Blair begins his retreat from spotlight

«A faultless person is one who withdraws from affairs. This must be done with strength,» according to the Hagakure, the book of the Samurai. From the 18th century feudalism of Japan to the 21st century fatalism of western politics, finding the courage to give up power has always been a cause for personal turmoil among warriors and politicians. British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave his last Labor Party conference speech on Tuesday, announcing that he will relinquish power next year. «Of course it is hard to let go. But it is also right to let go. For the country, and for you, the party,» Blair told the Labor Party conference in Manchester. Blair will become the longest-serving Labor prime minister, overtaking Harold Wilson, when he leaves 10 Downing Street. But the debate over Blair’s legacy will last much longer. When he came to power in 1997 thanks to a historic landslide victory over the Conservatives, few could have predicted that Blair would be struggling to defend his record when leaving office a decade later. Blair left himself open to accusations of personal vanity because of his reluctance to step down when it was clear that his «Teflon Tony» image had been irreparably tarnished. «The only legacy that matters to me is a fourth election victory,» Blair said on Tuesday. His determination to hang on to power may have compromised his successor’s opportunity to achieve this. The turning point for Tony Blair’s relationship with the British public was his decision to take part in the Iraq war. When around 1 million people marched in the streets of London on February 15 three years ago, there was tangible evidence that the luster of Blair’s premiership was fading fast. Many critics argued that Blair was more obsessed with spin rather than substance, that he was more of an advertising executive than a politician. The anti-war demonstration in 2003 was the biggest indication that many voters no longer liked the product he was selling. The invasion of Iraq also precipitated other problems for Blair, such as his ugly battle with the BBC and his refusal to accept he had been wrong to back the war since no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. Even in his conference speech he insisted that withdrawing from Afghanistan and Iraq now would be a «craven act of surrender that would put our future security at risk.» His stubbornness over Iraq proved a chink in the armor of the man who was once the shining knight taking Britain out of the gray hopelessness of the Conservative era. On Tuesday, Blair came close to admitting he had made a mistake. «The British people forgive a wrong decision but they won’t forgive not deciding,» he said. Blair is now seen by many in Britain and Europe as an arrogant and stubborn leader who sought to inflate Britain’s importance on the international stage by being subservient to the USA. However, the catcalls ringing out as the curtain comes down on the Blair show should not detract from the fact that during his political career he has given some spectacular performances. Principle and power Blair became an MP in 1983 at the age of 30 and within 11 years he was the leader of the Labor Party. But it was in molding the party around his political vision that Blair showed his true skill. After losing the 1992 election, Labor seemed to be doomed to failure. When Blair took over two years later, he did so with one main goal in mind: to make the party electable. «We abandoned the ridiculous, self-imposed dilemma between principle and power,» Blair told his audience in Manchester. Within three years he had stripped down and rebuilt Labor with single-minded decisiveness that resonated with voters who had drifted away from the party, which was lost in a left-wing labyrinth. He was ruthless in modernizing the party. He addressed his first party conference in Blackpool in 1994 with the slogan «New Labor, New Britain» emblazoned on a pistachio-colored backdrop. Out went the party’s traditional color of red and in came «New Labor,» the reformed and repackaged version that would take its leader to No 10. «Courage is our friend, caution is our enemy,» he told the Labor members at the time. The key moment in this process was when Blair took a sledgehammer to Clause 4 of Labor’s constitution, which committed the party to running a nationalized economy. Blair realized that voters had backed many of Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies and Labor would need to shift to the right if it wanted to return to power after 18 years of Tory rule. «They say I hate the party and its traditions,» he said on Tuesday. «I don’t. I love this party. There’s only one tradition I ever hated: losing.» However, the rewriting of Clause 4 was as much about Blair stamping his authority on the party as it was about taking Labor on a journey to the political center, which the party has owned ever since. In Manchester, Blair summed up why choosing to follow the famed Third Way was the only viable option. «Values unrelated to modern reality are not just electorally hopeless, the values themselves become devalued,» he said. «They have no purchase on the real world.» The argument of how to mold these values is perhaps the most politically relevant question of our time. It is the issue that will trouble Blair’s successor and it is the dilemma that the new leader of the Conservatives David Cameron is currently grappling with. It is not just in Britain that the issue will dominate the political landscape. With local elections in a few weeks and general elections less than 18 months away, the values of Greece’s political parties will also be fully tested. Greek lessons Although their arenas are very different, some parallels can be drawn between the task Blair faced in reforming the Labor Party and George Papandreou’s efforts to haul PASOK back into power. Like Labor in the early 1990s, PASOK is a party that is finding it difficult to escape its past. Although Costas Simitis managed in part to marry PASOK’s Socialist roots with a more centrist approach when he was prime minister, the project appears to have stalled now. Papandreou was made leader of the party with the aim of reforming it but he has become knotted in a struggle for PASOK’s soul with party stalwarts. A key reason for this is the way in which Papandreou was anointed as Simitis’s successor without a leadership contest. It has left Papandreou open to sniping from within his own party. Meanwhile, Gordon Brown – Tony Blair’s apparent successor – has wisely said that he wants a genuine leadership contest, not a «coronation.» Papandreou has also failed to mark out the battleground on which he faces up to Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and New Democracy. At the Thessaloniki International Fair earlier this month, the PASOK leader set out some of his ideas on creating a «just society.» His offerings included policies on reducing unemployment and changing the tax system to favor low-income groups. However, he also peppered his speech with accusations of corruption against Karamanlis and the government. These statements received the most coverage, leaving many voters in the dark about PASOK’s policy agenda. Some polls show a narrowing of the gap between PASOK and New Democracy in the wake of the Mevgal case and other graft allegations and the Socialists are focusing their attack on this area. However, the polls also indicate that the Greek public is savvy enough to know that the cultivation of vested interests over a number of decades means that corruption no longer has any political color or persuasion. Promising to fight corruption is not a political policy, it is a given. While in opposition, Karamanlis may have campaigned on an anti-corruption platform but he was trying to oust a party that was into its third decade in power. The Conservatives in Britain were also accused of «sleaze» before New Labor pushed them out of office. However, Blair’s strength lay in making his party’s ideology very clear to voters and not in questioning the morals of the Tories. PASOK under Papandreou has yet to achieve this clarity. What Blair’s legacy can also show Papandreou is that he has to establish complete authority over his party and to achieve this, he must be ruthless. The Hagakure may say you need strength to withdraw from affairs but you need even greater strength to take control of them. Tony Blair was not faultless but after 12 years as head of the Labor Party, he has proven his leadership skills.