Tony Blair

There can be no rehabilitation of Tony Blair – not now, not ever. Above all, this is because of Iraq

Tony Blair was prime minister for a decade, but is now widely reviled. The main reason, of course, is Iraq.

Blair’s role in the US-led invasion of 2003 and the long military occupation which followed – relentlessly pushing for British participation in the war, followed by a disastrous and chaotic occupation - largely defines him and his legacy. It didn’t immediately cost him his job, but it can be argued that he left Downing Street earlier than he would have wished – and since then his reputation has never recovered.

There are some among the commentariat and the political class, however, who have long itched to rehabilitate him. For some – for the most fervent of them – this is because they also backed the war in Iraq and they more generally want to revive the credibility of ‘humanitarian intervention’ after the disasters of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

But there are others, like the Guardian’s Zoe Williams, who want to save Blair from the indignity of being defined by Iraq, which they see as one awful mistake in an otherwise largely successful political career. In the process they actually obscure the truth of Blair’s wider record (besides Iraq), while belittling what a monstrous crime the war on Iraq really was.

Iraq: never forget

Firstly we should recall why the war in Iraq has so utterly trashed Blair’s reputation. Even many people who supported it in 2003 now accept it was utterly destructive, with enormously damaging long-term consequences for the country and its people.

But it is more than that. It has since become apparent – if it wasn’t clear at the time – that Blair was deeply committed to an invasion, and was willing to make all sorts of dubious pronouncements in a bid to win parliamentary and public approval. Blair is widely regarded as a liar. He and his supporters played a major role in the decline of trust in politicians. Several years before the expenses scandal broke, Iraq was a turning point.

For an increasing number of people, Iraq became part of an even larger failing: the so-called War on Terror. The occupation of Afghanistan became as unpopular as that of Iraq. When Obama and Cameron wanted to attack Syria last year, the legacy of Iraq – and wider opposition to western ‘interventions’ – guaranteed widespread public opposition. Many people understood that attacking Syria would escalate and widen the conflict, but the opposition and distrust was also fed by recent experience.

Since leaving Downing Street, Blair has made obscene amounts of money, helped enormously by the role he played as George W Bush’s junior partner. This gave him a high status among American elites – willing to spend ridiculous amounts for ‘keynote speakers’ and ‘leadership consultants’ – and the money, it seems, keeps rolling in. He has ‘advised’ some dubious characters and shown enthusiasm for bombing countries that he and Bush never got round to bombing.

From euphoria to disillusionment

Zoe Williams’ claim of a successful Blair era requires some imaginative re-writing of history. In 1997 Labour took 13,518,000 votes; in 2001 (pre-War on Terror) this fell to 10,725,000 votes. A decline of 2.8 million votes is peculiar after four years of reforming success, I’d have thought. In 1997 Labour Party membership was around 400,000; by the time Blair left office it had at least halved.

The decline in votes and members was not merely because of Iraq; especially in the case of the former, it pre-dated it. This was because of a whole series of failures which dashed the hopes of millions of natural Labour supporters.

The general election of May 1997 was an occasion for euphoria. By 2001 it was very different. Blair’s domestic record was characterised by a number of features. He was lucky in getting continual economic growth – at low levels, and disguising some drastic underlying weaknesses, but growth nevertheless. This allowed some increased public sector funding. Yet this was accompanied by privatisation and deregulation.

Williams refers to the minimum wage, always maintained at a thoroughly measly level, but somehow forgets such ‘reforms’ as the introduction of tuition fees which demolished the principle of free education and paved the way for the obscene levels of fees we see today. The minimum wage – such a meek threat to big business – was accompanied by a whole raft of policies designed to reassure the already wealthy that they could continue to enrich themselves while offering low pay and insecurity to their workers. The anti-union laws were left firmly intact, nothing was done to regulate working hours (among the longest in Europe), and any restrictions on the pursuit of further wealth were ‘deregulated’.

There was increased funding for the NHS, but it was accompanied by the beginnings of marketization which the Tories are now pushing much further. In schools there was the obsession with the three Ts of targets, testing and tables, and later the growth of the academies programme, which did so much damage: increasing stress, feeding competition, distorting learning and allowing the private sector into a public service (a trend replicated in almost every part of the public sector).  

A funny kind of social democracy

Williams tells us that Blair ‘left a blueprint for social democratic government’. I’m not sure Blair would make such a claim himself. He represented the collapse of any aspiration to social democratic government in the face of corporate power and the City of London. He bent over backwards to please the rich and powerful, allowing inequality to grow in the process. His policies encouraged precisely the tendencies which made Britain so vulnerable to the crisis of 2008.

Social democratic? Where is the democracy? The very first act of his first government was to surrender control over interest rates to the unelected Bank of England. The democratic advance of devolution for Scotland and Wales was welcome, but other constitutional and democratic changes never materialised.

Scotland and Wales aside, power continued to be highly centralised. The archaic systems of patronage largely remained the same. The links between corporate lobbyists and politicians became much stronger. Blair’s love-in with Murdoch symbolised the way that so much of the political agenda was shaped by pleasing a few press barons. Above all, Iraq – going to war despite massive demonstrations and public opinion – prompted talk of a democratic deficit, with the political class failing to represent the views of the people.

Williams praises Blair because, apparently, ‘it’s better to care about poor children than it is to recast their situation as the result of their parents’ fecklessness’. What does this have to do with the punitive Blair? The prison population rose as crime fell; teenagers were slapped with ASBOs. Increasingly, poverty was talked of as a moral failing by the poor themselves, not as a structural failure.

One of the great Blair myths was that of social mobility, which implied that anyone still poor clearly had something wrong with them. It couldn’t be the system – the poor must be to blame.

Blair represented the desertion by Labour of the social democratic gains of the post-war period. New Labour placed far greater emphasis on the vacuous New than on the Labour.  He wasn’t just a warmonger abroad but someone who pushed through private finance initiatives and deregulation at home, who allowed inequality to prosper, and who displaced blame for social ills onto the victims.

The state became not a support and provider for people from cradle to grave, but increasingly a facilitator of greater enrichment for private business, bankers and speculators. And it became increasingly coercive too, both at home and abroad. There was growth in state-sanctioned Islamophobia, the erosion of civil liberties, and an increase in the surveillance state; subservience to the White House in the ‘war on terror’ meant participation in rendition and complicity in torture.  

No rehabilitation of Blairism

When Tories claim that their austerity is necessary because of profligate public spending by previous Labour governments, we should of course point out the various ways in which they are wrong. We should defend what we already have from attack: some, but really not much, of this is a legacy of the Blair and Brown years. Much more of it is a legacy of earlier generations. Much of it started to come undone under Blair, committed as he was to a neoliberal model that made a god of private profit.

There can be no rehabilitation of Tony Blair – not now, not ever. Above all, this is because of Iraq. The costs of invasions, wars and occupations have been enormous – in human lives and in money.

The money devoted to weapons and war could have been spent on public services. Public investment could have been coupled with greater democratic public control, but instead the opposite happened. There are many failures which explain why Blair was, to millions of people hoping for a change of priorities after 18 years of Tory rule, at first a bitter disappointment – and later something worse.

I am writing this on the 1st anniversary of Thatcher’s death. It is a commonplace to say that Thatcher may have died, but Thatcherism sadly didn’t. This is because the Blair years marked far greater continuity than change from the Thatcher/Major period.

Blairism turned out to be a version of neoliberalism with more progressive rhetoric and a ‘Cool Britannia’ image makeover. It is significant that Cameron modelled himself on Blair, and that Blair has endorsed the current government’s austerity drive. In seeking to defeat Cameron’s government, there is nothing to be gained from exhuming the corpse of Blairism.

From Luna17

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).