Was Tony Blair really our third-best postwar Prime Minister?

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4 November
11:39
Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/chathamhouse
November
2016

The issue of Iraq hangs heavily over Blair. But you have to see his complete electoral and policy record both in context and as part of wider political history. Blair was simply an enormous election winner for Labour. He delivered three straight victories – which the party had never seen before – and 13 years in office. By that measure he’s the most successful Labour leader in history.

Blair turned that sustained period of office into the basis for substantial achievement, from increased investment in education and the NHS to overdue constitutional reform like Scottish and Welsh devolution, to the Human Rights Act, Sure Start, the Minimum Wage and so on. He built that achievement on economic growth that, yes, crashed in the end. But it’s hard to pin the blame for that crash entirely on Blair and hard to argue that New Labour didn’t change the country in a substantial and largely positive manner.

There were big failures too, and not just in Iraq. Blair failed on Europe. He wanted to bring us into the core of the EU and ultimately to join the Euro. In a way Brexit amounts to a retrospective condemnation of him, and of David Cameron too. And Blair’s open approach to EU immigration arguably contributed to the issues we’ve faced on that front.

Clearly Iraq will forever mark his reputation, just as Suez means that no one can ever see Anthony Eden’s good points as a sort of reforming Tory moderniser. But it’s important to remember that there was widespread public support for the Iraq War at the start, and Blair did win the 2005 election, some years into the progress of that war. So the issue is somewhat over-personalised towards Blair, perhaps for internal ideological and factional reasons within the Labour Party.

In terms of public perception, Blair's involvement in Iraq overshadowed the rest of his premiership (Photo: Jason)

The truth about Iraq is that we were actually a small part of an overwhelmingly American military operation. It wasn’t Tony Blair’s war, it was George W Bush’s war. Blair’s decision was, do we set ourselves apart from our main allies of half a century’s standing? You can argue about whether that was the right decision, but to paint everything that happened in Iraq as solely Tony Blair’s responsibility seems unfair. The American public certainly don’t understand why it’s all pinned on him.

The emphasis on Blair’s personal, symbolic responsibility for Iraq – and the “not in my name” thing – is perhaps about a wider cultural shift that came after Blair. Social media, increased participation from young people, signing up to campaigns, clicktivism… these are emotive and sometimes shallow responses to important political issues. It is about judging this very successful Prime Minister in hindsight, and perhaps on the wrong criteria. 

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