Friday, 11 May 2007

The Blair years: a personal reflection

Tony Blair's announcement of his departure has been followed by a predictable slew of hastily-composed retrospectives. It's far too early for a proper assessment of his complex legacy, but here are a few personal reflections to be going on with.

I re-joined theLabour Party on the day that Tony Blair became its leader, partly because I believed that here, at last, was the person who would reinvigorate the Party after its decade and a half in the doldrums. But it was also because of a close personal identification - being of roughly the same generation as Blair and having shared the same political trajectory, from Bennite, CND-supporting Labour leftism in the early '80s, through frustration with the futile years of opposition and oppositionalism, then support for Neil Kinnock's reforming leadership and frustration when even that didn't deliver the necessary shift in electoral fortunes. (Incidentally, I've always disagreed strongly with the revisionist rewriting of history that claims John Smith could have won in 1997, and that there was no need for Labour to change so dramatically. Look up Philip Gould's book and read the polling evidence that deep public distrust of Labour didn't start to shift until Tony Blair made major changes to Labour's policies and structures.)

As a parent and primary school governor during Blair's time as PM, I've seen the huge investment in schools and improvements in standards at first hand - though I've been less happy with his efforts at secondary level, which have been driven by a mistaken belief that parents want 'choice' rather than a good, genuinely comprehensive school in every locality. In my professional life, I've seen the unprecedented investment in Sure Start and other initiatives aimed at poor children and families. Like Polly Toynbee, though, I've often been frustrated with Labour for not shouting more loudly about these achievements, and with the electorate for not giving the government credit for them, and for assuming that they just dropped out of the sky.

Unlike some on the Left, I don't think Blair's foreign policy has been a total disaster, and I think in the longterm he will be remembered for positive interventions such as those in Sierra Leone and Kosovo. As for Iraq: well, it's frustrating that the lies and spin about the reasons for war obscured the genuine humanitarian case for removing a dictatorial thug who was murdering his own people and threatening his neighbours. And maybe Blair could have used his influence in Washington to prevent the disastrous mismanagement of the peace that followed the stunning success of the military campaign - or maybe not.

Despite my great admiration for him, I think one of Tony's failings is that he has never had an instinctive sympathy for the liberal and democratic traditions of the British Left. Sometimes, as in the case of ID cards and House of Lords reform, his instincts have been paternalist and centralising, rather than liberal and democratic.

But don't forget the minimum wage, low unemployment, devolution, Northern Ireland, civil partnerships and, as Polly Toynbee says in today's Guardian, perhaps his greatest achievement has been shifting the terms of the debate, so that even the Tories now have to fight on Labour's traditional ground of public services and social justice. Thanks to Tony, you could say, we are all social democrats now.


You can't move for instant-epitaphs on the Blair years today. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury has had a go. While praising the PM for some of his achievements, the Archbish agrees to differ over Iraq, and thanks Tone for his support for organised religion. According to Ekklesia:

Referring to the growth of what he sees as a narrow-agenda form of secularism, Dr Williams went on: "The Church of England, in common with all people of faith, is grateful that over the past ten years the Prime Minister has refused the demands of some to close down the space in our society within which both vigorous debate and the full diversity of religious conviction can find voice and be expressed."

I can't better Ekklesia's wry comment on this:

Others will argue that bishops in an unelected House of Lords and religious selection in publicly-funded schools are not so much spaces of open debate but archaic privileges which narrow participation.

Gone, obviously, are the heady days of 'Faith in the City' and liberation theology, when you might expect a Christian leader to provide a critique of government policy in the light of Christian teaching about justice, compassion etc. Instead Tony is praised for defending the interests of Religion Inc, as if it were just another interest group competing for government support.

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