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Saturday, June 02, 2007

A Mixed Legacy

Tony Blair is a contradiction. Beloved across the Atlantic here in the US, he became loathed at home by many of the same people who saw so much hope in him a decade ago. However, both extreme views of the British Prime Minister are skewed and colored. Blair’s legacy lies somewhere in between the perceptions on both sides of the “pond.”

When Tony Blair took over the leadership of the Labor Party in 1994, the party itself was a dying relic of industrial Britain. Labor, rightly or wrongly had become identified with socialism at home and weakness abroad and had a similar perception to the post Vietnam Democratic Party which Bill Clinton inherited in 1992.

Blair did a remarkable job of recreating the view most Britons had of the Labour Party. However Blair’s ideological bent didn’t seem to have a purpose. It seemed more designed to elect a majority of Labour MPs especially at a time where Tory fatigue had set in with the British public. Thus a feel good, non-ideological campaign was able to topple an impotent government under John Major who had excessively privatized in the 1980s (when Margaret Thatcher was the Prime Minister) and had little impact on British life for the positive in the 1990s.

Blair ascension to power in 1997 was very much a feel good moment for the Labour Party and the American left. When Blair handled himself with a rare dignity at Princes Diana’s funeral the world fell in love with him. But strangely huge majorities for Labour in the House Commons yielded little revolutionary change. Privatization continued in public services and while Health Care and Education improved, the change was not nearly as dramatic as Blair had promised. But Blair did deliver in giving a measure of sovereignty and pride to both Scotland and Wales who were given their own regional parliaments for the first time in over a hundred years. More importantly Blair signed the Good Friday agreement with the Irish Government which brought a peaceful resolution for now to the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Blair is a strong advocate for Environmental Protection and cutting carbon emissions. However, his Labour party has been more reluctant than they should be embrace environmentalism. This has opened the door for the Liberal Democratic Party to erode some of Labour base on the left and also give new Tory leader David Cameron an opening to woo green voters. Blair repositioned the Labour Party towards the middle, which basically meant that his party began to be more representative of the view of a baby boomer middle class party then of the working class. Strangely, this move blurred the lines between Labour and the Liberal Democratic Party (LibDems), who in the early 1990s created a niche as a party seeking social justice with some trust in the free market. This is basically the same platform and ideology the Blairite Labour party now occupies. Since the LibDems have taken the lead on Environmental issues, Labor has risked losing much of its new found support in the urban areas and was drubbed in this past local election in south England.

Blair’s relationship with the United States should not be surprising. Since the Suez crisis of 1956 when Anthony Eden’s Government fell amidst the lack of support from the US (Dwight Eisenhower despite his conservatism in many respects was an admirable American internationalist who had little use for European colonialism. He had no interest in watching the UK and France meddle in Middle Eastern affairs.) the United Kingdom has failed to have an independent foreign policy. Unlike France, who under Charles DeGaulle moved away from a Pan-American world view, the British have seized to have a real say in foreign affairs.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. By subcontracting its defense to the United States, the U.K. has rebounded as a world economic power and London is once again one of the world’s leading cities. The British psyche has been more damaged by the failures of the Three Lions, its underachieving national football (soccer in American English) side than by watching the US fight its wars.

Blair’s willingness to support American policy helped to legitimize the American mission in the Balkans. This came after all when the British and EU had engaged in a battle diplomatically with Slobodan Milosevic’s genocidal Serbian state before Bill Clinton engaged on the matter. The troop deployments in Bosnia and Kosovo were done outside of the United Nations who had bungled operations in Somalia and Rwanda the same decade. (Something the American left should keep in mind the next time they call for the US to get UN approval to conduct our own foreign policy.)

Ultimately Blair’s downfall as a popular figure was related to his support for the US in Iraq. While Blair deserves much of the blame for pushing a conflict that was not in the best interests of his nation, he deserves a great deal of credit for moving the UK away from its splendid isolationism towards the European continent. By unsuccessfully pushing the euro-zone for currency and further integration in the EU, Blair began the process of moving the UK away from dependence on the US in foreign policy. This has not been recognized at home as he is tarred by the Iraq War debacle.

Blair’s legacy is mixed, but his impact on UK politics will remain for many years to come

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I am the host of the Major League Soccer Talk and EPL Talk Podcasts and am frequent guest on other (world) football shows. I am also the publisher of various other websites including this one. I work in public/government relations in addition to my soccer work and have a keen interest in history, politics, aviation, travel,and the world around us.