Tony Blair’s legacy is a redefinition of what it means to be of the left
by Dominic Cardy
In the May 6 British general election, David Cameron’s Tories took 306 seats – 48 more than Labour, which had been in power for more than a decade, but 20 short of an outright majority. For five days, both Labour and the Tories courted the third-place Liberal Democrats in the hope of assembling a parliamentary majority. The prospect of Labour staying in office via a “coalition of losers” was not a popular option – even among many Labour MPs. After five days, the Tories and Lib Dems crafted a formal coalition. Gordon Brown resigned, both as Prime Minister and as Labour leader; he announced his intention to leave Parliament. This marks the end of a political movement that began in 1983. That year, in an election that resulted in a disastrous loss for Labour, among the new MPs in the Labour caucus were Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Over the next decade and a half they overturned traditional Labour Party policies, and from 1997 to 2010 they governed Britain. Now is a good time to assess the successes and failures of their “New Labour” project.
A good place to begin this assessment is with two books by Anthony Seldon, a school headmaster and a prolific writer of “contemporary history”: books about currents in modern British politics. He has written about Margaret Thatcher and two massive tomes on Tony Blair, Blair (2004) and Blair Unbound (2007). Seldon’s exercises in “contemporary history” entail interviews with a vast number of players; this produces a great deal of chaff that other historians will in time blow away. His books are, for the moment, the best accounts available of Blair’s political career and influence. Blair is a controversial political figure, nowhere more so than on the intellectual left – in Canada as in Britain – where he is often damned as a usurper who manipulated the Labour Party into an embrace of Thatcher’s libertarian economic ideas and George W. Bush’s messianic imperial overreach.
In his review of Blair Unbound for the London Times, Simon Jenkins concluded that “Seldon does not place Blair in any political or historical tradition.” Jenkins, a prominent British journalist, succinctly stated the conventional left-wing dismissal:
Blair’s heart was always in Washington and his head in the clouds … The truth is that Blair was good at being Blair, but not prime minister. He never mastered the art of government. The list of his achievements (Ulster, tax credits, a minimum wage) is meagre compared with what he left undone, notably in Europe, Iraq and Afghanistan and in his incoherent upheavals of the health, education, police and local government services.1
Blair made profound mistakes, an excessive faith in U.S. military competence to wage war in Iraq being the most dramatic. A more nuanced review of Seldon’s book, and of Blair, came from the Daily Telegraph’s reviewer: