Goodbye, Tony

Has Britain got better under Blair?

, by Guy Bromley

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Goodbye, Tony

In the run up to the 1997 UK parliamentary election there were high hopes for Britain’s youngest Prime Minister since 1812. He would transform Britain: a country that had fallen behind compared to its continental neighbours would have vastly improved public services, an end to the social divisions created by eighteen years of Conservative government, and a new, more internationalist edge that would take it confidently into the 21st Century.

Domestic front

Whilst Blair seems to have become an almost permanent political fixture, were it not for a series of shocks in British politics would he be in the position he is, nor would the Labour Party have the political direction that it currently holds. All polls in Britain’s 1992 General Election showed a Labour victory to be almost certain. Britain at that time was being badly bruised by a difficult recession and the Conservatives unpopular - particularly for their introduction of the regressive poll tax - a community charge that led, unusually for the law-abiding Brits, to mass riots and non-payment.

However, the Labour Party did not win this election, and Neil Kinnock (who’s wife, Glenys, is a current MEP) stepped down as leader to be succeeded by John Smith. Whilst John Smith started to reform the Labour Party it was not really until 1994, when John Smith died suddenly of a heart attack, and Tony Blair succeeded him as leader, that the biggest changes started to take place.

The biggest shift to the political direction of the Labour Party was the moment when, in April 1995, following Blair’s recommendation, the Party’s commitment to nationalisation was replaced with a new clause stating that the Labour Party was a democratic socialist party.

Tony Blair is a man with naturally pro-European convictions...

And what about Britain´s relationship with Europe?

Blair’s foreword to Labour’s 1997 manifesto contained ten priorities, the tenth of which was “We will give Britain the leadership in Europe which Britain and Europe need.” Tony Blair is a man with naturally pro-European convictions, but has he managed to console this with his ardent atlanticism?

The Euro

Blair has always stated that he felt it should be Britain’s aim to seek membership of the single currency, but it seems that his major political opponent and now successor Gordon Brown’s ‘Five Economics Tests’ made this impossible. In the early periods in his premiership Blair enjoyed approval ratings up to around 75% - the time when a referendum on the Euro could most easily have been won. Blair always says that he regrets that he did not go far enough in pushing improvement in public services in his first term, but one of his other major failures was not to provide positive leadership on Europe, and in particular, on the Euro. By not speaking out in favour of the single currency early on, the Eurosceptic press gained the lead in the argument, a press which Blair has ended up appeasing on the Constitution, too.

Unholy alliances

It was unsurprising that Blair, as the leader of a British social democratic government, formed such a close personal relationship with US Democrat President Bill Clinton. But such a close relationship with conservative, clumsy George Bush never seemed to be a likely partnership. Yet British foreign engagements have never been more closely linked with the USA than in the past six and a half years. And Tony Blair preferred to cultivate personal relationships with Europe’s right wing leaders, like Berlusconi and Aznar rather than more natural allies like Schröder or Zapatero. Blair’s decision to launch the Iraq war has surely been a major factor in isolating Blair in a Franco-German dominated EU.

Conclusion

Blair may not have succeeded in bringing Britain to the core of the EU, but Britain has become a much more European in the sense that it has become a more tolerant, caring country in the past ten years. Spending on Education, Health and Transport has been more than doubled, child poverty is down, and the gap between the richest and the poorest has decreased under Blair’s leadership. Although Britain’s healthy economy, which was the fourth biggest in the EU at the beginning of the 1990s, and is now comfortably its second biggest, has helped to pay for a lot of this huge increase in public spending, taxes have gone up too, with opinion polls showing that British people no longer think low tax is necessarily best. Blair has also ensured that Britain has become a country that can feel good about itself- we are now a much more optimistic nation than we were before Blair.

Tony Blair ends his ten years in power as an unpopular Prime Minister whose major legacy seems to be the mess that is the Iraq war. Britain still remains outside the inner core of the EU, and does not appear to be getting any closer to the centre. But I think he has been a transformational Prime Minister for Britain - he will be missed more than we all now know.

Image:

- Tony Blair at King’s College London, source: Flickr

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