Opinion: My Tony years

Tony BlairWhen Tony Blair announced his resignation, everyone seemed to want to give their assessment of what the Blair years had been like for Britain – giving history’s first judgement of the legacy into which he’s put so much effort. 

Many sought to measure his achievements in numbers: numbers of teachers under Blair, the change in waiting lists for hip ops under Blair, the spending on international development, the numbers unemployed under Blair. 

But they didn’t tell me what I want to know about the Tony years.

For although I’d voted Lib Dem in the misty early morning of the 1st May 1997, before doing the 7am stint telling, I shared in the excitement of the new regime that weekend – like almost everyone who wasn’t a Conservative, and, one sensed, even quite a few who were. 

I hoped that the new government would do something about what I thought was wrong about Britain after 18 years of Conservative government. 

What was I looking for from Tony?

I wanted a government which would not be weighed down by sleaze and a relentless stream of ministers and MPs apparently interested mainly in just feathering their own nests.

I wanted a political system which actually made sense – where a party’s strength in Parliament depended on the number of people who voted for it. I wanted a system which accepted that some decisions were best taken at a different level than a monolithic Westminster, in Edinburgh, Cardiff, Europe, or locally – and a House of Lords which had at least some legitimacy in its composition rather than being just a random collection of aristocracy. 

I wanted a government which wasn’t anti-European. And which would act to prevent governments making war on their own peoples, as had just happened on Europe’s doorstep in the Balkans.

I wanted him to do something to stop British education falling behind other developed countries. I wanted the government to stop just relentlessly cutting things, and instead invest in education, in health, in teachers, doctors and nurses. 

I desperately wanted the government to do something to make British society less unequal – to do something about the huge and growing gap between the obscene salaries and remuneration packages earned by some, and those who were too poor enough to play a real part in British society at all. And I wanted it to do something to tackle the sheer social tension bequeathed by Thatcherism and a government which seemed keen to show in every way it could that it believed there was no such thing as society.

And most of all, I wanted the people who ran the country to show some sign that they believed they were doing it for the benefit of the whole country, and particularly those who needed its help, and not just for the benefit of themselves. 

So has Tony given me what I wanted?

Well it started pretty well. The new government did show every sign of having swept away old sleaze and taken a new, more honest, approach. Tony Blair knew he could say that he was “a pretty straight sort of guy” because that was indeed the public’s general perception of him at the time. Unfortunately over time it all steadily unravelled – until as Blair prepares for his departure from Downing Street one of his key aides remains under threaten of prosecution under anti-corruption legislation we all thought was obsolete. 

It has done somewhat better on the constitutional reform agenda. Even the Tories, bless them, don’t seem to have been using the problems over voting in Scotland last month to argue that the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly (or Mayor and Greater London Authority) should be abolished altogether. That is a measure of how well some of Labour’s changes have become accepted and bedded down over the last ten years – even if one senses that if asked to devolve power in such a way again now, Blair might reach a different conclusion. In fact even at the time, it felt as if the devolution agenda owed more to Brown the 70s campaigner for the Scottish Parliament, than to Blair. 

He took a first step in reforming the House of Lords, but where we have ended up is with one of the very few legislatures in the world where one of its two chambers is appointed by the executive – a welcome fresh approach for politics students bored by the traditional relationship in which the elected legislature appoints the Executive, not the other way around.

On achieving a fair system of voting for Parliament, Blair has clearly flunked the test, failing to overcome the opposition of other senior Labour figures such as his Chancellor. 

He has disappointed me on no issue so much as Europe. Here was a man who believes himself a European, actually speaks French properly (and with a French rather than an Etonian accent), and came to power promising to heal Britain’s breach with our neighbours. What is so frustrating is that I have come to accept that on each of the many occasions when he pledged he was going to go out and make the case for Europe, he actually believed he was going to do it. It’s just when he came to doing anything about it, he failed to show up. He and his government have had a mature and sensible (if perennially behind-the-times) relationship with their European counterparts, and he has achieved some things within the EU, but on the big issues we are as far away as ever from feeling closer to Europe. Britain joining the Euro, an entirely realistic possibility on 1 May 1997, is now far further off. Gordon Brown’s “five tests” closed that one down for a good long while. 

He did take up the challenge of what the post-Cold War international community’s attitude should be to intervention where states were attacking their own people. I was delighted when he led the campaign for the international community to intervene effectively to prevent Milosevic’s atrocities in Kosovo in 1998. He was absolutely right to get Britain to intervene in Sierra Leone. But his final tragedy will be, of course, that because of the way he and the United States went about intervening in Iraq, it is now more difficult, not less, to intervene in future in places where it’s needed – such as Darfur, for example. 

From the start Blair talked about the importance of education, typically with a soundbite, but for the first two years of his government he – or rather the man who really took the decisions, Gordon Brown – refused to make any significant investment in education or other public services.

Since those first two years of course Brown has put really significant much-needed extra money into education. And even that has been eclipsed by the huge extra resources put into the health service. Not every penny of it may have been spent in the best possible way, but it has made a huge difference. 

His greatest problem with public services has been that putting in much-needed money has not been enough – he has felt the need also completely to reform the structures of education and health – and not just once, but constantly. Quite right that simply throwing money at the problem was not enough, the way it was spent needed reviewing too, but what matters is the outcomes. And while performance measured by the government’s preferred measures has indeed improved dramatically, real outcomes have been much less spectacular, though moving in the right direction. 

A more equal society? Well who would have thought that equality and social mobility would be lower after ten years of Labour government than it was under Thatcher? That someone born poor now is more likely to remain poor all their life than they were twenty years ago? Some of Gordon Brown’s measures have had some success in helping the poorest, but restraint of the highest level of incomes? City tycoons in Thatcher’s era could not have dreamt of the sort of salary package that Lord Browne lost a few weeks ago. 

And what about their motives? Have they been doing it all for themselves – or has this government, as Blair said in his resignation statement, always tried sincerely to do what it believed was best for this greatest nation on earth? Well I believe that Blair and Brown are fundamentally moral people, trying to improve Britain and not just out for themselves. 

But in many ways that just makes it more tragic that they have failed. It is on Blair’s watch and in his own house that anti-corruption legislation unused since the twenties has had to have the dust blown off it. And it is under his premiership, with Brown in charge of economic and social policy, that Britain has grown more unequal, not less.

And that last failing tells us something important about the last ten yeas. For with the exception of the interventionist foreign policy, all the important decisions don’t seem to have been taken by Blair at all. The key figure has been the Chancellor – the man who only agreed not to stand for Labour leader in 1994 in return for unprecedented freedom over the whole range of domestic policy. 

So it turns out that in many ways, they haven’t been Tony’s Years at all. In fact they’ve been My Gordon Years. 
 

Jeremy Hargreaves is a Vice Chair of the party’s Federal Policy Committee, and blogs at www.jeremyhargreaves.org/blog

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7 Comments

  • welshproudliberal 1st Jun '07 - 12:34pm

    An excellent piece Jeremy, sums it all up very well. It really is heartbreaking isn’t it.

  • Geoffrey Payne 2nd Jun '07 - 8:56am

    I agree, an excellent piece. I have often wondered whether to vote for you in internal party elections, I am more likely to do so now!
    However for me the biggest disappointment with the government has been over Iraq. The Lib Dems opposed the war because of the way the UN was sidelined and it was therefore illegal. I wonder if in hindsight we would have been wise to oppose it altogether given the chaos the country is in?
    This foreign policy blunder was considerably worse than Suez. The country has been transformed from a totalitarian state to a failed state, and for most of the people who live there the situation is even worse than before. The policy has created a large area of land, now extending beyond the borders of Iraq, of dangerous instability that could put at risk the neighbouring regimes.
    Not only will the people suffer, the supplies of cheap oil to global markets are at risk, and in turn the world economy could fall into a tailspin.
    No one knows what to do about it. I have no doubt that British troops should leave, but I have no doubt either that whether they stay or go the problems in Iraq will get worse for the forseeable future.

  • Hywel Morgan 2nd Jun '07 - 10:06pm

    Is there a way of having more “recent comments” at the top of the home page.

    This is getting a bit lost with the GLA spleen-vent and a couple of other stories that don’t merit as much attention as this.

  • Dominic Mathon 2nd Jun '07 - 10:46pm

    I should think the answer is to keep commenting here then 🙂

  • Linda Forbes 4th Jun '07 - 12:43pm

    But perhaps his biggest, and most pernicious, legacy will be the loss of civil liberties that he’s presided over during the last ten years. And has set the scene to allow others to continue this process – as fewer and fewer opportunities to object or protest are allowed. Yesterday I saw Chris Atkins film ‘Taking Liberties’ at the Hay Festival – a shocking reminder of just how far we’ve come along this road. For details of showings near you visit http://www.noliberties.com/

  • Some very interesting points here. Will Brown the Prime Minister be any real different to Brown the Chancellor?

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