Was Tony Blair the best prime minister we ever had, or just in the top one? Before the man who left office five years ago last week became prime minister, if you worked in a bar, you could be paid a pound an hour to work in a smoke-filled room. If you were homosexual, you enjoyed none of the protections and privileges of a heterosexual from a shared stake in your partner’s home to the right to be protected on the school playground. If you went to a museum or an art gallery, then you had to pay to go in. If you got ill, you went to a hospital that was among the lowest-funded in Europe. If you had children, they went to crumbling schools with falling standards.
Yes, when he left office there were still dragons to slay; there weren’t enough houses built, we left the financial services industry dangerously under-regulated and we were in embroiled in a bloody war. But Harold Wilson sent arms to the apartheid regime in South Africa and let Rhodesia slip into a racist dictatorship, while Clement Attlee oversaw the exodus of the Palestinians from the British mandate, and we all know what happened to Jim Callaghan. To govern is to choose, and to choose is often to make mistakes.
Blair’s great crime was to win that third election, to go where no Labour leader had gone before. It meant that he had no one left to blame but himself. If Attlee had won re-election in 1951 – and let’s not forget, if he’d held on until the spring of 1952, he would almost certainly have done so – then we would remember him for the failures of grammar schools, which he implemented, an uncertain and sometimes racially charged response to the break-up of empire, and an awful war in Korea. Equally, if Uwe Seeler hadn’t knocked England out of the world cup, then Wilson would have overseen violent escalation in Ireland, an oil shock and very probably a three-day week. There are two types of Labour prime ministers: those who fail, and those who lose general elections.
The problem for Blair was that he created a rod for his own back when he created ‘Old Labour’, which, let’s face it, never really existed. There was no mythical era of doctrinaire socialist governments who never compromised and never made mistakes. Governments have to make a lot of decisions involving a lot of people, and even the right decisions – to intervene in Kosovo, say, or to retreat from India – have awful consequences. For conservatives, who don’t believe that government can work, and have done their best to prove it, failure is part of the deal. It wins the argument. But for the progressives, who believe that government can build a better world, someone has to take the blame for the failures of a New Jerusalem.
Sometimes it’s the economy, sometimes the electoral system, but, in Britain, most frequently, blame starts at the top. MacDonald’s treachery, Attlee’s age, Wilson’s cronyism, Callaghan’s weakness, Blair’s love of money, Brown’s indecision. Lost in that sound and fury is the reality that, for leftwingers, Blair was as good as it gets. Near-full employment, an understanding of poverty that was global, not just local, a transformation in the standards and quality of public services. If you were unhappy under Blair, you’ll never be happy with a leftwing government.
But if we’ve done it before – and we certainly have – then why stop with Blair? Why does his standing matter to anyone but the historians? Because how we talk about the past shapes how we win the future. Polls consistently show that when people are asked what they think of Labour, they basically reply: ‘Good but incompetent’
While we might not suddenly be transformed into the natural party of government by being a little bit nicer about our most successful prime minister, it wouldn’t be a bad start.
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