It’s staggering to think that the man who stood in front of a drab yellow backdrop earlier this month, still defending his decision to join the US invasion of Iraq, was the same man who once charmed the British electorate with a staggering electoral haul of 418 seats in the House of Commons that once reduced the Conservative Party to a rump movement in British politics.
Nineteen years ago, Blair bestrode British politics with a mandate that not even Winston Churchill or Margaret Thatcher ever claimed. To this day, the 418 seats that Blair won as the head of a re-energized, re-focused, and rechristened ‘New’ Labour in 1997 is the most sweeping victory that any prime minister has claimed since the 1930s. To put that into perspective, if Conservative prime minister Theresa May called a snap election today, polls show that Labour, even under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, would do better than the Tories in 1997, when Labour swept to power on a 12.5% national margin of victory.
Blair pulled his party out from the disastrous shadow of the 1970s, when Labour’s Britain was falling far behind continental Europe, infamously amending the Labour Party constitution’s ‘clause IV’ that committed the party to socialism and nationalization. There’s no dispute that Blair approached ‘New Labour’ with enthusiastic acceptance for much of Thatcherism and free markets. Of course, it’s fair to say that 18 consecutive years of Conservative government and dysfunctional divides in the later years of John Major’s cabinet left British voters willing to take a chance on anything. It’s not incredible to surmise that a lesser political talent — like Neil Kinnock, Labour’s leader from 1983 to 1992, or the late John Smith, whose 1994 death paved the way for Blair’s ascension — would have won the 1997 election with ease.
But with the release of the Chilcot report’s damning verdict about the leadup to the Iraq invasion, just six words from a pre-invasion memo in 2002 to then-US president George W. Bush will forever define Blair’s legacy:
I will be with you, whatever.
Six words. But they contain everything explaining how Blair went in two decades’ time from electoral behemoth to politically radioactive. The Chilcot Report, commissioned in 2009 by Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, found that Saddam Hussein in 2002 and 2003 posed no imminent threat to the United States or to the United Kingdom, that both American and British leaders embellished intelligence suggesting the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and that post-invasion planning by both US and UK officials was horrifically inadequate. In short, the worst British foreign policy disaster since the Suez crisis in 1956 and, perhaps, even worse than that.
Just as David Cameron’s legacy will now begin and end with Brexit, Blair’s legacy will forever begin and end with Iraq.
Never mind the successful efforts to liberate ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, an action Blair took in step with his ideological soulmate, Bill Clinton, in 1999.
Never mind the long overdue devolution to Scotland, Wales and London that Blair’s first-term government unleashed to deliver greater regional and local control.
Never mind the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Belfast and Northern Ireland.
Never mind the efforts to rebuild and fund the National Health Service or reduce poverty rates across the United Kingdom, expanding spending on social services and welfare and introducing a national minimum wage.
Never mind that his government’s modern approach to social policy introduced same-sex partnerships for the first time in the United Kingdom and essentially forced the Tories toward accepting greater equality to the point that Cameron, a Conservative prime minister, was the one to legalize full LGBT marriage.
Never mind the introduction of the Human Rights Act (that incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into British law), the long-overdue Freedom of Information Act and the formal introduction of central bank independence that his government introduced for the Bank of England.
There’s an old and absurdly over-the-top Conservative ad from 1997 that pictured Blair with a set of demonic eyes and blared, ‘NEW LABOUR, NEW DANGER.’ For a lot of British voters and other observers, it seemed outlandish. I wonder, though, if most British voters, Labour or otherwise, now carry around in their heads something like this image of Blair when they think of him. It’s not just the mendacity involved with the Iraq invasion, but all the sleazier aspects of Blair’s legacy, including the cash-for-honours row that broke late in his premiership and the widespread expenses abuse scandal that broke shortly after his resignation.
Trust in institutions, in the United States and Europe alike, has been in decline for decades. But if you want to understand why voters today are willing to embrace populists like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump with plenty of harsh rhetoric and no real policy prescriptions for the problems that voters face, it’s because leaders like Bush and Blair did so much to discredit mainstream ‘establishment’ politics with the Iraq invasion, a war of opportunity that began almost immediately after the September 2001 terrorist attacks than that has led, in part, to the current destabilization of the Middle East, including the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Blair’s fall also shows that, for all the talk about the collective wisdom of voters, the electorate can sometimes misjudge the character of its leaders.
Today, Blair has spent his post-political career mostly in the service of enriching himself, accomplishing little in an international position as a United Nations-sponsored Middle Eastern envoy. Most British voters believe he used that position largely to make connections to further his commercial interests, which often enough include contracts with shady dictatorial regimes, including Kazakhstan. That’s in marked contrast to Brown, who has largely retained a quiet and dignified presence in British politics since his 2010 electoral defeat — Brown has emerged only from time to time, for example, passionately defending the union between England and Scotland. Blair, meanwhile, has never apologized for misleading parliament and, earlier this month, when he expressed ‘sorrow, regret and apology’ for the mistakes of his government, he did so in the wider context of doubling down on the Iraq invasion and defending Saddam’s ouster.
Corbyn, for what it’s worth, almost immediately issued an apology on behalf of the Labour Party for the ‘disastrous decision’ to go to war in Iraq, which Corbyn called ‘a stain on our party and our country.’ To be fair, many Labourites fully expected Corbyn to call for a Blair war crimes trial. (He still might.)
Though Blair left office in 2007 with an approval rating below 30%, he’s arguably even less popular today, most especially among Labour supporters. Misfires on projects like the Millennium Dome and the botched response in 2001 to the foot-and-mouth disease crisis gave way to wider mistrust about his government’s approach to civil liberties and anti-terrorism efforts (he faced a rebellion over plans to hold terror suspects for just 90 days without charges) and introducing student tuition fees.
But Iraq was always at the heart of the popular turn against Blair, and he’s only become more of a monster in the eyes of voters in the nine years since leaving 10 Downing Street.
He played virtually no role in the 2015 election (and if he had tried, it probably would have backfired on Labour). His interventions in last summer’s Labour leadership race to warn voters against electing the Corbyn, a hard-left rebel who consistently opposed just about everything about New Labour, only seemed to boost Corbyn, and much of what drove Corbyn to the Labour leadership was a delayed response to the Blair years, on just about every substantial and stylistic point. Corbyn is granola and down to earth where Blair played the polished salesman, Corbyn is far-left on everything from Trident to economics where Blair played happily to the center-right, Corbyn is bashful and mumbling where Blair was consistently glib. Even moderate Labourites no longer try to defend New Labour — or the lessons that it might hold for winning future elections.
But Blair’s ultimate betrayal wasn’t necessarily to Labour or even to the United Kingdom. In failing so miserably to deliver on the promise of centrist, moderate and inclusive policymaking in the 1990s, Blair’s legacy was to discredit the political center, doing much to pave the way for the extremist and divisive nationalism that now dominates politics in the 2010s.