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Tony Blair’s Poisoned Legacy

Tony Blair has a powerful claim to being one of the most successful British politicians of any recent generation, at least in domestic economic and social policy. But history will remember him mainly for his strategic error in going to war in Iraq.

During his ten years in power, Blair and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, gave Britain one of the longest periods of economic stability, relatively high growth, and low unemployment that it had ever known. In this respect, Blair’s premiership marked a fundamental break with the Labor Party’s tax-and-spend tradition. It also established a new tradition of stability in economic policy, continuing and reinforcing the previous Conservative government’s commitment to fiscal discipline and low inflation. Stable economic policy and rapid growth, in turn, enabled Blair’s government to pour extra money into education and the National Health Service.

Yet Blair’s domestic legacy is a mood of disillusion and mistrust, especially of Blair himself. One reason is that a significant portion of Blair’s party (which he renamed “New Labor”) never reconciled itself to the primacy that he gave to free-market principles over its old Socialist or Social Democratic values. Another is that Blair consistently seemed to pay much less attention to Parliament than to the right-wing tabloid press: the spin and media manipulation to which his office devoted so much effort worked wonders at first, but soon generated deep skepticism and mistrust.

But the main reason for Britain’s popular disillusion with Blair comes down to his role in the Iraq war, which was launched with the ostensible aim of pre-empting Iraq’s use weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Of course, as we now know, WMD were never found, and, worse, evidence came to light showing that Blair was aware that the Bush administration was committed to regime change, regardless of their existence. The infamous Downing Street memorandum of July 23, 2002, eight months before the outbreak of war, stated explicitly that “The intelligence and the facts were being fixed around the policy.”