Blunders, yes, but idealism, too

Terrible mistakes have been made, but overall I believe the historical judgement on the Blair years

Ten years ago a group of academics, journalists and politicians met to talk about the forthcoming Labour government, and just after the 1997 election we published a book based on those discussions, entitled New Labour in Power: precedents and prospects. On 11 September we will meet again to see what we got right and what we got wrong. That date alone - five years to the day since the 9/11 bombings - is a reminder of one important thing none of us saw coming. It will also be hard to resist thinking about what has changed about us, rather than Labour, since 1996.

Progressive governments always end in tears, as this one seems doomed to do. In 1951, 1970 and 1979 Labour not only lost power but then suffered prolonged periods of personal and ideological civil war. This was, to varying degrees, about the management of expectation and about ambition. In 1951 it was mostly about ambition: Who was going to replace Clement Attlee? In 1970 it was both factors. Immense hope had been invested in the government elected in 1964 and it was a moment of radical conjunction across the democratic world, yet by 1970 the leaders looked and sounded stale and it was Edward Heath who seemed to represent the future.

Labour should be looking very hard at the 1970 election right now. The party's 100-strong 1966 majority was overturned in one go and constituency parties were overtaken either by apathy or by the organised Trotskyist left. As for the 1974-79 government, though no great weight of expectation pressed upon it when it scraped into power, its demise was uniquely depressing and ignoble.

Looking back now, though, both of those governments, 1964-70 and 1974-79, look much better. The Wilson years brought sustained social and cultural modernisations that transformed lives, from sexual freedom to freedom of expression. Britain became a better place to live in. This must be as much part of a progressive agenda as macroeconomic policy. The 1974-79 government now has defenders among historians who know the record in detail, but the best defence is probably comparative - would you rather have lived through that decade in West Germany or Italy than here?

And then there are the Tony Blair years. How do they measure up against our expectations of a decade ago? And how will they look after a few more years?

A grasp of the world

To an impressive degree domestic policy has matched our predictions. This has been a moderate, social-democratic government, operating within the capitalist framework it inherited, as in 1964-70 and 1974-79, rather than trying to change it, as in 1945-51. This is what it said on the pledge cards and this is what we got. And it has been successful: if domestic policy was all that counted we would be talking today about Labour as the entrenched party of power, rather than observing its endgame.

But the foreign-policy story is different. When Attlee came to power in 1945 and Wilson in 1964, neither could know how international events would unfold, but at least they had a grasp of the world in which they were operating. Attlee knew the next war would be with the Soviet Union; it was unclear if it would be a cold or a hot war but the enemy was there, and for Wilson the enemy was the same one.

Blair inherited a different world and it was turned on its head by 9/11. Of course the indications had been there for years, but at that moment all the predictions we made in 1996 were obsolete. I remember thinking on 9/11 that Blair would never be able to rise to this challenge, that he did not have the stature for it, and that Brown would have to take over. I think now that I was wrong about that.

The years since 2001 have gradually radicalised me, but in the opposite direction to most people I know. The cause of humanitarian intervention, as articulated by Blair, and the possibility of progressive development, as argued for by Brown, have in effect rescued politics for me.

J K Galbraith's 1992 essay "The Culture of Contentment" had convinced me that politics was dead, that it was useless to hope for a progressive British foreign policy that tried to stop genocide and ethnic cleansing. Blair and Brown changed my mind about this, and thus about the possibility of politics; they showed an idealistic, social-democratic view of the world I thought had gone forever.

Terrible mistakes have been made. The nationalist dimension of these policies has led to blunders on human rights. There has been a failure to stand apart from the US when necessary, but overall I believe the historical judgement on the Blair years will be far kinder than the judgement of contemporaries. That is my perspective; what the others who were present ten years ago make of it all, I look forward to hearing.

Professor Brivati lectures in human rights at Kingston University. Details of the meeting "New Labour in Power: ten years on" are at www.kingston.ac.uk/fass