then Tony Blair

Today's media consensus is that the public has undergone a long process of disillusionment with Tony Blair.

My own experience has been the reverse. When he was first elected it seemed obvious to me that he was an actor more than a statesman - and a terribly bad actor at that. All those speeches with his voice thick with unshed tears - the best known is his reaction to the death of the Princess of Wales, but there were many more - were so palpably insincere that I was convinced that the public would see through him any day.

Well, it took years to happen, and by the time it did I started to find myself with a grudging respect for his longevity and skill as a political operator. Still, I cannot pretend to be anything other than delighted that he is going.

So let's try as objective a survey of his record as we can manage.

The economy has performed well, but that it down to Gordon Brown more than Tony Blair. And (though it hurts Labour and Liberal Democrats to admit it) it is down even more to the Blair government's lack of intervention in the economy. Certainly, New Labour partisans have greatly overestimated the impact of initiatives like the New Deal.

Blair's record on constitutional reform is mixed. Reform of the House of Lords did begin, but removing the bulk of the (predominantly Tory) hereditary peers seemed to be the summit of his ambitions. Initiatives like "People's Peers" turned out to be the worst sort of gimmickry and we now have a House which, at least in the public mind, is dominated by Tony's cronies just as it used to dominated by bovine Conservative landowners. What progress there has been seems to be down to Robin Cook and Jack Straw rather than Blair.

Liberal Democrats will welcome devolution to Scotland and Wales, but this was an agenda left over from the pre-Blair Labour Party and was aimed largely at dishing the Nationalists. Progress was also made in Northern Ireland, though that progress has its roots in the Major and Thatcher governments. Still, in both cases one has to admire Blair's political skills, if not his ideological novelty.

Labour supporters will point to extra spending on health and education, but it is not clear that it has produced the dividends that it ought to have produced. From recent family experience, I know that not all is well in the health service and that standards vary widely between different hospitals. And perhaps I am getting old, but the world I see around me - the papers I have to edit, the way television has changed - does not convince me that there has been the remarkable improvement in educational standards that Labour claims. If there had, shouldn't we see more people reading Dostoevsky on the bus?

Liberal Democrats welcomed the extra spending, but our analysis that the overcentralisation of control practised by Labour limited its effectiveness seems ever surer.

And then come foreign affairs. We should not forget that Paddy Ashdown spent the Major years demanding intervention in the former Yugoslavia. While I am becoming increasingly sceptical of what armed intervention can achieve, that is not the mainstream Liberal view.

What is damaging about the Iraq episode - damaging to the way Blair must be judged - is the way Tony Blair based the case for war on Saddam's supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction. Yet when he is questioned today he tells his critics that if they had had their way Saddam would still be in power.

This is disingenuous in so many ways. As Charles Kennedy has just reminded us on Newsnight, even at the last minute, Blair was prepared to see Saddam stay in power if only he would comply with United Nations resolutions. It also shows an odd view of history - numerous dictators have fallen without our intervention, just as Apartheid ended and the Berlin Wall was torn down without it too.

Listening to Blair now, you get the distinct feeling that in his mind he really did take on his opponents and argue the case for regime change. But in reality, he never had the courage.

Which is why his political epitaph will be: Iraq, Iraq, Iraq.

1 comment:

Antipholus Papps said...

What is damaging about the Iraq atrocity is that Blair lied in order to plan and wage aggressive war. This is the supreme international crime for which we hanged Nazis at Nuremberg. That's the bottom line. Not only is he a war criminal, he is also a traitor. He conspired with a foreign regime to mislead us.