My first political memory stretches back to 1997. I was six years old. It was the year of a general election. Walking past a poster on my way to school, I told my mother that the candidate smiling on it had a kind face.
Little did I know what Britain was in for. It was soon-to-be Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Fifteen years since he stepped down, the newly knighted Sir Anthony Charles Lynton Blair remains widely disliked. A petition to block his knighthood earned a million signatures.
In certain corners of the media, though, a “Be Fair to Blair” campaign has taken root. To-B does not have many fans but they all have opinion columns, including Oliver Kamm, John Rentoul (who says “Blairite truths are eternal”) and Jack Kessler of the Evening Standard (who claims to have left a date because the woman he was dining with accused Blair of being a war criminal. What a fine counterpoint to the stereotype that it is women who invent trivial reasons to abort a potential relationship).
New Labour had grand designs for British institutions
It’s easy to criticise Blair — and fun, too! Still, I worry that our children will define him solely by his errors in the Middle East. To be sure, it is hard to think of many worse things to do than invading a country on half-baked grounds with no good idea of what to do after you win. A conservative estimate is that 200,000 civilians have died in Iraq alone (as well as almost 200 British soldiers). The country became a fruitful ISIS training ground and recruitment centre. Iraq’s Christian population has fallen by two thirds. Even British failings in Afghanistan seem less serious by comparison.
Yet the evils of New Labour were so much more comprehensive. Almost everything that Blair, Mandelson, Campbell and friends laid their hands on was soiled by the experience. Granted, some of our dislike of them might be reducible to what slimy, distinguished people they appeared to be (Blair actually being one of the less offensive examples here). But their record is so dreadful that we can refrain from personal abuse.
Some are tempted to see the Blair years as the Golden Age of “Centrism”. Farage was a marginal monomaniac. Corbyn was a little-known backbencher. New Labour, meanwhile, sailed HMS Great Britain between them.
This has some rational cause. Did Blair rhetorically appeal to the left and the right? For sure. Did he moderate traditional Labour economic attitudes? He did.
Yet this was still an age of slick, besuited radicalism. New Labour had grand designs for British institutions. It was the “quantity over quality” attitude towards higher education that did so much to degrade Britain’s academia. It was Blair who, in the words of Dr Erica Consterdine, “transformed Britain’s immigration system from a highly restrictive regime to one of the most expansive in Europe”.
In 1997, Blair campaigned on throwing “the quango-state in history’s dustbin where it belongs”. By 2006, almost 900 quangos operated in Britain, 300 of which had been established under Blair. Reams of vague, sweeping legislation sealed the work of progressive busybodies into law, where it remains to this day. People are still being arrested on dubious grounds thanks to the Communications Act 2003.
Beneath the glossy façade of British life, meanwhile — amid the cultural cosplaying of the noughties — all kinds of horrifying phenomena were festering. Thousands of vulnerable girls were being groomed in Rotherham, Oxford, Huddersfield and elsewhere, for example, but the scandals only came to light years afterwards in the 2010s. Blair might not bear personal responsibility for this, but it very telling that his tireless expansion of the managerial state overlooked child abuse on an industrial scale.
Is there anything positive to be said? Blair certainly had a superficial charisma. He is worth writing an article about, whereas I barely remember David Cameron’s name. Some of the things his critics got irate about have proven to be no big deal. Is anyone still mad that we have CCTV? Only people who reference Orwell 1000 times a day. I can also understand why people from Sierra Leone must think that he was pretty cool.
If one’s ends are destructive then the means are not admirable
Still, most of us are not from Sierra Leone, and for most of us Mr Blair left little to applaud. All his empty slogans — “education, education, education”, “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” et cetera — have turned into bad jokes. Even now, his inane opinions are reported on as if they were worth the megabytes, never mind the paper. He spent much of 2021 banging on about how Britain needed vaccine passports — a grim policy which would also have been useless. (Don’t trust me on that? Fair enough. Ask Bill Gates.) I believe he is sincere more than cynical. His unearned faith in his own judgement is boundless.
He is now organising a conference “alongside a new group dubbed the British version of Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche”. Of course! Because Macron has been such a successful and well-liked European leader.
The Conservatives have maintained much of the legacy of New Labour. Some of their leading figures are admirers of Mr Blair. This helps to explain why their twelve years in power have been so macerated when it comes to policy accomplishments.
What Blair did do, and what the Conservatives have done, is get elected. This is a political accomplishment. One cannot achieve a lot without electoral success. But one’s value, as a politician, depends on what one does with it. Power is a means to an end. If one’s ends are destructive then the means are not admirable.
Does Blair deserve a knighthood? Not if we judge merit according to honourable standards. As an exemplar of the sagging standards of his age, though — why not? After all, it was when he was Prime Minister that numbers of peerages exploded. As for me, I wish I could go back to 1997 and tell myself not to trust someone just because they look kind. This is good advice in general, but especially when it comes to politicians.
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