11 March 2015

How good was Tony Blair?


It is tremendously easy to demonise Tony Blair. And, also, tremendously unimaginative. Iain Martin, the august editor of CapX, fairly sprinted into this trap yesterday, like a hog into a roast. Under a photograph that (deliberately, a cynic might think) made the former prime minister look like Lucifer’s ingrown toenail, and a headline that asked, in the rhetorical style of a Californian schoolgirl, ‘How bad was Tony Blair?’, Martin answered, roughly, ‘like, reeely, reeely bad.’

What is the charge sheet? Here one finds Martin at the head of a long queue, Airplane-style, of right-wing Tories intermingled with the far-Left, peppered with Scottish Nationalists and Greens, brandishing baseball bats, cudgels and tartan knuckle dusters. With this warty coalition arrayed against him, the layman must surely, instantly, fall in beside our obscenely wealthy, globe-trotting, perma-tanned, much misunderstood ex-PM.

To that charge sheet. Mr Martin, to his credit, began by admitting that ‘one of the most unappealing aspects of contemporary British politics is the way in which parties, some more than others, spend their time trying to shame their opponents rather than laying out their own ideas for improving the economy or dealing with an increasingly dangerous international situation’. This pretty much sums up our 21st century political climate. The game, played by what George Osborne calls The Guild (professional lifer politicians), is now a 3D chess match dominated by PPE alumni for whom principle and conviction come somewhere below ‘make the other guy look like a wazzock’ on the list of priorities.

Blair and Bill Clinton are often blamed for this state of affairs. Their pursuit of ‘triangulation’ is held up as the moment at which politics lost its moral compass. But this simply isn’t true. Blair had a moral compass that was stuck on true north – indeed, it regularly got him into trouble. Those who claim he lacked principle and conviction do so either because they disagreed with him or because it suits their agenda to say it. Ask Michael Gove, a conviction politician to his bootstraps, who says he is a ‘great fan’ and would love to be the ‘heir to Blair’.

There is an almost willful misunderstanding of the man and his mission. Tories have a go at him because of his high-spending ways, because he didn’t go far enough or fast enough on public sector reform, because of his Europhilia. Fine. But do remember, chaps, he was leader of the LABOUR PARTY, not the Conservatives. If anyone has a problem with Europe, it’s the latter. It’s fair to say that Blair took the People’s Party as far to the right as it’s ever likely to go. Look at how the current crop of b-listers views him: the mere mention of his name seems to provoke an allergic reaction. Labour candidates in the general election won’t even accept a grand from him towards their campaign funds. One of my favourite Blair lines was addressed to his own recalcitrant backbenchers: ‘I was loyal to the Labour Party through three election defeats. All I’m asking from you in turn is to be loyal to me through three election victories.’ Had he stood again as PM in 2010, I suspect David Cameron would still be leader of the opposition.

I’ve seen Clinton described as a ‘bridge’ – that is, a politician who helped his country move from the end of one era into the beginning of a new one: a US that had won the Cold War and seemed to have established liberal, capitalist democracy as the global governing system of choice. Blair performed the same function for the UK. He was young, energised, modern and tough. He was pro-business and pro the taxes that a healthy private sector could pay. This allowed him to push up investment in public services that – even Tories should admit – had been underfunded for decades. Just remember how dilapidated many schools and hospitals – the places where we send our sick and our kids – had become by the mid 1990s.

But it wasn’t just about money – Blair brought the centre-left to a position where it accepted the argument that private companies were not something to be loathed or feared. They could play a role in improving public services by bringing their expertise, knack for efficiency and competitive ethic to bear. He allowed the private sector into the NHS, which had a profound impact on waiting times and lists. He embraced privately sponsored city academies, targeted at the most disadvantaged kids in the worst sink areas, and set England on a course from which the current government has seen no reason to diverge. He invested in early intervention and expanded nursery care. He kept business taxes down and stuck with an internationally competitive top rate of personal taxation, despite pressure from within his party to soak the rich.

He embodied the country that we needed to become (and which some parts still need to): socially liberal, pro-equality for all, principled yet pragmatic, self-confident, suspicious of ideologies, extremes and absolutes, pro-immigration, a committed global citizen that took its share of the burden. He took climate change seriously.

Blair is criticised for the creation of the Scottish Parliament, where we now see the separatists sawing away at the bonds connecting the UK. But Scots wanted their own parliament. Blair asked them, in a referendum: 75 per cent said ‘yes please’. That there are unintended consequences is not an argument against having done it. Nor were any of the other options that are now waved around by ‘experts’, such as a Grand Committee, going to suffice. Indeed, the centralist, power-hoarding Westminster model is now in crisis as people across the UK rebel against a southern elite that thinks it knows best. The advent of the London mayor was precisely the right thing to do, has helped reinvigorate the capital, and is a template for our other great cities. The House of Lords (which I was against reforming at the time) is now a clear anachronism that needs rethought from the ground up. The First Past the Post voting system will not last the decade, given we are in an era of six-party politics.

On the economy, much of the investment, as I have pointed out above, was justified. Blair won the economic argument – even the Tories were convinced, up until the crash (which everyone had suddenly seen coming, and which, despite its global impact, was bizarrely blamed on New Labour by the right). He had ‘scars on his back’ from taking on the vested interests in the public sector and the trade unions in a way that David Cameron has never dared to. He refused to repeal the Thatcher laws that reined in union power. He accepted her labour market reforms, which meant that when the crash hit companies had the flexibility to avoid mass redundancies and keep employment high. He brought in the minimum wage, which these days is almost unanimously seen as A Good Thing. He continually blocked Gordon Brown’s desire to raise the top rate of tax. In his third term, as the economy showed signs of cooling, he wanted his chancellor to put the brakes on public spending, but was ignored.

Here we see one of his genuine errors: Blair should have made Brown contest the party leadership in 1994, rather than enter into the Granita deal that would dog him for the entirety of his time in the job. He’d have thrashed his rival, which would have changed the dynamic of their relationship for good. He should also have had the guts to move his nemesis from the Treasury halfway through his second term, which his memoir reveals he considered, before bottling it.

Mr Martin criticises Blair for using ‘war as an instrument of policy’. Well, war is never an unalloyed success. Innocent people always die. Some go more badly than others. But ask the people of Kosovo and Sierra Leone what they think of our ex-PM. Ask the Kurds. Look at the failure of leadership in the West that has allowed calamity after calamity to befall the Middle East and Africa in the past few years. Look at Isis and the relentless Islamist terror threat and go back and read Blair’s Chicago speech. Intervention has consequences, but so does non-intervention. Foreign policy makes hypocrites of us all.

Was Blair a great prime minister? It’s too early to say yet. But in the balance of things, he was certainly a good one. He was flawed, of course, but then one might look at the state of capitalism today and ask whether the sainted Mrs T didn’t have her weak points. That’s the price of wearing the crown. And I tell you something: if the country had a leader of Blair’s calibre now I bet we’d be feeling a lot more confident about our future prospects. So stop all this ludicrous hatred and traducement and instead ask yourself: how good was Tony Blair?

Chris Deerin was Head of Comment at Telegraph Media Group, 2008-2013. He is now a writer and communications adviser, based in Edinburgh and London, and writes a weekly column in the Scottish Daily Mail.