Flashbacks June 2004

The Paradoxical Case of Tony Blair

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When Britain voted last week on which delegates to send to the new European Union Parliament, the results heavily favored members of the Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties over those of the ruling Labour party. For Britain, The New York Times writes, this represents "the first time in living memory that a governing party has fared so badly in off-year elections." Many commentators see this as a referendum on Prime Minister Tony Blair, Britain's controversial leader who, though once one of Europe's most popular leaders, is now widely mistrusted and reproached by his people. Three Atlantic articles from 1996 to the present have chronicled Blair's career, from his meteoric ascent to his recent fall from grace.

When the British journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft first wrote about Blair for The Atlantic in "The Paradoxical Case of Tony Blair" (June, 1996), Blair was a fresh-faced forty-one year old, well positioned to lead the Labour Party to No. 10 Downing Street, and Britain into the new millennium. Blair had transformed the Labour Party into what he called "New Labour" (or, as his critics have dubbed it, "Labour Lite")—a politically amorphous group with little link to its past platforms. The unions, for example, which had traditionally been championed by the Labour Party, were informed that they would now have to fend for themselves. And the Labour Party constitution's hallowed "Clause Four," a four-pronged commitment to socialist ideals, was replaced with what Wheatcroft described as "an obscure list of 'Aims and Values' that might have been the mission statement of a large corporation keen to display its social awareness." Wheatcroft noted that Blair's break with the party's socialist roots was in step with popular opinion at the time—and necessary if the party was to remain relevant in British politics. After all, before Blair had assumed leadership, Labour had been on the brink of extinction; the party had been out of power since the early seventies and was still reeling from its landslide loss to the Tories in the 1992 election—an election it had been widely predicted to win. The paradox, Wheatcroft explained, was not that Blair was saving Labour by transforming it, but that he was doing so from inside the party leadership:

Political parties have changed character before now, and have sometimes been taken over from the outside. This is a unique and much stranger case: a party has been captured from the inside, and by a man who in his heart despises most of that party's traditions and cherished beliefs.

Seven years later, in "The Transformer" (July/August 2003), the American columnist David Brooks hailed Blair as a bold leader who represented all that Bill Clinton should have been. "Even more than Bill Clinton," Brooks wrote, "Blair has spent his life trying to bridge the divide between left and right. Even more than Clinton, he views the family as the most important social institution, as the seedbed of love, trust, and responsibility." Whereas Clinton had merely promised substantial welfare reform, Blair had followed through; and whereas Clinton had spoken eloquently of his love for his family and his God, Blair had actually lived it.

Brooks suggested that the secret to Blair's ability to effect change lay in his detachment from any single ideological viewpoint and in his lack of discomfort with being the odd man out. Blair situated himself politically at the midpoint between, say, the "Thatcherites" and the "old Labourites," or between Europe and the United States—but "with no firm alignment with either." This Lone Ranger quality enabled Blair to make some unpopular but necessary decisions, and this, Brooks wrote, made him "the worlds greatest Baby-Boomer—the figure Bill Clinton wanted to be."

Perhaps we are beginning to see in him what Baby Boomer gravitas will look like; a little self-righteousness, in keeping with the generational mode; a little utopian, because Baby boomers always did believe that theirs was the most gifted generation and was meant to solve the problems of human kind; and a little self-absorbed and self-indulgent; but also admirably confident. At least in the case of Tony Blair, the stubborn idealism compensates for and even redeems the annoyances.

More recently, however, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, reexamining Blair in the June, 2004, Atlantic, has come to a different conclusion. Tony Blair, he argues, represents not the promise of his generation but its "tragedy." When Blair first assumed office as Prime Minister, Wheatcroft writes, " He seemed not just a breath of fresh air but a true break with the past—a voice of youthful energy, the nearest thing to John Kennedy [Britain] had ever known. Blair stepped forward as standard-bearer for a new candor and decency, a man who would move Labour away from dogmatic socialism while avoiding the Tories' meanspiritedness."

But today, Wheatcroft writes, "the luster has faded." Blair's time in office, Wheatcroft points out, has been "punctuated by scandals," and he has demonstrated a tendency to make public statements that are patently untrue. Blair's most tragic failure, Wheatcroft writes, is that when America needed a "candid, clear-eyed friend" to persuade it not to enter an ill-advised war, he, as the only leader who could have been that friend, was instead an "unquestioning and uncritical supporter." After all, Wheatcroft writes, "He is the one man on earth who could possibly have stopped [the war] ... It would have been far more difficult for Washington to embark on the war if Blair had publicly voiced the misgivings of the country he leads." Instead, Wheatcroft notes, he spoke ominously about allegedly confirmed reports of weapons of mass destruction, thereby "misleading Parliament and the country." Thus, what Brooks admiringly referred to as Blair's "ideological loneliness" has been not an asset but his undoing. When Blair ought to have followed the will of his people he instead subjected them to his own will—and as a result, he now stands alone.

Just as Blair's aura once wafted across the Atlantic, so his shadow, too, now falls over America—the shadow of failure, which affects those in every country who so much admired him.... Those most disillusioned by Blair's career are those who believed he really was something quite out of the ordinary: the dejection is the greater because he promised so much.

—Sarah Ligon

Sarah Ligon was an intern at The Atlantic Monthly this spring.
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