Commentary (Sunday Times)

Conservatism: “Blair is fading away to a dubious place in history” (Portillo compares Blair & MT)

Document type: Press
Source: Sunday Times , 1 Jan 2006
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 1,359 words
Themes: Conservatism, Labour Party & socialism

Blair is fading away to a dubious place in history

By Michael Portillo

Reluctantly, I have to accept that this may be Tony Blair’s last New Year’s Day in office. As 2005 drew to a close Blair was badly weakened by a decisive defeat in the House of Commons, open criticism from his deputy John Prescott, and a series of policy U-turns. Last week, as further evidence of Blair’s political frailty, the government gave in to pressure from its backbenchers and announced changes to its proposed legislation on disability benefits and prostitution. Gordon Brown will succeed Blair and I do not look forward to that dark personality’s premiership.

As we discuss Blair’s tenure of office we are gradually slipping into the past tense. As David Cameron implied at his first prime minister’s questions, Blair will be the past, soon. So now is the time to begin to assess his place in history.

By longevity in office in the post-war period, two premierships stand out: Blair’s and Margaret Thatcher’s. During Blair’s sojourn in 10 Downing Street Thatcher has been the house ghost. Blair has been haunted, inspired or repulsed by her record. Inevitably, historians will compare the two.

Blair’s most unambiguous achievement occurred mainly before he became prime minister. He transformed the Labour party. When he entered parliament in 1983 it was seriously questioned whether Labour could ever govern again; 14 years later he had transferred that doubt to the Tories.

One of Blair’s predecessors as party leader, Neil Kinnock, deserves some credit too. But Blair is the hero for pursuing “the project” single-mindedly and even ruthlessly. He bludgeoned his party’s backwoodsmen, inspired recruits to Labour and charmed the media.

I remember the day Thatcher won power. There was excitement certainly, not least about the election of a woman premier. But there was little goodwill towards the new government. By contrast, when Blair reached Downing Street the country was elated by a sense of renewal. For many who have been disappointed the memory of that bliss and that dawn is now painful. Still, by making Labour electable and enthusing the nation Blair demonstrated his rare political gifts, for which he will be justly remembered.

The same talents enabled him to pull off the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland. Thatcher made war on the IRA with as much determination as Blair later made peace, and both were necessary phases. However, we should not make simplistic distinctions between the two premiers based on Ulster. Thatcher was no stranger to compromise. She gave independence to Zimbabwe and Hong Kong to China. She signed the Anglo-Irish agreement and the Single European Act, and she took Britain into the exchange-rate mechanism. But whereas she had little enthusiasm for those deals and repented most of them, Blair’s settlement in Northern Ireland owed much to his visionary quality. A peace depending largely on his charisma exemplified his political strengths, even if such reliance on him was a weakness in the deal.

Despite that success, it is doubtful that “peacemaker” will be the first word that springs to mind when we look back on Blair. He has led Britain to war in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq. Both Thatcher’s wars in the Falklands and against Iraq were a response to invasion by a nationalist dictator. The motivations for Blair’s wars have been more complex, and justifying them has been tougher. Thatcher’s wars were quick and once won were over. Blair ’s campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq have been prolonged and messy.

Nothing illuminated the nature of these prime ministers’ relations with America so tellingly. Thatcher’s fleet set sail against Argentina before President Ronald Reagan had decided whether he was backing us or them. She had to fight for America’s support and against its plans for shabby compromise. When Saddam attacked Kuwait, Bush the elder needed Thatcher to persuade him to take up arms. By contrast, Blair has never been able to shed his image as George W Bush’s poodle.

No one could be easier to get on with than Blair, and few more difficult than Thatcher. We gawped in wonder when Blair befriended Bush as warmly as Bill Clinton. Blair can be pals with anyone. But to what avail? His special relationship with the White House has failed to refine any American foreign policy.

Yet despite her abrasiveness Thatcher often won diplomatic battles. Most spectacularly she turned Reagan when, during the 1986 Reykjavik summit with Mikhail Gorbachev, he came close to agreeing the destruction of all American and Russian nuclear weapons. The sometimes tense relationships that she built with a few counted for more than the agreeable amities that Blair cultivates with everyone. In Europe, especially, he has discovered that mere bonhomie easy comes and easy goes. He now has as many enemies as she did. Last month’s European summit showed that Britain is no more at the heart of the union now than it was under Thatcher, even though Blair has surrendered part of her famous rebate.

Great times call forth great leaders. Thatcher was lucky to live during a momentous period and she will be recognised for her significant contribution to ending communism in Europe. Perhaps Blair’s role in Iraq will in time come to be seen as presaging an equally important sweep of democracy through the Middle East. History might just view it that way but Blair can hardly count on it.

In domestic policy he is already regarded as having thrown away his opportunities. But his government did one important thing when it gave independence to the Bank of England. It was Brown’s doing not Blair’s, but still this prime minister has presided over continuous economic growth. Few predecessors can claim as much. Thatcher’s economic management produced volatile inflation and high interest rates.

Nonetheless she led an economic revolution. She humiliated the trade unions, cut income tax and privatised state industries. What can be said for Blair, and it is saying a lot for a Labour leader, is that he preserved her legacy. But in her day her ideas were revolutionary. Britain was in the vanguard of liberal economic reform. By Blair’s time such policies were commonplace. He had merely to plough along Thatcher’s furrow.

Neither Thatcher nor Blair had much idea what to do with public services. For all the talk of cuts, public expenditure on health rose under the Tories much as it had under her Labour predecessors. The leap in spending has come under Blair (Brown, really). The prime minister will get some credit for that.

But not much. The extra money has not produced a proportionate leap in the quality of service. The British people inconsistently oppose change in health and education yet long for improvement. Since Labour, unlike the Tories, is trusted with public services it has a duty to reform them. Blair has lacked the imagination to do so. His best ideas are reheated Thatcherism. At her eleventh hour she devised grant maintained schools. In his twilight Blair has conjured up trust schools.

Regarding his record on public services, the comparison that Blair should fear is not with Thatcher but with Clement Attlee, Labour prime minister after the second world war. In his first five years he created the National Health Service and nationalised the commanding heights of the economy.

Attlee’s policies are no longer fashionable but his achievements reproachfully signal to Blair the scale of what a Labour premier with a large majority could accomplish in just one term.

Blair risks being classed alongside Wilson, that consummate but slippery communicator who managed his party well but achieved little else. Labour backbenchers might ruefully recall one difference between the two. Wilson kept Britain out of America’s wars and during the debacle in Vietnam stood aloof.

Sixteen years ago today I was honoured to be a guest in that loveliest of country houses, Chequers. I joined the convivial Thatcher family lunch on her 11th New Year’s Day in office. I failed to guess that it would be her last. The Blairs chose to greet 2006 in Sharm el-Sheikh. It may be just as well. Perhaps that way they will feel less the pain of losing Chequers.