Saturday, December 24, 2005


Blair's Legacy

We read constantly that Tony Blair is obsessed with his legacy, that he cannot dream of retiring until he has achieved a certain satisfactory level of key objectives. Debate exists as to what these legacy issues are but few dispute their existence. So I thought I'd have a go at identifying some of them together with reviewing what he has achieved so far.

Legacy Issues

Public services
Blair has passionately argued for bringing public services up to a much higher level of efficiency and delivery to the public. His insistence on hammering away on education, health and benefits suggests that this is the major remaining legacy activity area.

This has been the political 'black hole' of his time in power, sucking down political capital and threathening, as an issue, to linger like a black toxic cloud over his historical reputation. Some American players, and even commentators, believe the invaded country can achieve democratic stability within a few years. But the chances of constant bloodshed and incipient civil war being converted to peace before Blair goes-probably before the end of 2008- are almost zero.

Blair has always wanted to cement Britain into the frameworks of the EU: the euro and the inner counsels of the leading members. Perhaps it has been the endemic contradictions of the euro which has kept us out of the eurozone but for most observers it has been the staunch opposition of Gordon Brown which has been the key factor. As for the inner counsels bit, it has been the disaster of Iraq, yet again, which has scorched his chances of writing his name in bold in future EU history books.

The British economy has succeeded in maintaining growth for the whole of the time Blair has been prime Minister and it upon that which any success which has been achieved, has been based. The problem is, from the legacy side, is that it is Brown's which seems to have been the presiding genius here. Blair has been frozen out of much economic and even domestic spending departmental policy, by the man whom he himself appointed as his Chancellor.

Achievments so Far

Social Justice
Blair can look back with satisfaction at:
a) the minimum wage which has rubbished Consrvative preedictions of disastrous unemployment and raised 2 million low paid workers out of poverty;
b) over a million children have been taken out of the poverty bracket by adjustments to benefits;
c) pensioner poverty has reduced from 40% in 1997 to 17% now;
d) Sure Start centres to bolster the early upbringing of children in problem areas has had a mixed record so far but, if the experience of countries like Sweden are repeated over here- this could prove a valuable legacy too.

Public services
Spending on education and health has soared but public satisfaction with such services has not been commensurate: over half of recent poll respondents do not believe basic services have improved hardly at all. It could be that individuals- who report favourable experiences of their own treatment- are influenced by media criticisms of services as a whole but the results make grim reading from the value for money angle. Blair has followed reform routes- internal markets, private enterprise involvement-which are essentially those favoured by Conservative predecessors. It could be that there are more cost-effective strategies which he could have adopted, or it could be- as Max Hastings suggested in The Guardian 5th December 2005, that New Labour 'has failed to master the art of tanslating aspiration into achievement through effective administration'. Certainly the dire record of transport policy would seem to suggest Hastings' analysis is close to the truth.

Even if Brown has done the spadework, Blair deserves some credit for appointing the man and supporting him. Team leaders should receive a degree of credit for what team members have achieved, though how much is admittedly debatable.

Since 1997 indictable crime has fallen by some 40% yet polls exhibit little awareness it has declined at all, suggesting either statistical failings or an inability of the public to discen improvement even when it occurs.

Northern Ireland
Here Blair has invested a huge amount of effort, like Major before him, and the results have been, if not wholly successful, then commendably partially so. No doubt hundreds of people would have died but for Blair's attempts to solve the problems of the province; in 2004 a mere 4 people died.

Blair may be expecting too much from a 'legacy portfolio'. To ask virtually for his own chapter in history books smacks perhaps a little too much of hubris. To have presided over such a huge increase in the wealth of his country, funded public services up to EU levels in the case of health and have brought an albeit brittle peace to Ulster, is surely legacy enough for most Prime Ministers who often have only the wreckage of failure to look back on. Not to say there aren't a few pieces of wreckage for Blair to contemplate, one of them, of course, looming monstrously large. As Hastings put it: 'Blair is left today struggling, with increasingly clumsy haste to create achievements that will outlast his tenancy in Downing St. Yet events in Baghdad negate them all and are beyond his control. The Blair legacy is sealed and witnessed beyond amendement or codicil, and a tragically ugly one it is.'

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