Leaders are never easy to judge. Part of their job is to dazzle, disguise and deflect attention. Some who, close up, appear to command all around them, defining the age, come, in retrospect, to appear more like minnows, carried along by the currents of history. Others, more modest, in retrospect turn out to have laid the foundations for the future.
Tony Blair, more than most leaders, will confound the judges and juries for a long time to come. Few will doubt that he became an extraordinarily skilled politician. His was a bravura exposition of the craft. He effortlessly found the dead centre of public opinion. He articulated it with ease and showed again and again that the most important quality in any leader is resilience – the ability to weather shocks and disasters with a smile.
That resilience was helped by the fact that he achieved so many of his stated goals. He rebuilt the Labour Party as a winning machine. This was not something he cared about much for its own sake, but it was quite an achievement all the same (even if the tools that helped him succeed later left the party somewhat hollowed out, just as the ascendancy of Margaret Thatcher and the Saatchis hollowed out the Conservatives). He then made Labour a successful party of government, and the envy of others around the world. He turned around the long demoralisation and underinvestment in public services, and, incidentally, left public servants better paid than those in the private sector in every region of Britain bar one. He did much to alleviate the ugly poverty that was such a disastrous legacy of the 1980s. Although much poverty remains, most British cities have quite a different feel from the sullen fatalism of 20 years ago, while mass unemployment is now a dim memory. And he carried through bolder constitutional reform than any other prime minister of the modern era.
All these achievements were shared by his colleagues, especially Gordon Brown; future historians may bracket their administrations together. They are the achievements of a sane and decent social democratic administration, and they have left Britain, for most of its citizens, a more pleasant place to live.
Yet the achievements come with caveats. My guess is that many future critics could say that Blair’s skills as a politician may have diminished his longer-term impact. The truly great leaders bring with them a grit, anger and a willingness to go against the grain that often make their careers turbulent roller-coasters. They become associated with a body of ideas that begins on the margins of their society but, at a certain point, through struggle, becomes the common sense. Just think of Churchill or Gladstone, de Gaulle or Gandhi. Blair was certainly not lacking in bravery. But his boldest risks were not taken in the name of a new idea: instead, most of them were guaranteed to have the centre ground of opinion on his side.
Two centuries ago, William Cobbett described the establishment in Britain as “The Thing”: utterly convinced of its own rightness and utterly resistant to change. Today’s establishment may appear more reasonable, but it is every bit as powerful. Its strength explains much about the virtues and vices of new Labour’s time in government. Two centuries ago the centre of gravity of “The Thing” lay in the aristocracy and the leading factions of the main parties. Today, the aristocracy (and monarchy) are at its edge. Its centre of gravity lies in the media and business. It includes swaths of the senior civil service (though most are somewhat to its left), some of parliament, and the “international class” in every profession. It is firmly committed to market capitalism. It is internationalist, more pro-American than pro-European, and divided on questions of social order.
Labour’s ability to court “The Thing”, to convince it that the new government would not be a threat and might actually do some good, was the precursor to victory. It meant that Labour ruled from the centre in more senses than one, co- opting, flattering and recruiting an extraordinary army of business leaders, artists, writers and consultants to its cause. All of this was made easier because Blair embodied the liberal end of “The Thing”. Unlike his predecessors, he didn’t have to pretend to care about the views of business leaders and newspaper editors: much of the time, the respect was genuine.
Embracing the establishment
This alliance helped Labour to marginalise the Conservatives and appear, against all odds, as a natural party of government. Yet this alliance also explains Labour’s most visible scandals – all of which blew up when the effort to embrace the new establishment overshot. From Bernie Ecclestone’s £1m donation, through the twists and turns of David Blunkett’s personal relationships, to the unfolding of the cash-for-peerages scandal, this has been the consistent leitmotif of the Blair years. It also explains much about the contours of new Labour’s radicalism. Revising Clause Four or upping the ante on public service reform were bold gambits, but they were ones in which Blair could be confident that the vocal centre ground (or rather centre right) would be cheering from the sidelines. Even the gamble on Iraq fits the same pattern. By contrast, the gambles he eschewed – such as an earlier and bolder stance on climate change, or fuller constitutional reform, or joining the euro – were issues on which that conventional wisdom was either opposed or divided.
This highlights the other ambiguity of his legacy. More than any other prime minister in recent history, Blair has been lucky in domestic affairs: lucky in that he inherited an economy well placed for growth; lucky in that he didn’t preside over a world recession; and lucky in that he came to power at a time when Britain was relatively free from titanic social struggles such as the miners’ strike or the riots of the 1980s. He brilliantly made the most of this luck – and his record in domestic affairs will be seen as overwhelmingly positive, particularly for the many in society whose interests had almost disappeared from the radar of the elite during the 1980s and 1990s. This achievement is less visible to the opinion-forming middle class in London (few of whose friends have benefited from policies such as tax credits). But it is the main expla n ation for the continued strength of Labour’s electoral support.
There have, of course, been mistakes. Management of the hefty investment in health was often flawed – but overpaid doctors are preferable to the collapsing services that we’d be seeing if there hadn’t been such a huge infusion of funds. The encouragement of gambling and 24-hour drinking, and the failure to rein in an often malign media – the aristocrats of contemporary Britain – have left British culture harsher and nastier than it need be. But the big judgements in domestic affairs were broadly right.
Blair’s skill, and luck, in domestic affairs contrast strikingly with a different position in foreign affairs, where he combined great energy with extraordinary bad luck. The man who wanted to make Britain a leader in Europe, and at ease in this new role, coincided in office with several of the weakest leaders the European Commission has ever had, and a period of unprecedented public disappointment in the European project. He was unlucky when it came to his fellow leaders. Some, such as Jacques Chirac and Silvio Berlusconi, were dire examples of the corrupt and incompetent (I suspect that future historians will marvel at Blair’s poor taste when it came to holidays with the man with the bandanna).
He has been even more unlucky with America. A strong relationship with Bill Clinton gave way to an equally strong relationship with George W Bush. But where Clinton was cautious and measured, Bush and his neoconservative allies have turned out to be wild risk-takers, inspired by an extraordinarily unrealistic view of how the world works, and largely careless of their allies.
I’m one of those who think that there were good grounds for intervention in an Iraq that wanted the world to believe it had WMDs. But a narrow alliance with a flawed US leadership never looked like a wise bet, and the Iraq débâcle has inevitably overshadowed Blair’s domestic successes. He is particularly unlucky in this regard because in the longer run his arguments for international intervention may come to be seen as prescient. In the late 1990s, he was the first major leader to understand that a new era of interdependence would spell the end of 19th-century ideas of national sovereignty.
The world’s responsibility to protect citizens from their own states will be one of the defining ideas of the 21st century, as will the world’s responsibility to look after its common resources. A more active and interventionist global community remains the only alternative to an ugly future in which deadly weapons circulate more freely and the world’s common resources are plundered and run down. Blair’s cheerleading, browbeating and coalition-building over Africa and climate change may not have achieved all he wanted, and many of his efforts were undermined by Bush’s unwillingness to collaborate. But they look like heroic partial successes, in a different league from the paltry attempts of his peers.
For progressives, disappointment is tempered by the fact that Blair leaves behind a Britain that is no longer a Conser vative nation. Margaret Thatcher thought she had changed the country irreversibly, but she and her chorus line over estimated her success. They failed to see that “The Thing” saw little of the social costs that accompanied her rule and cared little about her most cherished goals, such as recreating Victorian values and the family.
The Britain of today is a fairly social-democratic country, in which ideas that once languished on the far left are mainstream, and in which David Cameron has no choice but to dress himself in liberal clothes. Even the policies that so many liberals dislike – the coercive activism on asylum and criminal justice – reflected a government that was in touch with public opinion and determined to block a Conservative revival.
An impressive balance
Blair made many compromises with “The Thing”. But he also left it changed, slightly more decent, more responsible, less ashamed to care. Where some leaders become more brittle, he matured in office, becoming ever more interested in finding the right answers rather than the easy ones. It is a great paradox that a man accused of being all spin regularly upbraided civil servants and advisers for giving him expedient, incremental options rather than choices based on first principles.
This is where the historians will find it hard to decide. Was he a supremely competent pragmatist, brilliant at adapting to circumstance? Or was he a man of conviction, repeatedly willing to risk his own skin? Comments he made on Pontius Pilate in the mid-1990s are telling. “The intriguing thing about Pilate is the degree to which he tried to do the good thing rather than the bad. One can imagine him agonising, seeing that Jesus had done nothing wrong, and wishing to release him. Just as easily, however, one can envisage Pilate’s advisers telling him of the risks, warning him not to cause a riot or inflame Jewish opinion.” Blair then cites the Munich agreement of 1938, the Reform Act 1832 and the Corn Laws. “It is not always clear, even in retrospect, what is, in truth, right. Should we do what appears principled or what is politically expedient? Christianity is optimistic about the human condition, but not naive. It can identify what is good, but knows the capacity to do evil. I believe that the endless striving to do the one and avoid the other is the purpose of human existence. Through that comes progress.”
It is far too soon to judge whether Tony Blair was on the side of progress, whether he struck the right balance between doing what is right and doing what is expedient. His most visible mistake – Iraq – arose from doing what he thought was right, not what was expedient. His greatest successes came about when a steady moral compass was combined with tactical agility and pragmatism. As always with history, how Blair is judged will depend on what happens next: whether Britain remains a centrist society; whether it continues what now looks like a sustained bounce back from its long decline in the 20th century; whether the Middle East descends further into chaos. My guess is that, in most things, he will be seen to have struck an impressive balance. But we should be wary of instant judgements. Only the future will make sense of the present and determine who looks wise and who looks foolish.
Geoff Mulgan, former head of policy in Downing Street, is director of the Young Foundation