How will history judge the decade-long premiership of Tony Blair?
On the day before President Nixon was forced to resign in disgrace, his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, tried to cheer him up by insisting that history would judge his presidency to be a success. The embattled Nixon concluded glumly that, "That all depends who is writing the history".
As an opposition MP it would be all too easy to accentuate the negative. Certainly Tony Blair entered Downing Street on a wave of popular acclaim. In possession of an overwhelming parliamentary majority coupled with tremendous public good-will in 1997 many will feel he has failed to deliver on such high promise.
Above all, Tony Blair has made the political weather during his time as Prime Minister. That in itself is a rare attribute. Sure, in part this is down to the failings of the Parliamentary Opposition but it is also a reflection of his resilience, charm, stamina and energy.
Like all successful politicians Mr Blair has also been blessed with plenty of good luck. The economic stability that has underpinned the past decade means that he is the first Labour Prime Minister not to have been immediately overwhelmed by financial crises. This has largely been down to the benign international conditions and explosive effects of globalisation as the two economic superpowers of the next two decades, China and India, have emerged strongly on the international commercial stage.
His constitutional reforms will be long lasting. I believe they have been a mess, but there is now no going back to a hereditary House of Lords. Whilst this is strictly speaking unfinished business, my instinct is that Mr Blair’s reforms will remain intact for some decades to come. The creation of a Scottish Parliament will inevitably lead, in time, to a break-up of the United Kingdom as we know it. There will be increased demands from the English for parallel representation which at some point in the future ? perhaps decades ahead ? will become irresistible. Similarly the power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland is surely only a transitional step towards a united Ireland during the lifetime of most Britons alive today.
Public services. I regret that Mr Blair, with his enormous parliamentary majority, was unable to drive through the fundamental reforms that were so badly needed. The National Health Service, heralded during my childhood as ‘the envy of the world’, has been beset by organisational change of timidity which still fails to put patients’ interests first. Sadly although Mr Blair rightly identified education as his number one priority, the record here is also poor. A debased system of public examinations means it is difficult to judge the success or otherwise of vast public expenditure in our schools. Our best and most internationally-minded universities, still overly reliant on public funding, are perceptibly slipping down international league tables ? particularly in comparison to the best US universities. In the global world we live in today this matters. The best talent, both amongst academics and students across the world are increasingly mobile and have been voting with their feet to attend universities across the Atlantic. Sadly lifelong learning and further education remain Cinderella areas ? unloved and underfunded. This should set alarm bells ringing for the employment prospects of many millions of our fellow countrymen in the decades ahead.
Lastly, international affairs. Inevitably at such a short perspective the focus of many commentators in assessing Mr Blair’s record has been on Iraq. Whilst it excites those of us living here in London in mid-2007, I am not sure that it will necessarily be how this premiership will be best remembered. Global Islamist terrorism will be a fact of everyday life for generations to come. I believe that Western democracies are only at the very early stages of grappling with how to deal with this threat to our freedoms and liberty. The doctrines espoused by President Bush in the aftermath of 9/11 of pre-emptive strike and regime change, of which Prime Minister Blair was such an enthusiastic supporter, will not survive his presidency. The next American president, working alongside a new group of leaders in Europe, Asia and the United Nations, will begin to form a radically different response to the global terrorist threat. In the context of this timescale, the war in Iraq will probably within a short time seem like an early skirmish in a prolonged conflict, whose tactics and strategy were rapidly superseded by new thinking.
In conclusion in judging Britain’s place in the world, economically, politically and diplomatically I believe that in fifty years time Tony Blair’s premiership will be regarded as a mere footnote in a new chapter of this nation’s history which began in 1979 with the election of Margaret Thatcher.