The long wait is finally over: On Thursday British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced his resignation as leader of the Labour Party, which will take effect on June 27. In doing so, he has launched a process that will also see him leave 10 Downing Street seven weeks from now. The most successful Labour Party leader ever, who won three elections in a row, first announced his decision to his cabinet on Thursday morning. He then flew to his constituency in County Durham in northern England, the heartland of the old workers' movement that gave rise to the Labour Party, a party Blair's New Labour has little or nothing in common with.
His Sedgefield constituency bears little resemblance to the area where he originally launched his political career in 1983 as a young London-based lawyer. Fifteen years of uninterrupted growth have left their mark -- with renovated schools, repaired streets and a new hospital -- on a region that had fallen victim to poverty and misery in the 1980s after the coal mines were closed.
Blair's New Labour government didnt create the boom. The Conservative Party, or Tories, had laid the groundwork with the brutal, painful reforms carried out under Margaret Thatcher and John Major. But in the 10 years since that first landslide victory, Blair and his designated successor finance minister, Gordon Brown, have wisely administered the precious legacy they inherited.
Improved Living Standards for Millions
Britain has maintained its economic dynamism, which has benefited from historically low interest rates, lower inflation and almost full employment. That has given Labour the opportunity to help the poor: with the introduction of a minimum wage, state benefits for low earners and fiscal redistribution.
There are 68 billionaires living on the island, and according to the Sunday Times, the 1,000 richest families have a total value of around €529 billion ($715 billion). At the same time there are 1.5 million fewer children living under the poverty line than in 1997, and the living standard of millions of pensioners has been dramatically improved.
The situation in Great Britain's one remaining trouble spot, Northern Ireland, has also changed greatly. On Tuesday the representative of radical Protestantism, fundamentalist preacher Ian Paisley, and the Catholic former IRA commander, Martin McGuiness, formed a regional government in Belfast. The British prime minister will now go down in the history books as one of the great peacemakers.
Blair can leave Downing Street with his head held high, says Matthew Taylor, who worked as one of the prime minister's closest advisors until the end of 2006: "There's no question in my mind that Britain is a more confident and a better, stronger, country now than it was 10 years ago."
Alice Miles, a columnist for the London Times, described the attitude towards life in the Blair's Britain: "Whether you bought into Cool Britannia or not, we are a hell of a lot cooler than we were ten years ago."
The youthful leader of the opposition, David Cameron, is popular in opinion polls and has already been successful in local elections, largely because he doesnt fight the old lost battles of the past. Education policy, the National Health Service, the question of the Bank of England's independence -- these are all areas where Cameron accepts Labour's reforms and in so doing gives added legitimacy to Blair's government policies.
In the same way that the legendary "Iron Lady" Margaret Thatcher's influence was still felt at least ten years after she left office, it is certain that Blair's policies will live on long after he leaves Downing Street.
That, unfortunately, is also true when it comes to his policies toward the European Union. Instead of placing Britain in the "heart of Europe" and adopting the euro, Blair let himself be cowed by both a largely Euroskeptic public and an anti-EU press, in particular those publications owned by Rupert Murdoch.
Blair committed three other mistakes that will overshadow his political legacy:
The first has its roots in the period just before he took over as party leader in 1994. Instead of openly competing for the leadership after the sudden death of John Smith, Blair guaranteed his friend Gordon Brown that he would give him the powerful position of Chancellor of the Exchequer, or finance minister, in exchange for withdrawing his candidacy, as well as almost unchecked influence over domestic policy. This forced marriage of the two most talented politicians of their generation was to hinder rather enhance the New Labour government. The lack of clarity prevented Labour from governing more purposefully.
Tony Blair's Regrets
One of Blair's closest political allies, current EU Commissioner Peter Mandelson conceded the second mistake: "We were perhaps too ready to place emphasis on our management of the media in those early years of government rather than concentrate on a more policy-driven process." Mandelson should know: he was dubbed the "Prince of Darkness" because of his image as one of Blair's reviled spin doctors. Downing Street's press officers were masters at "spinning" the facts to their own advantage. It was only after the second election victory in 2001 that Blair and his ministers concentrated on the painstaking, long-term reforms of the public services.
Then came the mass murders of Sept. 11, 2001, and the prime minister made his third mistake, something bestselling author and former Blair admirer Robert Harris ("Fatherland," "Pompeii") called his "most difficult political misjudgment" -- Blair became a nearly unquestioning apostle of US President George W. Bush and took part in the invasion of Iraq without thinking through the risks.
Sketches of a Postmodern World Order
Though it is clear he regrets the first two mistakes, he continues to defend the third. When it comes to foreign policy, Tony Blair sits stubbornly atop the rubble of his ambitious policies, trying to spin the heap as some kind of postmodern building. Not that Blair is totally wrong. When he sketched out his vision of a postmodern world in a speech eight years ago in Chicago, he said a coalition of Western democracies would be justified, or even obliged, to interfere with other countries when the cause was good -- "to advance the values of freedom, rule of law, human rights and an open society."
The irony of this speech on international law is that Blair delivered it during the Kosovo conflict, a war that wasn't sanctioned by the United Nations and therefore, strictly speaking, was a violation of international law. The British prime minister would become the first prominent world leader to suggest that international law and its relevant institutions no longer lined up with reality.
The overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the underlying Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war, on the other hand, didn't quite fit Blair's vision of humanitarian imperialism, which rested on a presumption of multilateral action. His adherence to a so-called "special relationship" with the superpower across the Atlantic wasn't based on noble international ideals, but on cold power politics à la Henry Kissinger -- which means it belonged neither to Blair's own publicly declared politics nor to his personal self-image.
Half-Truths, Quibbles, and Near-Lies
For exactly this reason Blair and his associates entangled themselves in embarrassing half-truths, legal quibbles, and near-lies when they defended the campaign against Saddam on the basis of his supposed weapons of mass destruction. The prime minister himself still refuses to call his participation in the Iraq invasion a mistake.
Ultimately, God would judge him, Blair once said -- and in interviews with filmmaker Michael Cockerell an almost messianic certainty creeps into his speech, which Blair seems to have used to bamboozle high-ranking government and military officials. "Put simply: We're doing the right thing," Blair was known to say before the wars in Kosovo and Iraq, and his cabinet secretary at the time, Sir Richard Wilson, was "struck by his conviction that he was right." From Wilson's expression, it's clear that he doesn't mean the sentence as a compliment.
Before his time as party chief and prime minister, in 1993, Blair wrote: "Christianity is a very tough religion, it is judgmental. There is right and wrong, There is good and evil. It's become fashionable to be uncomfortable with such language. But when we look at our world today and how much needs to be done, we should not hesitate to make such judgments. And then follow them with determined action. That would be Christian Socialism."
A Christian and a friend of America at the head of "their" party -- no wonder so many left-liberals never liked Blair, and saw him as a traitor. "Treachery," in this case, could also be a function of over-popularity. And the man has always been popular. In a poll taken last week for the 10th anniversary of his term in 10 Downing Street, just under 50 percent of the British called Blair "overall a good prime minister."
A majority even said he was nice.