Wednesday, April 05, 2006


Blair Already has his Legacy

Tony Blair has become obsessed with his ‘legacy’ as his period in power approaches the end he ordained in autumn 2004 by announcing he would not contest the next election. With Gordon Brown constantly snapping at his heels and keen to step into his shoes, the (maybe regretful) Blair manoeuvred for time, saying there was much he still wanted to achieve. It became a commonplace of politics that he wanted to leave something, an array of things maybe, to rank with Attlee’s welfare state or Thatcher’s turning around of the economy. Public service reform was known to be high on his list of priorities-shiny new modernized health and education services would be a lasting achievement which would go down in history associated with his name.

However, public services offered a contradictory set of pressures. They became black holes for investment of tax- payers’ money but Blair’s Conservative style market reforms infuriated union leaders and Labour MPs alike thus hampering progress towards any genuine reform. Throughout the public remained massively unconvinced that any substantial improvements in the public services had taken place anyway. However, the one major legacy which Blair can arguably say he has already been achieved: nothing less than the death of Thatcherism.

When he came to power, Thatcher had changed the political weather. She had declared war successfully on: union power, over-manning, secondary picketing, high tax and spend politics and inefficient nationalized industries. Blair came to lead Labour just when it had began to adjust-under Kinnock and Smith- to the new realities of a globalised economy. He recognized that legalized union restraint had to be retained, that inflation had to be sat on firmly and that changes needed to improve competitiveness had to be encouraged. He worked hard to edge his party away from its traditionally held positions and succeeded. He did not mind, very early on in his reign, inviting Margaret Thatcher around to her old home in Downing St in a symbolic sign to his party that there would be quite a bit of continuity.

One result was the absolute clamp down he and Brown declared on expenditure during their first two years in power. In retrospect this time can be seen, perhaps, as the high tide of Thatcherism. Once he won his second term and Brown began to deploy the billions of accumulated treasure his skilful stewardship of the economy had garnered, New Labour slipped back into the social democratic traditions of what has become known as 'Old' Labour. The public were not convinced he was working any magic in schools and the NHS but most could see that at the very least, the disastrous decline had ceased. Meanwhile the Conservatives stewed in their fratricidal juice, mourning their own assassination of their great leader and failing to rise in the polls above their one 30 per cent core vote. Each attempt at a ‘compassionate Conservatism’ was soon followed by a reversion to the hallowed tenets of Thatcherism, the gaunt, familiar features of Norman Tebbitt serving as her mouthpiece in the political market place.

Blair had stolen their clothes but had subtly retained his own party's character as liberal, tolerant and dedicated to improving the place of the less well off majority. As leader followed leader the Conservatives finally got the message: they would have to change, just as Labour did starting in the mid eighties- David Cameron being the eventual result. Now the litmus teat for a new policy is, amazingly it seems, 'what it can do for the disadvantaged'. Homophobia is out; environmentalism is very much in; pro business yes, but at a distance; tax cuts maybe but not until the economy can sustain them-public service spending has to be a priority. Already the signs of Blair’s greatest legacy perhaps are evident in our present politics: Thatcher finished off left wing socialism but Blair has put paid to rightwing Conservatism, probably for all time. Now that is a legacy of which any left of centre politician can be exceedingly proud.

"that is a legacy of which any left of centre politician can be exceedingly proud" - hear hear!

But I'm not sure you're right about his having "become obsessed with his ‘legacy’". This seems to be a fantasy dreamt up by political commentators with too little with which to fill their pages.

I think his strategy of staying in office to take the flak for some necessary but unpopular reforms is in Labour's best long-term interest. Whoever succeeds him a few months before the next election will still have novelty value and will, at least in part, be untainted by what Mr Blair is seen to have done.

And if he were to go now, after promising to stay, the opposition and press could have three years of field days with his 'unelected' successor.
Good point Hughesey
Have to disagree. In what sense has Blair put paid to right-wing Conservatism, when much of what he has done, in foreign affairs, in the "homeland security" arena, and most notably in the "marketisation" of public services, has been even more "right-wing" than anything Mrs Thatcher did?

The sum total of Blair's long hegemony has been to shift the centre of gravity of British politics several degrees to the right.
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