Blair’s Long Goodbye

Britain’s longest-serving Labour prime minister will step down within the year. Small scale revolt from within party ranks and a nasty dispute with long time political rival Gordon Brown were the straws that broke the camel’s back after growing anger over the country’s foreign policy.

During his time in office, Blair successfully captured the country’s political center, led Britain away from his party’s traditional Welfare State policies towards those inspired by market forces, and navigated international relationships across the Channel as well as those across the Atlantic.

He seemed to see himself as Robin to Bush’s Batman, in a multilateral world with the US at the helm and the UK right behind. Sometimes called “Bush’s ambassador to the US,” he prized the “special relationship” above all others.

So now that Blair is approaching lame duck status, what are the lessons and the legacy of his nearly ten years at 10 Downing Street? What next for the curious counterpoint of left and right, up and down, linking British and American politics since Thatcher and Reagan?

Extra Credit Reading

James Laxer, The Long Goodbye of Tony Blair, James Laxer, September 7, 2006: “Blair’s conceit that in return for support for the U.S. in Iraq, he could convince the Americans to sign on to the Kyoto Accord and to adopt a less one-sided pro-Israel position in the Middle East, was misplaced.”

Rachel, How Mad is Tony Blair?, Rachel from North London, September 6, 2006: “He ran through various incarnations – frequently a knobbly-kneed Boy Scout, or a smirking US poodle, until he ended up as the swivel-eyed, bloodsplattered zombie that cartoonists portray him as today.”

Laura, Could Labour learn valuable lessons from the rave scene?, Homepage blog, September 6, 2006: “[In May 1997] in Liverpool, where a vast proportion of electors had grudgingly tolerated 18 years of a Conservative government, the atmosphere was jubilant.”

Tony Blair: should he carry on or quit now?, Homepage blog, September 7, 2006.

Oxford Analytica, Party Revolts Over Blair Exit Strategy, Forbes, September 11, 2006: “It began when Blair conducted a newspaper interview in which he declined to indicate the latest date that he would remain in power, insisted that would be his “last word” on the subject, and implied that any Labor members of Parliament who wanted him to be more precise had to be malcontents or doctrinal opponents undermining his leadership.”

James Button, Execution date awaits Tony Blair, The Age, September 9, 2006: “Think of the months ahead: Labour falling further in the polls, the Tories gloating, neither journalists nor public servants nor the world at large paying any heed to his policy statements because they might soon be undone.”

Denis MacShane, Why I remain loyal to Tony Blair, Telegraph, September 9, 2006: “Field Marshal Montgomery insisted that the most important quality in generalship was being calm when all appears to be going wrong.”

Peter Stothard, The Succession: What really happened in Britain last week?, The Wall Street Journal, September 13, 2006: “Who will succeed President Bush’s eloquent and loyal Mr. Blair?”

Guest List
Robert Guest
Washington, D.C. political correspondent for The Economist.
Rod Dacombe
researcher at Oxford on British government, blogger at Brit Pundit, and former Labour party candidate.
Rachel North
survivor of the 7/7 attacks and blogger, Rachel from North London.
Iain Dale

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  • taliesin

    Blair’s current public persona is an interesting study not just for what it is; but also for how it has evolved. Over the last six years, since Bush’s ascension to the US presidency, Blair has indeed managed a special relationship with Bush (though I’d make a strong argument that Bush has extracted the greatest benefit). But before Bush there was a different Tony Blair; one who held a special relationship with Bill Clinton.

    Indeed in the UK many saw Blair as their own home-grown Bill Clinton. With his energetic youth and head cheerleader for “Cool Britannia” Blair represented the same 90s hip-chic in the UK as Clinton did in the US.

    Did Blair change? Or does the easy transition Blair made from Clinton to Bush tell us something about American politics? Perhaps the difference between Blair’s pro-business New Labour, Clinton’s pro-business “I’ll do what ever the polls say” and Bush’s pro-business social-deconstructionism is very small.

    —–

    In the long-view I doubt history will favor any of these three men. Certainly when the next wave of of popular progressivism sweeps the US and UK and the social health of our societies again becomes a topic of popular politics our children will look back at these times as dark, dark days.

  • “led Britain away from his party’s traditional Welfare State policies towards those inspired by market forces”

    The story is much more complex than that and you really need a good, neutral economist to help sort it out. He has moved away from the traditional welfare state but this might be more in form than in terms of economic resources. The percentage of the GDP taken by the government remains similar or has even increased according to my understanding. Also unemployment is very low in comparison to continental Europe but the number of people working for the state has increased (as have people who are deemed to be “long term sick”, and hence receive welfare, as opposed to being “unemployed”. Having said that, as some one who votes Labour in my homeland, whilst living in another European country, it is clear there is a vivaciousness and enterprise to the British economy that is lacking elsewhere in many other parts of Europe. The contrast between the UK job market and that here in Finland is stark, with the situation in the UK being so much better.

    Obviously, for a US audiences Blair’s foreign policy will be of more interest. I am very sympathetic to his instincts but think you can only see it ultimately as failure; in effect he overestimated the impact that he could have on the US administration as I believe he really thought that he could get the Palestinians a state in return for supporting the US over Iraq. I wrote an essay in 2002 called “Tony and the Taliban” that looked at the context for his belief in humanitarian intervention. It was published in a Finnish magazine (in Finnish) but if anyone is interested they are welcome to the original English version.

  • Old Nick

    Toby, please give us a link to your essay. Thanks.

  • I’m not sure it’s understood in the US how wildly unpopular Blair has become here, even, and maybe especially, among the left. I’m a dual citizen (US/UK) who moved to Britain in 2002 and would be a natural Labor supporter. I now join many in not even considering voting Labor until he is gone. Do you hear about the creeping privatization of the NHS, which to me, having experienced the US survival of the fittest (richest) healthcare system, is precious? The authoritarian police state-like measures he has instituted and keeps proposing? And most of all the unforgivable way he ignored the mass protest over going to war in Iraq? I hope this comes across in the show.

  • The most irritating part of this long goodbye, is that in reality nothing will change. Brown might sometimes be referred to as a “rival”, but in the end, he’s very much part of the new labour way of thinking and functioning. So in many ways, this won’t signify a great change for the UK, but rather, a continuation of business as usual.. business in this case being the rapid privatization of any and all services, bowing to the whims and wishes of the US, and generally steering the nation away from Europe.

  • Old Nick – I’ve put the essay up on my blog – http://lightfromthenorth.blogspot.com/2006/09/tony-and-taliban.html – it’s a bit long so for anyone who doesn’t have the time or the inclination to read it, the conclusion is as follows:

    “Politics is never neat; it is rarely possible to say in a sprawling democracy that one certain thing was the reason behind a certain policy. Ideology, vested interests, indifference, lack of time, compromise, mistakes and sheer chance may all play a role in how policy is produced. Nevertheless policies can change radically as a result of a change of government. This has been shown above in the cases of British policy on the Balkans, humanitarian intervention more generally, third world development and European defence. If one person within government can exert significant influence it is the Prime Minister, particularly in the case of Blair who has been centralizing power through his period in office, with the claimed intention of creating better coordination between the different sections of government.

    Blair stands out amongst world leaders in that he not only has a vision of a better world beyond the borders of his own country, but he is willing to use the resources of the state he leads to try and achieve it. We are seeing this again in Afghanistan. Of course this whole vision might turn out to be a monumental folly; his rhetoric might create expectation in poor countries that will remain unfulfilled leading to cynicism towards all efforts of the rich nations to assist. Blair is already seeing domestic anger over the perception that whilst he is off fighting the war against terror, the British rail network is in disarray and other public services are not improving as promised. Yet the news footage of the cheering and dancing citizens of Kabul, greeting the first British paratroopers as they marched out onto the streets of that city alongside the local police should perhaps make one forget the cynicism, at least for awhile.”

    It is such a great shame that Blair has failed to realise the promise that he showed both in 1997 and again in 2001.

  • nother

    Powerful point Tailiesn, it was always curious to me how smooth Blair handled the transition from Clinton to Bush. They have obviously hitched up to us on this capitalism joyride fueled by oil and he didn’t want to rock the economic boat.

    The tragedy is I don’t think he would up initiated this war on his own, he was faced with a choice and he sold his soul for economics. You can almost feel the pain when you talk to Brits about Blair. They oh so want to like him, if only he hadn’t made such a magnificent blunder.

    I voted for Nader years ago because I believed him when he said there was no difference between the Republicans and the Democrats. It turns out, again tragically, that he was only half right.

  • loki

    Taliesin and Toby from the North comments are quite thoughtfull. Blair,used to the ruff and tumble of the House of Commons,gave a more compelling case for the War in Iraq than Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld ever did. Unfortunately, Blair failed to warn the World about how complex Iraq and its society is. British long term expierience,after the fall of the Ottoman empire,its battles in WWI and WWII taught them cautious realism about foreign rule in the Middle East. England has arabists and a large muslim population. Also, it has experienced terrorism from Guy Fawkes to the IRA. Blait could have payed a pivotal relationship after 9/11. Instead he jumped on Bush’s bandwagon and became its drum major.

  • galoot

    Hi loki, yes Blair is much better spoken than Bush and can be persuasive, but his case for the war in Iraq included the infamous “dodgy dossier” that included unacknowleged material cribbed from a graduate student’s thesis. There was also the ridiculous “45 minutes” claim (that Iraqi weapons could be launched and pose a threat to British interests in 45 minutes). I think many here were sceptical about the case for war from very early on – also the British media didn’t roll over quite like its US counterpart.

  • leejones_san

    As a recent British subscriber to Open Source I’m pleasantly surprised to see the show tackling this issue.

    I can’t say I agree with the plea for a “suspension of cynicism” coming from ‘Toby in the North’, and I suspect that most Brits feel nothing but cynicism towards Blair and his government today. New Labour suffers from a complete lack of political vision: knee-jerk reactions to media stories (the ‘respect agenda’, the regulation of lifestyle and health, the urge to ban everything remotely risky) and personal messianism (Blair’s support for the ‘War on Terror’) are substituted in its place.

    One thing I think the show should consider is Blair’s relationship to intervention. He is often seen as Bush’s ‘poodle’ in the UK for going along with the ‘war on terror’, but if you look at his foreign policy record pre-9/11, it is full of interventions: Kosovo (1999), Sierra Leone (2000), Iraq (1998). The idea of ‘humanitarian warfare’ bleeds very easily into interventions to secure ‘freedom and democracy’. This article definitely overstates the case but it notes this fact and shows how Blair talks about ‘good and evil’ in terms that are often thought unique to Bush and his right-wing coterie: http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/article/1316/

    I think it’s important not to get bogged down in Blair/Bush poodle or Blair/Brown saga issues with this show but rather to think about what the “triumph of Blairism”, as a recent Downing St memo put it, means in relation to British and perhaps Western politics. The so-called ‘third way’ that Blair champions reflects an absence of political vision, not a new vision for the future. I would suggest getting the British contemporary philosopher James Heartfield on if you possibly can – I think he has the best understanding of what New Labour represents (his homepage: http://www.heartfield.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/) His ‘Death of the Subject Explained’ is a brilliant, accessible look at contemporary politics and the decline of human subjectivity, with clear, compelling examples from both the UK and the US. If you can’t get him, try Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent, who has written extensively on the new ‘politics of fear’ and risk management represented by New Labour (http://www.frankfuredi.com/).

  • Leejones – I wrote the “suspension of cynicism” line in March 2002 as coalition forces were starting to patrol Kabul and girls were going to school for the first time in over a decade. Galoot above points out all the stupid things the UK government did after that time in preperation for Iraq that squandered the support for Afghanistan which should have been (is still?) “a good war”.

    Supporting the US over Iraq was meant to come with the quid pro quo that the US would then throw its weight behind the formation of real Palestinian state. Can we see Blair’s influence in that the Bush administration has actually called for a two state solution? Of course it seems that this expectation involved a rather unrealistic assumption that Bush could even if he wanted to go against the serious US domestic constituencies that don’t see a viable Palestinian state as a good thing. Perhaps Blair wanted that as his legacy – but post-Lebanon this seems to be in tatters.

    Its interesting you cite both Furedi and Spiked – Furedi is very linked to the magazine as he is a leading member of the “LM Group” that also produce Spiked. They all started out as the “Revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain” and hate the Blair government for Kosovo, as they always supported Milosovic for being ‘Europe’s Last real Communist’. The original LM (Living Marxism) magazine was sued out existence after they accused various journalists of having made up the Bosnian concentration camps story. A pretty loathsome lot. http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Frank_Furedi

  • nother

    History will view Tony Blair and Colon Powell as strange bedfellows. Two men whose integrity is generally not challenged, two men who had the potential to do great things; alas, their destiny’s have been doomed by misguided loyalty to both a simple man and a flawed ideology.

  • nother

    correction: alas, two men whose destinies have been doomed by misguided loyalty to both a simple man and a flawed ideology.

  • loki

    Yo!………Blair!

    Shakespeare could write about Blair. Yes, Galoot, Blair is a compelling ablbeit slick communicator. As a communicator he might have translated England historic experience in the Middle East. He seemed not to grasp or learn from England’s history.

    He promissed to be the mediator between Europe(old) and the US. Yet his polcies alientated europe.

    Perhaps, as the Republic of Ireland leaned a long time ago(and the IRA belatedly) that Brussels is more important that London. Blair may very well be the last Prime Minister of Great Britan as governemnt power delvolves.

    I do regret that George W. has not been sujected to the “Prime Minister Questions”

  • Old Nick

    loki: “I do regret that George W. has not been subjected to the ‘Prime Minister Questions’�

    Right on. How nice it would be if we had a national political mechanism that demanded, on a weekly basis, the exalted executive (auftokratos? that’s for all you Byzantine scholars 😉 ) called President demonstrate to his (putative) constituency the People (Demos) an ability to think on his feet and articulate intelligibly.

    Man, do I ever wish that We the People could see through the smokescreens of jingo drifting from the contrail of all those rockets’-red-glares long enough to craft, collectively, a new and modern Constitution. (Not on the British model, though. More like on the Swedish – or something even more democratic than that…)

    Yeah, I know: a pipedream. We got videogames to play, after all, and ‘reality’ to watch on TV.

    Democracy?

    We don’t need no stinkin’ democracy!

  • albertj

    Without Blair, who will act as a buffer between Bush and the EU?

  • “Blair has indeed managed a special relationship with Bush (though I’d make a strong argument that Bush has extracted the greatest benefit).”

    Just out of curiosity, do you think Blair has extracted any benefit at all (for himself or for the UK) from this special relationship?

    The only apparent thing that has kept Blair in power this long is the same thing that has kept Bush in power — The US Democrats and the British Tories are in a close, neck-and-neck race to see who can be the most inept, useless and dysfunctional “opposition” party in the world of democracies!

  • loki

    plnelson, I agree. What happened to the loyal opposition. The Democrats rolled over regarding the War in Iraq.

    One question we did not explore was the fractured special relationship Tony Blair had with Gordon Brown. Brown wrote a book on Devolution and was elected from Scotland.

    Notes for a future show. What will be great about Great Britain when it devolves?

  • jjclose

    I couldn’t agree more with the comment by “Nother”: Blair shared with Colin Powell the perceived quality of high integrity such that everyone, thinking people included, held him in relatively high regard; and everyone assumed that if push came to shove and questionable policies were being railroaded by the Bush & Co., we could count on Colin Powell and Blair to call them to account.

    The question that no one seems to be able to answer is whether Blair truly believed in his policies or was just an utter pragmatist of the highest degree, and skilled enough to win a few rounds in the fight of geodiplomacy (before finally losing). And of course the biggest unspoken mystery in Blair’s legacy is the fact that his government had *seen* the evidence that the run up to the war was a complete fraud. This alone seems to answer my question, at least in part — he could not have truly believed that his reasons were just.

  • Old Nick

    Did anyone catch the tacit conclusion from Robert Guest that John McCain will be the next President of the USA? It came near the end of the hour. I know that he’s an operative of a more or less conservative British publication, and that no guest recognized his assumption soon enough to ask him why he had drawn that conclusion. (Chris might well have, but it came so near to the end of the hour that perhaps he preferred to gloss it over in favor of a round of closing thoughts.)

    Still, I think it says something of appalling significance that, against the prevailing backdrop of the suzerain yet intellectually-bankrupt conceptual construct called American Conservatism, well-informed Europeans can recognize the (inexcusable) timidity of the Democrats, and, simply to save the time it would otherwise take to explain, make the entirely plausible assumption that yet another Republican will win the next American Presidential Propaganda Election.

    Sheesh.

    We need more than just two parties, People. And to have more than the Two (capitalized on sarcastic-purpose) that the corporate business interests tacitly sanction for us, we’ll likely need a constitutional amendment (or more than just one, maybe) that tackles the modern democratic concept called proportional representation, in lieu of our slavishly loyal and unimaginatively jingoistic adherence to the 18th century Constitution’s mandate of the simplistic status quo called representation-by-individuals.

    Wake up, folks, and smell the 21st century coffee. It’s delightfully more flavorful than all that aging factory-ground Maxwell House—and vastly more democratic to boot.

  • Kay Allen

    Old Nick ‘’we need more than two parties�

    I agree. Yes indeed the US needs more than two parties that are alike for the most part. It baffles the mind, and the rest of the world, that in a country with population of approximately 300 mil, citizens have ONLY two parties that represent them. I don’t think that the American people are that homogeneous when it comes to political ideas.

    In a small country like Denmark, with a population of 5.5 mil, there are more parties participating in the national and local election than one can count extending from the far left, to the centre (social dems) to the far right and anything in between. Hasn’t the new century arrived to the US yet?

  • Old Nick

    Hasn’t the new century arrived to the US yet?

    Hell, Kay Allen, the last century hasn’t yet arrived in central North America. In more ways than the ironic way you meant, too. We’re still, in the veiled-racist politics of the Deep South, still struggling with the sordid 19th century business called Reconstruction – and it’s still woefully affecting the whole of the nation’s politics. The quadrennially-flogged idea that any progressive Northerner is effectively ‘ineligible’ (according to the corporate media, anyway) to win the Presidency is proof enough. Hence our sad-sack Presidential series of rich white men masquerading as ‘good ol’ boys’ and ‘cowpokes’…

    Anyway, thanks for your agreeable post and its consisely stated insights.

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  • “everyone assumed that if push came to shove and questionable policies were being railroaded by the Bush & Co., we could count on Colin Powell and Blair to call them to account”

    Yes; this is very insightful and I’m surprised that more people have not found this retreat from honor and intellectual honesty by two men we THOUGHT had an abundance of both to be remarkable.

  • 1st/14th

    but his case for the war in Iraq included the infamous “dodgy dossier� that included unacknowleged material cribbed from a graduate student’s thesis.

    Funny, but I thought both the Hutton Inquiry and the Butler Inquiry found the charge of a “dodgy dossierâ€? to be a hill of beans and that British (and by extension US) intel was reasonable to conclude most of what it did, including the African unranium? In fact, didn’t some high ups at the BBC resign in disgrace for thier unethical shenanigans?

    I know, nothing to see here, keep moving ….

  • “Funny, but I thought both the Hutton Inquiry and the Butler Inquiry found the charge of a “dodgy dossierâ€? to be a hill of beans ”

    No, not true at all.

    First of all, the Hutton Inquirly had nothing to do with the topic at hand – it was about whether Blair had any responsibility for the death of David Kelly, and that was the limit of its scope.

    And the Butler Inquiry was nothing but a whitewash because it was was not allowed to follow the data wherever it went, but was forced to confine itself way too narrowly to draw any relevent conclusions. This is why Howard pulled out of it.

    Both the Blair and Bush governments take the same tack on this – people demand an inquiry into the war or 9/11 or treatment of prisoners or whatever. So they set one up that deliberately is not allowed to ask the most important questions, or given full access to the intelligence information it needs to be effective. When anyone complains about this, Bush, Blain, & Co. excuse it by saying that secrecy is necessary to keep information out of the hands of the enemy. It’s a classic catch-22 created by Bush and VBlair to hide their lies and incompetence. Unfortunately for them the RESULTS of their lies and incompetetnce become clearer every day.

  • 1st/14th

    “First of all, the Hutton Inquirly had nothing to do with the topic at hand – it was about whether Blair had any responsibility for the death of David Kelly, and that was the limit of its scope.”

    From the Wikipedia entry on the Hutton Inquiry

    The dossier had not been “sexed up”, but was in line with available intelligence, although the Joint Intelligence Committee, chaired by John Scarlett, may have been “subconsciously influenced” by the government

    And the Butler Inquiry was a all white wash .. thats right .. move along people, nothing to see here, nothing to see here.

  • “From the Wikipedia entry on the Hutton Inquiry

    The dossier had not been “sexed upâ€?, but was in line with available intelligence, although the Joint Intelligence Committee, chaired by John Scarlett, may have been “subconsciously influencedâ€? by the government”

    What’s your point? Being “in line with available intelligence” is not a judgement on whether the available intelligence was valid or not.

    “And the Butler Inquiry was a all white wash .. thats right .. move along people, nothing to see here, nothing to see here.”

    Repeating yourself doesn’t add anything to the debate.

  • 1st/14th

    What’s your point? Being “in line with available intelligence� is not a judgement on whether the available intelligence was valid or not.

    My point was that, contrary to your post above, the Hutton inquire did comment on the so called “dodgy dossierâ€?, and that it found the charge to be bunk. And the only reason I am repeating myself is because people do not seem to get it: seperate inquiries have found the “they lied” argument to be horse manuer.

  • “seperate inquiries have found the “they lied” argument to be horse manuer.”

    The found no such thing.

    OBVIOUSLY they lied – Bush and Blair claimed that they had good intelligence data that Iraq had WMD’s. They didn’t. They neither had WMD’s, nor did they have good intelligence to that effect.

    When you make a statement that’s untrue, it’s a lie. You can’t say it’s an honest mistake, because it was self-evident to millions of citizens in the UK, the majority of people in most other EU countries, and even a few people in the US,

    that such intelligence did not exist. It makes no sense to say that we could see it and Blair couldn’t, so that rules out the “honest mistake” argument, therefore it was a lie.

  • 1st/14th

    Like I said, move along people nothing to see here, and how dare you even stop to look.

  • fj

    I really enjoyed this program, but mainly for Rachel North’s level-headed commentary. The Economist correspondent, meanwhile, was a pedantic bore too deeply embedded in British politics to provide much of a useful insight.

    Please invite fewer Economist correspondents and more bloggers like Rachel onto the show, because it’s their voices that I listen to ROS for.

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