The departure of an important leader

Tony Blair’s departure from Downing Street, after 10 years as Britain’s prime minister, will deprive Europe of its most significant leader of the past decade. Even though his participation in the US-led war in Iraq undeniably tarnished his image, it is likely that history will be kind to him. Following the example of former US president Bill Clinton, Blair transformed the Left in his country and, by extension, in the rest of Europe too. He made the Left less dogmatic, ensured that it penetrated all levels of society and ultimately made it more effective. He shifted his New Labour party toward the center of the political spectrum and liberated it from its fixation with the extremist socialist recipe that had condemned it to 18 years in opposition. And society responded, handing Blair’s party three consecutive electoral victories. Blair’s «Third Way» actually boasts a wealth of achievements which his most vociferous critics choose to overlook: the introduction of a minimum wage, a massive increase in state health spending, education reforms, a decade of economic growth, and low inflation coupled with low unemployment. Blair’s humane and discrete response to the death of Princess Diana – in contrast with the cold and arrogant stance adopted by Buckingham Palace – brought him closer to the average British citizen who was grieving for the loss of a woman who had become a global symbol of humanity. Blair was also the driving force behind the decision by members of the G-8 group of developed countries to write off the debts of the poor countries of Africa. He succeeded in ending the bloody civil war in Northern Ireland and securing the Olympic Games for 2012. After 10 years of Blair in power, British society is undoubtedly more tolerant. Particularly now that Muslim extremists are a widespread source of concern, one wonders how much less tolerant British society would be if someone like Margaret Thatcher, with her notoriously inflexible view on immigrants, had been in power. It is the lot of every British premier to be branded America’s «Trojan horse» in Europe. However, it is also true that Europe’s interests are not necessarily served by a head-on clash across the Atlantic. Seen in this light, Blair’s balancing role has been constructive. Blair himself believes in Europe and has tried to curb the average Briton’s inherent Euroskepticism. But then came Iraq. This was indisputably Blair’s major blunder. The usually far-sighted premier failed to foresee the true repercussions of September 11, becoming trapped on a common course with an ideologically extreme US president. But it would be unfair to disregard all his achievements. The 54-year-old Blair leaves behind him a more prosperous, more egalitarian society than the one he inherited, and a Britain that is more self-confident and closer to Europe.