Blair bows out with broken string

Before going on to study law at Oxford University, Tony Blair took a year off and tried to become a rock star. He failed. Less than 30 years later, he would become Britain’s youngest prime minister in almost 200 years. After a global farewell tour, Blair will today tender his resignation and bring an end to 10 years at 10 Downing Street. By the end of the day, Tony will have left the building. As with any rock star who retires, people have begun analyzing the body of work that Blair has left behind. Understandably, there has been much emphasis on Iraq. Blair had hoped this would be his defining moment. It was, but for the wrong reasons. However, the current chaos in Iraq seems to have obscured another Blair legacy which is less obvious but equally ominous. Blair was the first European leader to truly harness communication techniques to ensure he was in tune with the majority of voters. He admitted earlier this month that after leaving office, he will not be an «ex-politician» but a «former celebrity.» This is what Europe can expect from most of its leaders as a result of Blair’s success. But the obsession with how his government was perceived rather than what it was doing was Blair’s curse. It led to the sacrifice of vision in favor of opportunism while social justice became a byproduct rather than a goal. If that is the best Blair, who won three elections comfortably and presided over one of the world’s most successful economies, could manage, then it leaves a bleak message for the future of 21st century Europe. Just over 50 percent of Britons had «very high hopes» of Blair when he was first elected in 1997 but he ended up being a «great disappointment,» according to a poll published in The Times last month. A decade on, it is easy to forget just how momentous Blair’s election victory was. In a landslide victory in the May 1 elections of 1997 that represented the biggest swing of voters in British political history, Tony Blair’s New Labour swept out of power a Conservative Party that was arrogant, out of touch and politically inept. Their worst qualities were represented by Defense Minister Michael Portillo, who lost his seat at those elections. The footage of his constituency’s result being announced was voted the third-favorite British TV moment of the 20th century. That is how much Britain was crying out for change. To Blair’s credit, he brought about some of that change. A minimum wage, albeit fairly low, was introduced. Poor families were given increased benefits through a tax credit scheme. More child care and nursery facilities were made available to working parents. Civil partnerships for homosexuals were approved. There were advances in education and health, although both sectors are still in need of further reform. Backed by a stable economy, Blair was able to increase public spending and make a pledge to eliminate child poverty in Britain by 2020. He was also at the forefront of campaigns to tackle poverty and climate change around the world, which clearly appealed to his rock star aspirations. Blair’s achievements forced Portillo, now a mild-mannered political commentator, to concede that the outgoing prime minister «leaves behind a country more easygoing than the one he inherited, less insular and more self-confident.» Not satisfied with overhauling the Labour Party, Blair has also, in effect, reformed the wayward Conservatives. After three election defeats and a series of leaders that were born losers, the Tories have now picked a Blair clone, David Cameron, to lead them back to power. The similarity between the two has been facilitated by Blair’s insistence on rejecting Labour’s traditional leftist path and instead carving out a «third way.» It has completely blurred the distinctions between Britain’s political parties.This is the crux of the problem with Blair. What started as a political reawakening aiming to make the public sector more responsive to people’s needs has ended up giving us government by focus group. The most manifest form of this was in Blair’s policy of «triangulation,» which saw New Labour essentially steal a series of Conservative policies. The idea was that if a Tory policy resonated with the public, then Labour should appear to the right of it and surround their opposition. It was one of the many tactics that New Labour copied from Bill Clinton’s Democrats but it ridiculed the political process. There are many examples of the worrying impact that it had, such as the cowardly scapegoating of asylum seekers and immigrants at a time when Britain was desperately looking abroad for doctors and nurses to staff a struggling health system. Private Finance Initiatives, where the private sector borrowed money to pay for a public project and then leased it back to the government, were embraced without question even when they were a bad deal for the country. Blair courted the business world as his government managed a prosperous economy. But too often that prosperity was enjoyed by the few. Salaries for fat cats in city firms rocketed while the incomes of the poorest fifth in British society fell and families struggle to keep up with house prices. His relationship with the business world produced another ugly side effect – the fetid whiff of corruption. In his first speech as premier, Blair told his MPs that they had to be «whiter than white.» It proved to be another case of Blair «spin» rather than belief. There are many examples of lax morals but the recent cash-for-honors scandal, likely to lead to some of Blair’s closest aides being prosecuted, was the moment that Britain realized that the outgoing prime minister was no rock star. He has been miming the lyrics all along. The triangulation tactic also led to a series of bizarre crime laws as Labour fell over itself trying to appeal to readers of Britain’s conservative tabloids The Sun and the Daily Mail. Blair’s cozy relationship with The Sun and his baleful squabble with the BBC over its coverage of the Iraq war left a sour taste, especially as the latter was conducted in the wake of the suicide of government scientist Dr David Kelly and over the dead bodies of thousands of civilians and soldiers. And so back to Iraq. It was a decision that wrecked his carefully cultivated relationship with much of the media and the left. But this was the same left that had lambasted the Tories for dealing with Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and not removing him from power after he gassed the Kurds. No rock star can please all of the people all of the time. But having more than just displeased them, Blair leaves office knowing that the fragile bond of trust between politicians and voters has been broken, perhaps beyond repair. Only 17 percent of Britons now believe the government can be trusted to put the interests of the country ahead of the party, according to an Ipsos Mori poll this month. Blair’s first concert as a fledgling rock star was a disaster. The band’s drums fell apart, the audience booed and walked out. Much of Britain will have its back turned as Blair walks off the stage today. If these backs stay turned on the political process, it will be Blair’s most damning legacy.

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