Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long reads
7 May 2007

How was Blair for you?

We asked David Hare, Geoff Mulgan, David Marquand, Suzanne Moore, John Gray and many more to give us

By Staff Blogger

George Monbiot
There are many crimes we could lay at the Prime Minister’s door, but the worst is this: he has destroyed hope. When Thatcher waged war against the common good we had somewhere to turn: we had only to boot her out of office, we told ourselves, and the problem would be solved. But what Blair has done is to ensure that there is nowhere left to go: with a Labour Party well to the right of previous Tory governments and all serious internal dissent purged, we are now faced with a choice of bad and worse.

Eric Hobsbawm
Tony Blair, a gifted but unthinking politician perfectly suited to the media age, will be remembered for winning three elections, for failing to build ‘New Labour’ , for Iraq, and – not impossibly – for breaking up the United Kingdom. In spite of a very respectable domestic record, his period of government demoralised Labour’s traditional supporters and antagonised the liberal/progressive educated classes.

Clive Stafford Smith
With great power comes great responsibility. My overwhelming feeling about Tony Blair is one of disappointment, of such a wonderful opportunity for good wasted. I don’t doubt his integrity, as I believe that he suffers from far deeper flaws than dishonesty — a genuine lack of understanding of what it means to a powerless person to need help from the powerful, and no ability to inspire people to behave with decency rather than threaten them with punishment. My clients sit in their Guantanamo cells, and he fails to raise a finger for the principles he pretends to espouse.

John Pilger
In the early 1990s, I wrote in the New Statesman that the Labour Party as a popular mass movement was dying and would be engulfed by a disastrous new right, an extension of Thatcherism. This would bring about the final convergence of Britain’s two main parties and the suspension of active parliamentary democracy. This has happened under Blair. A criminal bloodbath in the Middle East should be added.

Katherine Rake
Love it or loathe it, the image of “Blair’s babes” captures the spirit of 1997. The picture sent a strong message; the male stranglehold on politics was over. Although macho political culture remains intact, these women have delivered a new substance to politics by putting domestic violence, childcare and women’s pensions onto the political agenda for the first time.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Louise Christian
“Blair betrayed his own idealistic generation of which I am part. He debased democracy, attacked fundamental freedoms and liberties, was complicit in torture and abuse, warmongered in Iraq, alienated Muslim youth, legitimised greed, corruption, bureaucracy and managerialism, stifled public service ethos, and is destroying access to justice and legal aid.”

Elinor Goodman
Tony Blair has transformed the Conservative Party in much the same way Mrs Thatcher transformed the Labour Party. He has made Britain more at ease in Europe and gone some way to improving life chances for the poorest and dealing with the problems that make living in rough areas so intolerable. But he has consistently over-hyped and therefore ultimately disappointed.

Content from our partners
How to create a responsible form of “buy now, pay later”
“Unions are helping improve conditions for drivers like me”
Transport is the core of levelling up

Helena Kennedy
The winner of the 97 election could have created a genuine shift in politics but Blair did not have what it took. He had doubt when he should have had conviction and conviction when he should have had doubt. The war, the erosion of liberty, the absence of egalitarianism. For me, he blew it.

Natasha Walter
I never voted for Tony Blair’s Labour Party, so it would be crass of me to say I am disappointed in him. When I went to watch him speak to the Parliamentary Labour Party in May 1997 I was already slightly repelled by the adulation of the party for this smug, slick performer. Now, having dipped his hands in blood in Iraq, he is a truly evil figure who will, I think, be judged more clearly by future generations. What I also find horrifying, personally, is his government’s treatment of genuine asylum seekers here. I would like to bring Blair face to face with a woman I met last month, a young woman with the scars of her torture on her body who was kept in detention for twelve months on entering this country and is now living destitute and terrified of deportation. What could he say to excuse his government’s treatment of these innocents?

Glenys Kinnock MEP
Under Tony, three huge election victories gave the power to make great progressive changes. The top four on my list would be; EU Objective One regional aid for Wales; huge advances – with Gordon Brown – on debt and development; and the same partnership enabled unprecedented health and education investment in Britain; and finally the achievements in Northern Ireland.
However, the deadly legacy of Iraq hangs like a lethal cloud over everything so that even his brightest lights will shine dimly for some time to come.

Shami Chakrabati
The Blair legacy at the Home Office is strangely contradictory. On the one hand and with incomplete enthusiasm, this Government gave the United Kingdom its modern Bill of Rights by way of the Human Rights Act. On the other hand- the most authoritarian executive in recent memory has attempted to “re-balance” the criminal justice system away from the presumption of innocence and penalised speech and protest with frightening haste.

Kate Allen, UK Director of Amnesty International
The Blair government came into power promising a human rights culture. And it made positive steps towards realising it through the Human Rights Act and support for the International Criminal Court.
The championing of a global Arms Trade Treaty continues that positive vein. But the government’s international standing is now seriously undermined by its portrayal of human rights as being at odds with security rather than vital to it. We would never have envisaged 10 years ago that Amnesty would have to campaign in defence of the absolute prohibition of torture against a UK government complicit in renditions and actively pursuing the deportation of terrorist suspects to countries known to use torture.

In the 25 April 1997 issue of the New Statesman we asked our contributors how they planned to vote. We asked them again for this week’s special issue after Blair’s decade in power.

Paul Ormerod
Said in 1997:
I always have done.
Said this week:
He has shown he has the vision of how dramatically social democratic parties have to evolve if they are to survive in the 21st century. He really needs another 10 years to carry it through.

Deborah Levy, Novelist and playwright
Said in 1997:
I want to pack the Tories off forever. When an election is as cynical as this one, voting for new Labour is a bit like gazing at the numbed face of a friend who has had major cosmetic surgery, searching for what it is that attracted you to them in the first place. Paddy Pantsdown should have taken his pants right off and made a radical proposition a girl can’t refuse. He hasn’t.
Said this week:
Omigod look at my face – am I bothered? I am actually. Bothered that Blair – who you know, like, really believes in stuff – has made political culture so botoxed, so size zero. New Labour with its neo con foreign policy really has been a guy thing: did Blair’s babes spend the last 10 years locked in the Ladies chucking up bacardi breezers? I enjoy watching David Cameron putting his party of ghouls through a “How To Pretend to Be Human” workshop. Blair’s departure does not leave an ideological hole on the stage so much as leave the stage free for other actors to impersonate Blair. Bye bye Tony.
Hello Tony. The King is dead! Long live the King! The future is climate change but even Ming, old fashioned and decent as he is, never says anything that moves me.

Chris Haskins, businessman
Said in 1997:
A change of government is essential to protect the county’s democratic institutions. We must remain committed members of the European Union. New Labour has abandoned the “dotty” anachronisms of old Labour. Tony Blair looks like a leader – tough, above the fray.
Said this week:
Democratic institutions have if anything been weakened. The commitment to the EU is certainly no stronger. The county is far more prosperous than I have would have expected it to be. And I wouldn’t have anticipated another Suez type experience in my life time.

John Monks, union leader
Said in 1997:
I am a democratic socialist and the Labour Party represents the best hope for the vast bulk of people in this country.
Said this week:
May be that it has not been as good as we hoped –and Iraq casts a heavy shadow-but it has been far better than the legions of critics are prepared to admit. Full(ish) employment has been achieved; public services are incomparably better; there have been modest gains for unions; Compare that with the Tory years and the lesson is clear-get behind the re-election campaign.

Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner
Said in 1997:
Getting rid of the Tories is the prerequisite for progressive social change. I hope that, once in office, Blair will be emboldened by public expectations of reform to push for greater democratisation and social equity. There are lots of reforms that would cost very little: proportional representation, a Bill of Rights, devolution, freedom of information, an elected second chamber, and protection against discrimination for everyone.
Said this week:
Despite successes like the minimum wage and devolution, Blair failed on Palestine, Darfur, Congo, Zimbabwe and, most of all, Iraq. He destroyed Labour’s internal party democracy, orchestrated the biggest peacetime erosion of civil liberties, created an inhuman asylum system, and seems determined to saddle us with multi-billion pound follies such as ID cards, Trident renewal, the Olympics, and expanded nuclear power.

Charles Shaar Murray, writer
Said in 1997:
Because this shambling, self-righteous excuse for a government needs to be put out of our misery is soon as possible. Despite Jack Straw’s appaling attempts to out-Howard the worst Home Secretary in living memory, I couldn’t give a fuck what the Labour Party has to do or say in order to get elected, just as long as they DO get elected. And when they do, I only hope that they will remember who elected them, and why.
Said this week:
It is a truism amongst the Left that, no matter how disappointing Labour governments can be, the Tories will always be worse. A decade of Blair’s New Labour has tested that belief to breaking point. The mindless tagging-along with Bush’s insane war, the billionaire-worship, the privatisation mania, the endless moral panics … it’s like the Tories never left.
Gordon Brown, along with the rest of what passes for Labour’s leadership, is so hopelessly compromised by the Blair years that even voters old enough to remember the horrors of the Thatcher years are tempted by Blair’s twittish twin, David Cameron. With his swivel-eyed self-righteousness, his cosseting of robber barons and his insatiable appetite for armed conflict, Blair has done a more effective job of destroying the credibility of Labour than any Tory leader who has ever lived.
We admire the captain prepared to go down with his ship. How do we feel about the captain who insists that the ship go down with him?

David Halpern, academic
Said in 1997:
Despite having to deliver Conservative Party leaflets as a child, I’ve come to realise that if you want a just and efficient society, you need policies that do more than maintain the status quo.
Said this week:
As you may have gathered, I have worked in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit since 2001, so I am bound by the Senior Civil Service rules. So all I can say is something like:
In 1997 David Halpern was an academic at Cambridge. He joined the Civil Service in 2001 and is currently the Chief Analyst in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit. He is therefore bound by Civil Service rules of political impartiality and it would be inappropriate to comment.

Lord Bhiku Parekh, academic
Said in 1997:
Tory rule has undermined much that is beautiful in Britain. We must arrest and reverse Britain’s moral and political decline. Social cohesion, justice and national pride require a Labour victory.
Said this week:
A well meaning man of no deep convictions who lost his way half way through his period of office, when he was too overawed by the American power and flattery to think seriously about British national interest and the well being and stability of the world at large.
His positive contributions include Northern Ireland, devolution of power, minimum wage, limited reforms in the NHS and of course promoting the cause of Africa. His serious failures include Iraq, highly centralised and personalised decision making, relying on a small band of personal faithfuls, and the failure to attend to the larger concerns and principles of the Labour party, so much so that he ended up weakening it and creating in it a deep crisis of identity.

DJ Taylor, novelist
Said in 1997:
Although I don’t believe a Blair administration will live up to my expectations. I think I ought to have the decency to hope that it can.
Said this week:
On the credit side, some genuine attempts to alleviate poverty and promote social mobility. On the debit side, a craven foreign policy, a domestic agenda in thrall to the Daily Mail and a Culture Secretary whose greatest achievement looks set to be an air-hanger full of fruit machines. When the dust of Iraq has settled, I think the Blair government will be remembered most for its philistinism.

Claude Moraes, campaigner
Said in 1997:
I was 13 when Labour was last in power – and yes, I can remember how uninspiring it was. Whatever is said about New Labour, the faith and energy of the party is unmistakable. The road to reform immigration and asylum under Labour may be rocky but at least “the race card” will be firmly kept in the pack, where it belongs.
Said this week:
‘I was contacted by the New Statesman in 1997 and was optimistic about the future of the Labour government having grown up with the Conservatives in power. I predicted then, though, as director of the NGO the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and a CRE Commissioner , that the road to reform of immigration and asylum would be a ‘rocky one’.
And so it has been. Under pressure from a growth in asylum throughout the 1990s, Labour saw asylum and economic migration as a touch stone issue like crime which had been used mercilessly against Labour by the Conservatives for years. Many of the control policies like the increased use of unlimited detention of asylum seekers, and use of asylum vouchers I strongly opposed.
Asylum applications are now at their lowest since 1993, but Labour’s ten years in power has come at a time when global migration movements are at unprecedented levels. While being tough on asylum, the paradox was Labour and Tony Blair refused to apply labour market restrictions on the new EU member states as other EU countries like France and Germany did. This courageous move has seen Labour hit from all sides, but proves that there have been progressive moves by Blair even in the midst of Labour’s most difficult issues.
Over the past ten years there have been serious mistakes – we should have been bolder on Europe, more progressive on civil liberties and tougher on the US and their rejection of Kyoto. But full employment and Blair’s early commitment to anti-discrimination policies in the UK, unmatched by other EU countries, show me the difference between the last ten years under Labour and the Thatcher years I grew up in.’

Steve Platt, journalist
Said in 1997:
Jack Straw is not the last word on home affairs. Gordon Brown is not the last word on taxation. Tony Blair is not the last word on the Labour Party.
And Jeremy Corbyn happens to be a very good MP, and there is no point voting tactically in Islington. In other circumstances I might vote Lib Dem or Green.
Said this week:
Never has a democratic leader in Britain squandered so much political capital to so little good effect. Most of what has been good about New Labour in government – from devolution to the minimum wage – was not Blair’s doing. Everything that has gone wrong – from the sleaze of party funding to the wasteland that is Iraq – bears his personal imprimatur. Blair came to office in the most favourable circumstances ever for a Prime Minister of the centre left. Such golden opportunity will not come again in most of our lifetimes.

Nicholas Royle, novelist
Said in 1997:
I want the NHS to have a fighting chance of recovery.
Said this week:
On the home front much good has been done. The NHS is in better shape (though there still needs to be more communication between doctors and government). The ban on fox-hunting was a moral necessity, even if it is barely enforceable, and the forthcoming tighter restrictions on smoking in public places cannot come soon enough. But everything that’s been good about the last ten years is overshadowed by one disastrous error of judgement: going hand in hand with Bush to invade Iraq on a faulty and/or deceitful premise, which has left the world more dangerous and divided.

Aleks Sierz, journalist and theatre critic
Said in 1997:
Tony Blair’s smile is bright enough to sweeten the smell of the shithouse.
Said this week:
In 1997, Britain was a dilapidated theatre, stinking of rotten drains. Now, it’s a lottery playhouse, full of shiny, happy show-people. But while everyone inside behaves as if they were on reality TV, some of us can’t help hearing the incessant sound of distant gunfire, and smelling the poverty outside.

Professor David Metcalf, LSE
Said in 1997:
Only Labour will strike the right balance between employees and management in the workplace. The introduction of a minimum wage will help to redress the huge growth in the inequality of pay which has taken place in the last two decades.
Said this week:
The Blair Government’s labour market policies have been an unmitigated success. Employment is at an all time high and real pay has grown steadily over the last decade. The centerpiece policy – the National Minimum Wage – has reversed most of the growth in wage inequality of the Thatcher-Major era and presently benefits 2 million workers. The industrial relations legislation has been a judicious mix. Only modest changes in collective law – on union recognition, for example. But big improvements in individual rights on unfair dismissal, discrimination, working time, holiday entitlement and maternity and paternity benefits.

Leo Schulz
Said this week:
Would I vote for Tony Blair again? Hm. Looking at it from Islington – one of my local comprehensives is being rebuilt, the other refurbished. Oh, and three new colleges have been built in the borough – or four? – and the local university expanded (including an uber-cool building by Daniel Libeskind!). Um. Hmm. And a new library. And our local pool extended. And. Um. Doh! – both our local hospitals refurbished. Oh, yeah, and the buses are all brand new and the bus lanes cleared and a new tube line is coming and the overground line is being upgraded. Erm. Hmm. Oh, oh – everyone I know has a job and our entire stock of social housing is being refurbished. Iraq? Did you say Iraq? The days are gone when we hide behind the fake peace of tyrants. Vote for Blair? Hm.

David Herman, broadcaster
Said in 1997:
For 20 years we have left the care of the weak, the desperate and the ill to the carpetbaggers. We didn’t leave them to the well meaning but overstretched, we left them to the venal and corrupt, who couldn’t find basic values in the profit-margins. The question now is whether Labour can be seen as the champion of these values.
Said this week:
Blair’s achievements have been considerable: sustained low inflation, low unemployment and low interest rates for a decade. His foreign policy has been largely driven by humane concerns. However, property prices have risen beyond the reach of many citizens; education has been a disaster; health treatment is uneven; Britain remains a deeply unequal society; and, worst of all, there has been a failure to address these issues openly and honestly, with ministers misleading citizens again and again with spin and fake statistics.

Rhoda Koenig, journalist
Said in 1997:
The Tories have replaced amateurishness with greed, ignorance with aggressive stupidity, and hypocrisy with brutality. Labour seem to represent the lesser of two evils, but, of course, who can say?
Said this week:
Ten years ago we were delighted to see the back of the Tories, who cared only for the rich. We were delivered into the hands of New Labour, who care for no one and nothing. They have degraded our schools, dismembered the National Health Service, and failed to prevent and punish crime. They have sold the armed forces and the aged down the river, starved the arts, and presided over a housing crisis that undermines every aspect of our society. Instead of principles, they have public relations.
I exempt from this criticism Mrs Blair, for whom my admiration is as great as my sympathy: She has been the target of the petty, vicious resentment of those who represent the worst aspects of this country.

Richard Colbey, lawyer
Said in 1997:
For no better reason than I will enjoy my election night party more if I have backed
the winner. Were I to vote on the basis of the most sensible, compassionate and even socialist policies the Lib Dems would have it by a mile.
Said this week:
On the positive side there’s been the minimum wage and…. well that’s it really, against which there’s the war, public money chucked at dodgy private companies, a series of reactionary Home Secretaries, a shifting of tax towards the poor…one could go on. Although I believe Blair is a fundamentally decent man he has done little to create a better, let alone fairer, country. He was Thatcher’s greatest legacy as it looks increasingly likely Cameron will become his.

Christopher Price, former Labour MP
Said in 1997:
I would have done so in any event, but I do so enthusiastically in the belief that a Blair government with new, intelligent and radical backbenchers in the PLP “class of 1997” yapping at its heels, can ensure the implementation of radical and irreversible constitutional (including parliamentary) reform over the next five years; and that, in the wake of the democratic renewal such reforms will bring, the timid rhetoric of the manifesto can be converted into a surge of imagination and creativity, and repair Britain’s communities.
Said this week:
After 60 years as a party member, I vote Labour like Catholics go to Mass. 10 years ago I put too much faith in open government and constitutional reforms giving New Labour a more honest face. Though devolution, equal rights and freedom of information were an excellent start, the image the electors were so eagerly looking for was spoilt by addiction to patronage, peerages and spin, box-ticking manipulation of public services and craven backbench loyalty over Iraq. Brown will need a reform agenda but a less manic and messianic one than Blair’s.

Alan Taylor
Said in 1997:
The alternatives are too terrible to contemplate. I feel, however, as if I’m aiming blindfold at a dartboard, trusting Tony Blair but not with confidence, praying that the realpolitik of the campaign will give way to visionary policies once he is in power.
Said this week:
In general political careers are fated to end badly and untidily and so has Blair’s, especially because of Iraq and the interminable time it has taken to pass the baton to Brown or whoever. Whatever is said of him, however, he has transformed the political landscape, investing hugely – and sometimes unwisely – in public services, bringing peace in Northern Ireland and introducing devolution in Wales and Scotland. From the perspective of the last-mentioned, this has made for better and more accessible government and demonstrated the potential for a greater level of independence from Westminster. Undoubtedly this was not what Blair intended. Nor was what has transpired in Iraq. A visionary he ain’t.

Melissa Benn
Said in 1997:
The thought of a fifth Tory term actually scares me; because this government cares nothing for social justice, economic equality or the rights of producers over consumers; because with the confidence of government just might come the courage of radicalism; because Ken Livingstone is my MP and he is a lot better than most (he is an independent thinker at least). I just wish that Blair and the whole team were not so aggressively nervous – even the “radical centre” could show some campaigning flair, surely.
Said this week:
Obviously, I am not alone in feeling disappointment and a nagging sense of defeatism after ten years of New Labour. I still applaud changes like the minimum wage, investment in childcare and education ( but not academies and trust schools ) and some moves towards flexible working and equal pay. I deplore the decisions that led to the current tragedy of the war in Iraq, the growing restrictions on civil liberties and the continuing criminalisation of everyday life. For New Labour Mark Two, I’d like to see less irritable innovation and more solid social democratic style change. Why on earth can’t a country as rich and as potentially creative as ours not build a nation wide system of publicly accountable, truly high quality local schools?

Roger Liddle, consultant
Said in 1997:
I will be voting Labour for the first time since 1979 – and I will do so with enthusiasm. Blair has created what those of us who formed the SDP always wanted: an electable centre-left alternative to the Conservatives, but he has done it by uniting not dividing the centre and left.
Said this week:
“I’m quite convinced that in my lifetime we’ll never see the like of him again. Of course there’ve been disappointments – on Europe particularly. But for all the froth, he’s led a very good government which makes me proud to be Labour. In Britain there has been a Blair Revolution”.

Polly Ghazi
Said this week:
From where I live, in Washington DC, Blair’s domestic record of caring capitalism looks pretty good; especially if, like me, green issues top your agenda. On climate change, he has shown real leadership, winning new commitments from the EU and the G8 and setting tough targets at home. Yes, delivering them will largely be left to his successor. [And yes – surprise, surprise – Blair failed to convince George W. that the climate crisis is for real.] Yet leadership matters and Britain is now profiting from a boom in green technologies and well positioned to thrive in a global carbon lite economy. In the States, meanwhile, Senators quote a Michael Crichton novel as evidence that global warming is a hoax. I rest my case.
*Polly Ghazi is co-author of The Low Carbon Diet (Short Books, May 2007.)

[See also: Labour is wrong to turn against nationalisation]

Topics in this article: