How will history judge Prime Minister Tony Blair?

March 4, 2005

He may serve one more term, but when Labour's leader finally does step down, will he leave much of a legacy? Huw Richards asks Tony Giddens and Helena Kennedy in a preview to the first in a series of Times Higher debates

If the polls - and just about every political prognostication - Jare right, Tony Blair will gain a significant place in the British political record books within the next few months as he becomes the first Labour prime minister to win a third consecutive term.

How far his achievements will be seen as extending beyond winning elections and keeping the Conservatives, Britain's dominant party for most of the past century, out of power is a matter for debate across British politics, but most vigorously on the Left.

Blair's historical reputation will be the subject of the first in a series of Times Higher debates on historical legacies, to be held at the National Portrait Gallery in London on March 10. It will bring together two major figures of the Left, the barrister Helena Kennedy, former chair of the British Council and of Charter 88, and academic Tony Giddens, former director of the London School of Economics. Both are Labour peers, but they have significantly differing views on what Blair, the new Labour project and the Government have achieved.

Giddens happily calls himself a Blairite and is accustomed to seeing himself described in print as "Blair's guru" or "Blair's favourite intellectual". As author of the 1998 book The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy , arguably the basic text of Blairism, he says: "The press is fond of seeing new Labour as simply a PR device. I see it as the precise opposite, as a philosophy that accepts that the world has changed in ways that make many traditional left-wing prescriptions obsolete and seeks responses consistent with left-of-centre principles. The problem that the Tories have is that they don't have a third way of their own."

He also argues that it is too early to be speaking of a legacy. "Tony Blair has some way to go yet. He is likely to win a third general election and has said that he will continue until the end of that third term. A great deal will depend on that third term, when projects such as public service reform and increased health spending should start to produce noticeable results."

Kennedy, by contrast, argues that Blair has already missed his chance:

"There are moments when the British people have a deep desire for radical change. We had one of those moments in 1997, when there was anger at the Conservative governments of the previous 18 years and enormous enthusiasm for the new Government. It had a huge majority and a tide of opinion in favour of serious change but did not offer anything very different. When I think about the opportunity that was missed, I'm not just disappointed but angry."

Both Kennedy and Giddens have an overarching sense of a Blair from whom strengths and weaknesses flow. Kennedy sees the lawyer. "He's an advocate, the quintessential barrister whose power lies in his communication skills.

He is a brilliant communicator, both at a personal level and on a wider stage. His failure is one of judgement. His central thesis is that the British people are fundamentally conservative and that you can defeat the Conservative Party only by acting conservatively yourself. There is a constant fear of being outflanked by the Conservatives, a distrust of the people and a complete absence of any sense of history, which helps explain how the Government has come so badly unstuck on the constitution. It is quite extraordinary to find a Labour prime minister arguing that the second chamber should consist entirely of his appointees - although this is consistent with a presidential approach that concentrates more and more power around the prime minister and his kitchen cabinet."

Giddens, however, perceives a politician of clear vision. "Back in the 1980s, when it was far from accepted that globalisation would change the world in the way it has, Blair was one of the earliest politicians to recognise this and grasp the implications. He has been very successful at developing a philosophy and policies that make the country competitive without losing sight of social concerns."

This, he argues, has underpinned his success in marginalising the Conservatives. "He has made it very difficult for them. This doesn't mean that you simply adopt Conservative policies. 'Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime' was more than a simple soundbite: it means that where the Conservatives were strong on retribution, there is now also more concern with rehabilitation. But it does mean that you refuse to cede areas of policy such as national security, law and order and immigration to the Right.

"He has seen what has happened, for instance, in the Netherlands, where the Dutch Social Democrats failed to address people's concerns."

Kennedy is unconvinced, arguing that clothes-stealing was the origin of Blair's problems over Iraq. "Again there was this paranoid fear of allowing the Conservatives to outflank him. He knew that the Republicans saw him as Clinton's friend and that the Conservatives were having regular meetings with leaders in the Bush Administration. September 11, 2001, allowed him to show himself as America's best friend, to use those skills as a communicator to articulate the terrible experience it had been through.

(President George W.) Bush - who isn't strong on the detail of the British constitution - treated him as President of Britain and Blair, reacting to that, made undertakings that weren't his to make in a system of Cabinet government and that committed him to his subsequent actions. He has presented a war of choice as one of necessity and I don't think people will forget that."

On law and order and immigration, she sees "a need to prove that we're tough that has turned into swaggering machismo".

Giddens admits to "deep ambivalence" over Iraq, but argues that most problems have come after the war, because of the Bush Administration's rejection of international involvement, lack of a nation-building strategy and "obvious errors" such as sacking the police force. Before the war, he points to genuine worries about Saddam Hussein and the dilemma in which Blair was placed once the United Nations Security Council backing he had hoped for was withheld. "At that point he had to jump, and I think he probably jumped the right way."

He recognises the civil liberties concerns raised by the Government's post-9/11 actions, but argues that the sophistication, ruthlessness and potential for mass-killing of modern terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda create new problems. "It would be foolish to pretend that the possibility of an attack that could kill thousands of people does not have practical implications for traditional civil liberties. It creates fuzzy areas that will remain fuzzy."

Kennedy sees a broader lack of concern with civil liberties, in particular in the erosion of jury trials. "There's a cavalier attitude that comes from somebody who has never been on the receiving end of a loss of civil liberties or thought much about what that would be like."

She and Giddens are closest to agreement on Europe, where both feel that Blair, generally reckoned to be pro-Europe, moved too slowly in his first term. However, whereas Kennedy diagnoses "the same timidity" as he shows in other areas, Giddens argues that Blair has to accommodate public opinion in "what all polls show is by far the most Eurosceptic country in Europe".

Kennedy, too, acknowledges genuine achievement in economic and social policy, while pointing out that most of these successes are more associated with the Treasury than with No. 10 Downing Street. Giddens points out that Britain's higher employment rates, in relation to continental Europe's, frees up money that might have been spent on benefits for health and education.

Neither will be voting at the forthcoming general election - as members of the House of Lords they are disqualified. Both, though, would vote Labour - Kennedy for want of a better alternative, Giddens with enthusiasm - a reminder that one element of British politics that remains unchanged under Blair is the breadth of opinion accommodated within the major parties.

The How Will History Judge... series of debates begins on March 10 at 7pm with Helena Kennedy and Tony Giddens discussing Tony Blair. Laurie Taylor will chair. For tickets (£5/£3 concessions) telephone (0207) 306 0055 extension 216.

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