"I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth." (Karl Popper)

Friday, May 11, 2007

The end of the Blair era

Yesterday Tony Blair announced he will resign as U.K. prime minister on June 27th. This has been expected, ever since Mr Blair made clear before his third general election victory in 2005 that he would not run again as prime minister and leader of the Labour party. Indeed, it was "one of the most telegraphed resignations in political history."

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said Mr Blair "never lost interest" in Northern Ireland, despite setbacks. For this he would have "an honoured place in Irish history". "Tony Blair has been a friend to Ireland. And I am proud also to count him as a friend of mine. " Other world leaders paid tribute too. U.S. president George W. Bush said: "I have found him to be a man who's kept his word, which sometimes is rare in the political circles I run in. When Tony Blair tells you something, as we say in Texas, you can take it to the bank. He is a remarkable person, and I consider him a good friend." White House spokesman Tony Snow described Blair as an "extraordinary leader of the United Kingdom." The president of the EU commission, José Manuel Barroso, said "Tony Blair has taken Britain from the fringes to the mainstream of the European Union.He leaves an impressive legacy including his commitment to enlargement, energy policy, action against climate change, and for fighting poverty in Africa." Dutch prime minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, said that with Mr Blair's departure "a prominent leader disappears from the European and world stage. During tense moments, Blair was the binding force. Blair did not shrink from rowing against the current if he thought it was necessary."

Blair leaves the stage, having endorsed his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, the man who has presided over 10 years of uninterrupted economic growth and in some ways a different type of politician, as his successor. Proper analysis of the Blair premiership awaits the perspective of history, but a few things can be said with a degree of certainty. In 1997, New Labour tapped into Britain's collective psyche. To bring Labour from a position of defeatist opposition to three successive election victories (two of which were major landslides) was a great political acheivement. It is undoubtedly true that Blair was a prototype 21st century politician; as is has been correctly said, "his success hinged on his remarkably deft public touch. His rise coincided with that of 24-hour TV news channels, and early on he was expert at picking the national mood." A former barrister, Blair added formidable rhetorical strength to his personal charisma and public relations awareness. Any number of brilliant speeches could be cited: his 1999 Chicago speech in which he set out his views on the interdependence of the international community; his March 2003 speech arguing in favour of war in Iraq ("To show that we will confront the tyrannies and dictatorships and terrorists who put our way of life at risk. To show at the moment of decision, that we have the courage to do the right thing. I beg to move the motion."); his final convention speech as party leder last autumn.

Even now though, claims are being made that Blair's career was overshadowed (or ruined) by his decision (variously described as out of character, or in error) to support the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. David Brooks in today's New York Times (sub. req'd) takes the following view:

"The conventional view of Tony Blair is that he was a talented New Labor leader whose career was sadly overshadowed by Iraq. But this is absurd. It’s like saying that an elephant is a talented animal whose virtues are sadly overshadowed by the fact that it’s big and has a trunk. Blair’s decision to support the invasion of Iraq grew out of the essence of who he is."
Brooks argues that, over the last decade, Blair has emerged as "the world’s leading anti-Huntingtonian." Brooks contrasts the view of Samuel Huntington (broadly speaking) that "humanity is riven by deep cultural divides and we should be careful about interfering in one another’s business" with what he calls Blair's communitarian view that "the process of globalization compels us to be interdependent, and that the world will flourish only if the international community enforces shared, universal values." (“Globalization begets interdependence, and interdependence begets the necessity of a common value system to make it work.”)

Brooks traces Blair's worldview back to Scottish theologian James McMurray. (“If you really want to understand what I’m all about, you have to take a look at a guy called John Macmurray,” Blair once said. “It’s all there.”), with whom Blair came into contact after his father suffered a debilitating stroke. Blair absorbed from Macmurray a strong communitarian faith, which has influenced him throughout his political life. Brooks argues that a belief in a universal human community was the impulse behind Blair's foreign policy, from Kosovo through Sierra Leone and Afghanistan to Iraq. Over the last three years or so, both left and right, recoiling from the violence in Iraq, have grasped for ideas more like those espoused by Huntington, rather than Blair. As Brooks writes:
"There has been a sharp rise in the number of people who think it’s insane to try to export our values into alien cultures. Instead of emphasizing our common community, people are more likely to emphasize the distances and conflicts between cultures. Whether the subject is immigration, trade or foreign affairs, there is a greater desire to build separation fences because differences in values seem deeply rooted and impossible to erase. If Huntington turns out to be right, then Blair will be seen as one of the most naïve communitarians of all time. But I wouldn’t count him out just yet. It could be that over the long term, and despite the disaster in Iraq that he co-authored, his vision of a human community will be vindicated. Or it could be that Blair’s vision of that community was right — except in the Middle East, the region where he most aggressively sought to apply it."
Update (Sat. May 12th, 4.40pm)
Brooks' piece has been posted online here.


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