10 May 2007

Goodbye, Tony, and amen.

So; Tony Blair, our prime minister (the nearest we, in Britain, have to a president), will depart in just over six weeks time.

Blair has done a lot of good things; but, as Shakespeare has Mark Antony say in Julius Caesar, "the evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones". So let it be with Tony.

I am not one to align myself with party package politics. I have supported people from several parties on the basis of their individual views and likely actions, because I am a spiritual anarchist who, when it comes to practicalities, believes in a broader and more inclusive democracy than can be found in the UK (or the US). But: my own views do have much in common with the leftward limit of the consensual spectrum, and for twenty eight years I voted Labour when I was in a position to vote at all.

That pattern of voting changed in 1997. I faced up to the fact that Labour had no hope of winning the parliamentary seat within which live. For the first time in my life, I voted tactically. I voted for the candidate who might defeat the local sitting Conservative and, thus, make a contribution the end of an eighteen year Conservative run in government shaped by Margaret Thatcher. In making that decision, I became part of the landslide shift which brought to power a Labour government with Tony Blair at its head.

I don't regret that decision, and I don't regret the breaking of the Conservative run. I do regret that the landslide was so total; it's not good for a society to have government which is effectively unopposed. And I also regret the fact that, in achieving and gaining power, the Labour Party moved considerably away from the fullest expression of its broad church traditions.

Some time ago I said to a group of USAmerican friends that Britain had, in its mainstream, a political spectrum both wider and more leftward than the US. One result of ten years under Tony Blair has been to make that less definitively true. He has given his party electoral success by moving it towards the centre and squeezing much of its left wing. In response, the Conservatives have also moved towards the centre and squeezed their right; but the excluded extreme in that case has seen its support move to smaller parties including the truly frightening BNP. Our mainstream is now two flavours of centrism, limiting discourse and leaving the tails of the spectrum to factionalism.

Tony Blair was the first prime minister to take seriously and sincerely the needs of the developing world and the plight of the hungry, the persecuted, the dispossessed. For that I honour him. Unfortunately he let his concern get eclipsed by a decision that he must support his US ally, right or wrong, in its incompetent Iraq adventure.

He had aims to right a whole range of domestic wrongs; some of them he succeeded in tackling to a significant extent. Alas, many of those also got lost in the fog of war; and others were lost in the collapse of momentum as his premiership ran out of steam. If he had handed over the reins of power after six years, or seven, his legacy could have been a very different one and might have carried his successor through to realisation of his targets; but he clung on too long, and the energy was frittered away on speculation and infighting.

He has been the prime minister who finally brought the intransigent Northern Ireland factions together in the same room; but also the one who eroded civil liberty in the name of grandiose security systems which are unravelling before he has even left office.

I could go on, but it would all be in much the same vein. Tony Blair arrived as a beacon of fresh hope, with genuine ideals. He achieved a great deal, and laid the foundations for more. But, in the end, he will be remembered (in the short term at least) for a disastrous war, for the managerialisation of politics, for the extension of big brother and for not knowing when to call time and go home. All of which is a tragedy.

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