Erstwhile Buckinghamshire weekender Tony Blair has joined his wife’s church. Why not? Two years’ sixth form journo harum-scarum on this topic was all bilge, and would have been even if TB were still PM. If Lloyd George, a Baptist, had decided to join the Methodist Church, it would not have mattered a spearmint puff. How much less this man, this century. Christians join other denominations every day. Advertising for a new archdeacon this year, a significant proportion of applicants were originally ordained in the RC Church. So what? Only denominations that take themselves way too seriously, or just don’t understand post-Christendom would be bovvered. So Tony Blair deserves better than crackpot right wing RC’s sounding off like the Judaean People’s Front about how unworthy he is to join them. They should read more Graham Greenes.
But what about Tony Blair the leader? In the season for annual reviews, what’s the historical score? How would a consumer mag rate our recent history? Here’s one Oxonian nerd hot tip — Historians’ verdicts on leaders are usually more positive than those of their detractors / persecutors immediately after they left office. It looked like decline and fall for this erstwhile Blair voter to count no fewer than six “Bliar” Tee shirts in one tube carriage last summer. Does this fate await all England managers and prime minsters? Build ’em up, knock ’em down — they were never as good or bad as the papers said. Paying tribute to Tony Blair’s idealism and charisma sounds almost Blairily insincere.
Historically speaking? Gladstone came from a conservative background but was willing (sometimes too willing?) to play a high radical hand. Gladstone was high minded and immensely hard working, with a knack for catching the moment rhetorically. Enemies accused Gladstone of ruthless demagoguery, of which he was himself utterly unaware. They called Gladstone insincere, when he was in fact only too sincere.
Incredibly, when you consider what both were up against, the Gladstone project in Ireland, like the Blair project there, almost made it home. Gladstone’s government ground into the dust, like Blair’s, amidst recriminations about an overseas fiasco involving Muslims — Sudan for Gladstone, Iraq for Blair.
Blair’s governments blew impressive economic bubbles, delivered a minimum wage, tackled the foothills of child poverty, inspired style iconry and mildly rebalanced a few UK priorities. None of these were quite all they were cracked up to be, but they were hard-earned and amount to considerably more than nothing. Did Blair renew the UK constitutional setup, or did he destroy it? We’ll see. Ditto Education.
Healthcare was a more precarious endeavour. Blair sincerely piled shedloads of cash in, but somehow the returns diminished and the more that went in, the less people appreciated it. Perhaps, and the only way to discover this was to try it, the UK simply maxed out the benefit any market model healthcare system could deliver without as much money leaking out the bottom as was going in the top. Contemplating Debt Mountain and aging assets, historians may wonder at the scale of PFI — a UK public works funding scheme rather like putting your mortgage on your credit card. Tony Blair’s most serious tactical political disaster, although it seemed like a good idea at the time, was announcing his departure in 2005. The UK media being the UK media, he never quite got out of the garage for his third term.
Tony Blair’s Mary Tudor “Calais” would have to be Iraq. This is a real shame, because his leadership over Kosovo and Sierra Leone was courageous, creative and effective. Surely Blair was right to cherish the US/UK relationship. It was just Blair’s bad luck that the US fell into the hands of a foreign policy ingenu and Neocon experimentalist, who mired his country recklessly in a Suez-style adventure that screwed up its prestige in the Middle East. Compare and contrast Annapolis with Camp David, and weep. Afghanistan was dumb. Iraq was dumber. In the story of the American Empire, the Iraq war will probably play a similar part to the Boer War in the tale of its British counterpart, militarily and otherwise.
Possibly Blair did all he could to temper the loonery, but in fact almost a million innocent civilians died, Iraq collapsed into major chaos and became a world terrorist centre, whilst Iran’s star began to rise. UK public trust crumbled after the dodgy dossier. The CIA used to say, you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.
Or can you? It remains to be seen what’s next for Tony Blair. He’s certainly made a far more selfless, courageous and principled start to his next career than his predecessors did to theirs. It could even be redemptive. It’s all too easy to judge others who bear burdens we will never have to shoulder. Perhaps it’s time t0 cut him a bit of slack for now, and offer our sincere prayers and good wishes for the future.