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Blair's paradox

What is the former UK prime minister's legacy?

Tony Blair put Britain at the centre of Europe, before becoming enamoured with Bush's America. Photo: Shutterstock

Tony Blair put Britain at the centre of Europe, before becoming enamoured with Bush's America. Photo: Shutterstock

As expected, Tony Blair’s recent private visit to Malta raised eyebrows. Then again, beyond one’s own political orientation, Blairism is not easy to digest. I say this as someone who voted for Blair’s Labour consistently, and while I have no regrets in doing so, I would still dispute Blairism with some strength and conviction.

I am not a Corbynista. I tend to have an ambivalent appreciation of Jeremy’s turn in Labour politics. Having said that, I detest what Blairites have done to the Labour Party.

I say this knowing very well that in the context within which Blair has emerged in the 1990s, there was far more than a pragmatic justification to have him as Britain’s PM. This contrasts with my assessment of Blairism and the catastrophe that it proved to be for the British Labour Movement, even when it was Tony Blair who won three consecutive electoral victories—a record in British Labour’s history.

It is perhaps a love of paradox that continues to interest me in Blair. While I would temper my attention with angered disappointment, I would be the first to acknowledge his premiership as beneficial to Britain, even when ironically, he and his accolades turned out to be their own worst enemies.

A year or so ago, John Chilcot confirmed that Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War was partly pushed by a veiled and systematic trail of errors, misjudgements and fallacies. I wrote about this a year or so ago. Yet even in the light of this report and the increased antipathy and hatred towards Blair’s politics, one cannot but find his premiership a fascinating dilemma which cannot be dismissed let alone forgotten. If anything, it is an object lesson in the pitfalls of a centre-left government which ultimately sacrificed its own Party to succeed and then spectacularly lose favour with its electorate.

Blair’s myopic vision of foreign affairs, especially in his dealings with the Middle East, often leads many to forget Blair’s huge political achievements, starting with the success in securing peace in Northern Ireland. Building on John Major’s work, Blair pushed the flailing talks into gear and with the inimitable stewardship of the late Mo Mowlam, he pushed home a solid and lasting accord between Ulster’s intransigent Republicans and Unionists.

In making Labour synonymous with Blair, Blairism lost Britain its Labour Movement.

The same goes for his domestic policies, such as primary and secondary education, where one could (in my case as a parent but also as an academic) immediately feel the flow of investment with new schools, smaller classes, and an initial move toward proper progressive yet pragmatic enough policies to be accepted and implemented. Yet in contrast, Blair’s conservative views of the university sector lead to the opening of Pandora’s box with, amongst other, the introduction of fees, only to be trebled under Cameron’s premiership.

Perhaps Blair’s paradox is best found in his positive and active view of Europe and the EU. After years of acrimony and hostility whipped by Margaret Thatcher and then by the Euro-sceptics who made John Major’s relationship with the EU impossible, Blair broke the cycle. He put Britain at the core of Europe, which began to look—for a while at least—less in the grips of the Franco-German hegemony, gaining a wider dynamic in its federal vision. Yet this fell apart when Blair suddenly seems to have become all too enamoured by a Bush-led USA to which he sacrificed Robin Cook’s dream of an “ethical foreign policy.”

Blair’s decline was a direct result of his success. The Blair who, together with Gordon Brown, presented himself as the true heir of the late John Smith—one of the best Prime Ministers Britain never had—turned out to be a major catalyst in burying Smith’s legacy of British democratic socialism.

Smith was a political giant whose presence and acumen in British Labour would have changed society without giving away the core values that kept British democratic socialism uniquely poised to contribute to an effective democratic left in Europe. Smith’s legacy was squandered by his offspring—if indeed such offspring they ever were—in that it was evident that even the sharp yet tactically weak Gordon Brown was never able to revive it.

Had Brown revived Smith’s legacy, Labour would not be where it is now. While enjoying a great resurgence in its base, Corbyn’s Labour is the result of a deep split and somehow skewed to a Left which, even if well organised and fresh in its ideas (against all odds Corbyn’s Manifesto became an instant hit), as a party of government, Labour is still in waiting and no one would ever place any bets on how it would evolve, especially in a post-Brexit Britain, whatever that might look like.

With all the disdain nurtured towards Blair, to simply call him a “warmonger” is pointless. Those on the Left who, in their self-righteousness, choose to use such a cry, are doing no favours to the Labour Movement.

In making Labour synonymous with Blair, Blairism lost Britain its Labour Movement. This is Blair’s paradox. And speaking of Malta, this is where his latest visit (albeit private in intention, but still widely publicised in effect) should begin to resonate, and perhaps act as a reminder that at the cost of strong governance and successive electoral victories, Labour politics needs to be kept in mind when it is evaluated in how Blairism has impinged on a historic party which was left in tatters and split between old acolytes who assumed that the Party was theirs to abuse.

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