The Legacy of Tony Blair

With the election just having passed, I cannot help but think that one day Our Glorious Leader will stand down. There does seem to be an opinion that, for good or for ill, TB will have been an important PM. I'm not so sure; I don't know what the historians are going to say and what the revisionist historians are going to say after that, but I'm going to tempt fate and do a post mortem on the Right Honourable Anthony Charles Lynton Blair MP, First Lord of the Treasury and Prime Minister. And you know, in a very real sense ... that can only be ... a good thing ... for the British people.

There are some things of great importance that have, without doubt, changed sinec 1997. The most obvious of these has to be devolution. Given that Northern Ireland is a special case and that the major parties don't contest seats there, we are left with Scotland, Wales and London having varying amounts of devolved power and embryonic moves towards the same for England in one form or another.

The effect to date would appear to have been broadly positive for Labour. Since devolution, the Conservatives have all but been obliterated in Scotland and Wales. Admittedly, they have just staged a substantial recovery in London, although it should be remembered that there were celebrations because of the retaking of Enfield Southgate, once the seat of Michael Portillo in his dry days, and that London has a larger population, I believe, than Wales or Scotland. I don't know enough about the new Mayors, such as in Hartlepool.

In any case, what cannot be denied is that, because of the proportional systems used and the fact that they are seen as second-order elections, minor parties do better. Time will tell as to whether this has given Labour an institutional hold on power, making them the 'natural party of government' and the Tories always a deviation from the same.

I think another legacy of Tony Blair will be the death of Labour as a mass party and, possibly, the rise of it as an elite party. It is entirely possible that this process was already well underway by the time Neil Kinnock came to the leadership of the party, merely accelerated it and the process has continued under Tony Blair. Perhaps hopes of Labour becoming a mass party died out during the fighting between Kinnock and the Militant.

I sincerely hope that dull but competent economic management has become the norm. When Nigel Lawson was chancellor, there was a lot of talk about whether to use the M0 or M1 model and, so far as I can see, it was a load of bollocks anyway. I'm sure I will appear to be a Labour Party apparatchik here, but a stable, predictable economy has been one of Labour's (read: Gordon Brown's) successes. If you had to decide which of the parties was most likely to retain the power of setting interest rates for itself in Government, one would suspect it would be Labour, with a history of favouring Keynesian economic management. The fact that control thereof now rests with the Bank of England does, I think, mean that the economy is more stable as the Bank of England doesn't give a rat's arse about party politics. Politics, yes, but not party politics. Moreover, as we often hear, what 'the City' and the rest of the grand economic apparatus really like is predictability.

One final thing that I think is, whether you consider it good or bad (I consider it good), is the Minimum Wage and, yes, I think capitals are deserved. As I understand economics, people are meant to be able to negotiate their wages and will withdraw their labour if they don't think they're being paid enough. Utter crap. People don't have that option; people can't just up and move from one end of the country to another. In any case, it is popular and I very much doubt that the next Conservative government will remove it, even if they do freeze it.

Many things have not been resolved and this Labour government, the presumed arrival of Mr. Brown into Number 10 (although he already lives there – Number 11 has larger family quarters, so Tony Blair moved his family in there) and, though it pains me to say it, a Conservative or even (horror!) a Liberal Democratic administration will have to deal with them.

One area that is not resolved is the role of the private sector in what have traditionally been considered public services, such as the NHS, the railways and education. There has been a tendency towards partial privatisation, and I say 'partial' rather than 'part' advisedly. It seems to me that successive governments have not been able to leave this issue alone. I don't know enough about the issue to comment, so I will limit myself to saying that Wilson shouldn't have privatised the Carlisle State Brewery, that the current vogue for privatisation has opened a means by which a subsequent administration can effect much more widespread private sector involvement while keeping things 'nationalised' and that there's probably going to be a post from me soon about transport which will say something like there seems to be a move towards renationalisation of the railways as a result of increasing dissatisfaction from the business community of their failure to improve, public dissatisfaction with their failure to improve, an environmental case for haulage, increasing pressure from the Left and the Unions, and as a sop when Blair or Brown renews the nuclear deterrent.

There has still not been a decision on Europe. It may well be that the decision is made for the time being in France. If, however, the Fifth Republic chooses to approve the Constitutional Treaty, it would seem that we might be forced to make a decision. The pro- campaign will doubtless say that it is not a treaty that actually does anything, rather codifying what has gone before. That is not an impressive argument and the debate about joining the Euro will run on. If Britain rejects the treaty, however, it will not be as disastrous as if France did so; while the Irish option of holding the referendum until you have the right result would not be an option, it might be possible to exploit Britain's interminable, slight detachment from the EU and negotiate around the problem while not binding Britain as tightly into the European project. Returning to the Euro, a decision on that will have to be held at some point. If, however, the referendum on the Constitution was such a thorn in Tony Blair's side that he had to keep dodging the issue of just a date it is hard to see a Euro referendum happening soon.

In any case, it's still not clear what Europe is. Aside from the issue of Turkey, Britain hasn't decided whether it's 'in' or 'out' of Europe or what Europe even is. Is it, as the right claim, a Socialist plot? Is it, as the left claim, a Capitalist plot? Is it just rent-seeking par excellence? I've heard reference to the European model of social provision, being taken to mean the Franco-German model. My arse is that the European model; there are, so far as I can see, three models at work – social, liberal and Scandinavian.

So to foreign policy. Geoff Hoon deserves credit for, until The War Against Terror (capitals very much needed), removing defence as an issue. While it threatens to raise its head again soon when it becomes necessary to replace Trident as a nuclear deterrent, until September 2001 – four years since New Labour came to fruition – there was scarcely a mention of the Ministry of Defence, which previously always seemed to be a polemic.

Each Administration is allowed one war. Blair will have been around for a long time, so he's allowed two. Both were bloody silly, but there we are. It is a real shame that the much-trumpeted Ethical Foreign Policy (again, capitals needed) has gone for a ball of chalk when faced with the realpolitik of international relations. There has been a tightening of export licensing, but that will be undone easily enough by a new administration if it chooses to do so. There has been no real redevelopment of a European defence capacity or a reappraisal of the role of NATO post-USSR – we still have tanks designed for use in Western Europe that are currently deployed in Iraq, an area notable for its dissimilarity to Western Europe.

I am not sure about Northern Ireland. There has been dramatic improvement, but the Good Friday Agreement seems to be foundering. As I write, Sinn Fein and the DUP seem to be hammering the SDLP and the UUP respectively. Perhaps the right approach is a managed decline of hostilities, although I don't see how that will stop the paramilitary groups from descending further into an amateur mafia show with added brutality. I would suggest that the appointment of Peter Hain to the Northern Ireland Office, a more combative personality than his predecessor, Paul Murphy, is in response to that decline in the rate of improvement of the situation.

So, the press are still scum, parties still act as prostitutes in response to them, things are ticking over. To coin a phrase, you never had it so good. There is the looming cloud of pensions, and hunting still doesn't matter. The changes are not interesting things, but they are important. It's hard to excite yourself about constitutional procedures (for most people) and Para iv § 3b (for those who have come across the LSESU Codes of Practice, read 11.11.11 [2]) is never going to be a rallying cry of any substance. Nevertheless, when a future John Barnes comes to give a lecture to a future LSE on Political Change in Modern Britain, I will be fascinated to hear what they have to say.



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