Labour's great hero who nearly was

September 1, 2006

Blair is the most unpopular PM since polls began, but that isn't the whole story, say Vernon Bogdanor et al

Every hero, Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, becomes a bore at last. The Blair era, an era of unparalleled success for the Labour Party that began so triumphantly in 1997, seems to be moving, inexorably, towards its close. But the twilight of a premiership is not the best vantage point from which to analyse its significance. Stanley Baldwin left office in 1937 honoured and admired. Three years later, in 1940, with appeasement in ruins, he was advised not to come to London - "the people hate me so". Clement Attlee's reputation, by contrast, was low in 1951 but has risen steadily since.

Tony Blair has led the most successful left-of-centre government in Europe. Of the three who shared the new dawn of social democracy in the late 1990s, only he survives; France's Lionel Jospin and Germany's Gerhard Schröder have departed in ignominy, almost forgotten figures. Despite this, Blair's current reputation is low, lower even than Attlee's in 1951. Survey evidence suggests that he is the most unpopular prime minister since opinion polls began. But that is unlikely to prove the final verdict of history.

John Major, not Tony Blair, created Labour's popularity. After Britain's departure from the Exchange Rate Mechanism in September 1992, Labour moved ahead of the Tories in the polls. By May 1994, when John Smith, who was then the party's leader, died, Labour enjoyed a lead of 20 per cent. Blair, like Harold Wilson in 1963, found himself on the crest of a wave.

Blair, although a sceptic on the subject, inherited Smith's commitment to a wide-ranging radical programme of constitutional change. He has not made a single speech in England on the constitution. Yet reforms such as devolution, the Human Rights Act, freedom of information and the modernising of the judicial system are far reaching in their implications and almost certainly permanent. They will be remembered long after most current political squabbles are forgotten.

Constitutional reform occupied much of Blair's first term; public service reform and war in Iraq the second. Both involved bold, if unpopular, decisions. Both alienated him from many party supporters. But public service reform is likely to be accepted by the people and by the party; the Iraq War is in the process of being repudiated by both.

The essence of new Labour is that investment in public services has to be accompanied by reform, that the state should no longer be expected to be the sole provider of public services. That, too, is likely to prove a permanent change. No doubt the balance between public and private provision will alter with time, but no future government of the Left is likely to abandon university fees, foundation hospitals or city academies.

All this, however, has been overshadowed by the Iraq conflict, a war for which many of Blair's supporters will never forgive him. While before the invasion more than 40 per cent of voters had a favourable opinion of him, that figure was to fall to about 30 per cent and has hardly risen since.

Only 33 per cent now think that the invasion was justified, while about two thirds of those polled believe that Blair either exaggerated the threat from Iraq to justify the invasion or deliberately deceived the people.

Oddly enough, opinion in Iraq is rather different. A survey conducted there in February for the BBC World Service showed that 74 per cent believe that the US and Britain were right to topple Saddam Hussein. Blair has more supporters in Baghdad than in Birmingham, where he is seen as anti-Muslim, even though he could argue that he has liberated more Muslims - in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq - than any previous prime minister.

In his Iraq policy, Blair was reviving a liberal imperialism that owes more to Gladstone than it does to socialist doctrine. "We need to enter a new millennium," he said, "where dictators know that they cannot get away with ethnic cleansing or repress their people with impunity." His next sentence defined his foreign policy. "We are fighting," he said of the war in Kosovo in April 1999, "not for territory but for values." He called for "a new doctrine of international community" qualifying the principle of non-interference and recognising the facts of interdependence. But the Labour Party will not allow him to develop this doctrine, which raises as many questions as it answers. It will be left to others to adapt the concept of collective security to the conditions of a new age, the age of post 9/11.

Veteran Labour politician Tony Benn once said he was proposing a portmanteau Bill for the House of Commons to repeal, in one go, every single piece of legislation that Margaret Thatcher's administrations had passed. Yet, he said, even if his Bill were to be successful, it would not alter the fact of Thatcher's success. For she had in essence been a great teacher, as every great political leader must be. The trouble with the Left, Benn went on, was that it had lacked a teacher since the days of Aneurin Bevan.

Blair, too, wanted to be a great teacher. Government for him was as much about being a missionary as a problem-solver. He aimed to restore the values of community and solidarity on which social democracy must be built.

It is doubtful if he has succeeded. Indeed, the buckets of sleaze that have swept over the British people in the past few months have further destroyed public trust in politicians. A YouGov poll earlier this year found that, while 77 per cent trust judges - up 9 per cent since 2003 - only 20 per cent trust Labour politicians - down 5 per cent since 2003.

In a brilliant lecture delivered in May at Gresham College, Tony Giddens, theorist of the Third Way, declared that Blair's success rested on his analysis of changes in society, such as the decline of the working class, globalisation and the growth of a knowledge-based economy, which had rendered old-style social democracy irrelevant. Blair's success rested on ideas. That perhaps is why he is being repudiated by the Labour Party and why, despite his unparalleled electoral success, he is unlikely to enter Labour's pantheon of heroes. It is not wholly his fault. He has tried to teach, but the Left seems unwilling to learn. He tried to teach the Left to think. Perhaps it prefers to feel.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at Oxford University. His book The New British Constitution will be published by Allen Lane/Penguin next year.

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