Nothing could be crueller in exposing Tony Blair’s failure as Labour prime minister than the timing of his departure. It invites us to compare May 1997, when he was first elected, with May 2007.
Then Blair was swept into office by the tidal wave that destroyed the Tory government of John Major. Now he is slinking out of Downing Street amid the electoral setback that New Labour suffered last week. He is even more unpopular than Margaret Thatcher when she left office.
During Blair’s premiership Labour’s vote fell by an unprecedented four million between the general elections of 1997 and 2005.
The comparison with Thatcher is crucial in understanding Blair – in both domestic and foreign policy he was her heir.
More fundamentally, without her, he would have been impossible. Without the defeats inflicted by the Thatcher government on key groups of workers in the 1980s and the consequent weakening of organised labour, it is very unlikely that Blair could have become leader of the Labour Party.
Blair continued her policies, but he also took them much further than she dared.
As the Financial Times put it, “New Labour has – across health, education, welfare to work and housing – introduced sweeping changes that are at least as extensive, and arguably more so, than those of the Thatcher years.
“Shifts in the way services are provided that are closer to Conservative than Old Labour ideology have proved far easier for a Labour government to make than a Conservative one.
“In the same way Richard Nixon – as a Republican president and national security hawk – was able to go to China in 1972, so Labour’s credentials singularly allowed it to reshape its own post-war legacy.”
Domestically, Blair and Gordon Brown, the co-architect of New Labour, were initially cautious. They continued the limits on public spending and income tax they had inherited from the Tories.
Their main “innovation” in economic policy, giving the Bank of England independence to set interest rates, was a surrender to neoliberal conventional wisdom. Its effect was to remove key economic decisions from any form of democratic control.
New Labour’s economic record is the big surviving feather in its cap. Brown is stressing with increasing desperation the fact that there has been no significant economic crisis and that unemployment has fallen as he prepares to take over from Blair.
But the two have continued Thatcher’s policy of closely aligning the British economy to the US and mimicking its free market policies. This has meant the continued decline of manufacturing industry, and growing dependence on financial markets.
The City of London has flourished under Blair and Brown. Many believe it has now overtaken New York as the world’s biggest financial centre, as the City’s lax regulatory regime has attracted vast amounts of speculative money held by hedge funds and private equity firms.
This makes the entire British economy highly vulnerable to a serious financial crash, which many commentators think can’t be far off.
But even short of that, the negative effects of the way in which New Labour has locked Britain into the neoliberal economic model are evident.
Most obvious is the gap between rich and poor. This increased enormously under Thatcher and her successor John Major.
Since 1997 Brown has, through a complex system of means-tested benefits and tax-credits, targeted quite large amounts of public money on poor families with children.
But, because the neoliberal economy centred on the City has hugely increased the wealth of those at the top, the gap between rich and poor hasn’t narrowed at all under New Labour.
As Mike Brewer of the Institute of Fiscal Studies puts it, Brown has spent billions on redistribution “to achieve nothing”.
Meanwhile the divide between north and south that opened up under Thatcher has continued to widen.While London and the south east of England have boomed thanks to the strength of the City, the rest of Britain has been hit hard by the decline of manufacturing industry and has become more dependent on public spending.
A study by Durham University published last week shows that in the north east of England, where Blair has been an MP for the past 25 years, wages and profits were 81 percent of the British average in 1997 and 79 percent in 2005.
Blair defends his record by saying public services have improved.
It’s true that there was a big increase in social spending, especially on the NHS in Blair’s second term between 2001-5.
But this was largely negated by the market “reforms” that he drove through. The public sector is being steadily privatised.
Meanwhile, the spending boom has ended. Desperate to prove to the financial markets that he isn’t an Old Labour softie, Brown is imposing a much tighter budget, including a limit on public sector pay increases.
This will add to the growing pressure on living standards caused by rising inflation. Real household income is now falling.
The distance the Blair government has travelled from traditional Labourism was summed up by a speech in March by Jim Murphy, the welfare reform minister.
Murphy said, “Benefits do not lift people out of poverty in this country.” The benefits system couldn’t, for example, take a lone parent with two young children over the poverty line, “and I don’t think it should”.
“Work is the only way out of poverty,” Murphy insisted. This is a Gradgrind philosophy in which benefits must be mean enough to force the poor into low-paid jobs.
No wonder that a Unicef report on the wellbeing of children and adolescents published in February put Britain at the bottom of 21 rich countries, lower even than the US.
The extent of New Labour’s domestic failure is that David Cameron, a Tory Old Etonian, can now pose as the defender of the NHS – the one issue that, even in the darkest days of the 1980s, remained Labour’s own.
For the victims of these policies New Labour has nothing to offer but surveillance, Asbos, and appallingly overcrowded prisons.
The longer Blair has been in office, the more he has revealed a horrifyingly Victorian social vision that targets the “undeserving” poor and relies on public coercion and private charity.
Blair has also been Victorian in his foreign policy, where he has carved out a role as the ideological champion of a 19th century style moral imperialism.
Invited by Timothy Garton Ash to define “the essence of Blairism” abroad for the Guardian, Blair replied, “liberal interventionism”.
Liberal imperialism would be a better way of putting it – the imposition of free market capitalism on the world by the Western powers in the name of democracy.
Even before George Bush entered the White House, Blair had outlined what he called this “doctrine of international community” in a speech in Chicago in April 1999.
It was then, apparently, that a politician who had hitherto seemed ambitious but lacking in ideas or focus, bored by the details of domestic policy, discovered a mission in life – to impose Western “values” by force.
The result has been what the journalist John Kampfner called “Blair’s Wars” – Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq.
Blair played a key role in procuring the last of these wars. It would have been politically difficult for Bush to have invaded Iraq without British participation.
Confronted by the lies used to justify the invasion, Blair has insisted he acted “in good faith” – as if meaning well in defiance of the facts and the warnings of many experts could be a justification for going to war.
The truth is he didn’t give a damn about the pros and cons of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. He was determined to go along with Bush in seizing Iraq.
Contemptuous of his critics, Blair is content to await the judgement of history – and of his god.
What will damn him forever in every tribunal is not simply his complicity in real crimes against humanity – a war that is destroying Iraq and that has taken upwards of a million lives – but this complete lack of contrition.
The perpetrators of even greater crimes have sometimes suffered the pangs of conscience. Robert McNamara, the US defence secretary in the administrations that launched the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s, has spent the rest of his life trying to atone for his part in the death of millions.
Blair’s supreme vanity will protect him from any second thoughts of this nature.
His fate is more likely to be that of Henry Kissinger, who presided over the last and most bloody acts of the Vietnam War.
Like him, Blair will spend a self?important, well-paid retirement in the world of the global rich.
But like him also, he will in the coming decades be regularly casting an anxious eye over his shoulder in case war crimes investigators are on his track.
His works, alas, will survive Blair politically under his hated but inescapable successor Gordon Brown.
All the same, good riddance to him.