Flashbacks June 2004

The Paradoxical Case of Tony Blair

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.

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

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