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politics | pi magazine 713

W

hatever you think about him, Tony Blair is one of the most successful politicians in British history. Yet, he is also one of the most reviled, especially by our generation, despite his influence on modern British culture being undeniable. His three-term tenure as prime minister was the inspiration for Armando Iannucci’s comedy series The Thick of It, which brought us characters like inept careerist politician Nicola Murray and Malcolm Tucker, a thinly-veiled pastiche of Blair’s spin doctor Alistair Campbell. In Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, the term “Blairite” is commonly used an insult, and there are some who would blame Mr Blair for the widespread political disillusionment among young people – as can be seen by our generation’s significant part in electing the more left-leaning Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party.

And yet, Blair won three elections for his party between 1997 and 2005 And yet, Blair won three elections for his party between 1997 and 2005, and, from the political centre, presided over one of the most progressive periods in British history. Why, then, are he and his political credo of centrist pragmatism so widely hated? The obvious answer is Iraq. Blair led Britain into a war in 2003 from which it would emerge, six years later, bruised and bloodied, £9 billion poorer, and having achieved no discernible victory. The Chilcot report, a long awaited inquiry into the war ordered by Blair’s successor Gordon Brown, is due to be published next year. Expect it to be damning. There are plenty who would even like to see Blair tried for war crimes. The website arrestblair.org is offering one quarter of its funds (currently £7,413.80) to anyone who performs a citizen’s arrest on Blair. (Currently, five people have claimed the prize.) The “spectre of Iraq”, as Mr Corbyn put it, also loomed over the recent parliamentary debate on Syria. Yet, to the displeasure of many, Blair has

never apologised for his role in the armed intervention of the country. There are other reasons for Blair’s unpopularity, though. During his time in office, his slick political machine, filled with careerist politicians and spin-doctors like those satirised in The Thick of It, was widely distrusted by the public – we can see echoes of that today in Corbyn’s slogan of “straight talking, honest politics”. Unlike most former prime ministers, who tend to slip into dignified obscurity, Blair has led a jet-setting lifestyle more akin to an former US president. His various charities have spent hundreds of millions of pounds on various causes around the world. His estimated net worth is around £100 million, though he says his fortune is “less than a fifth” of that. His letters are headed “From the Office of Tony Blair”. Many Britons find this sort of flashiness distasteful.

Blair’s critics also often overlook his domestic and foreign policy achievements Even worse is his close relationship with various unsavoury regimes, notably with Nursultan Nazarbayev, the autocratic president of Kazakhstan, to whom he gave PR advice over the “Zhanaozen issue”, during which 14 unarmed protesters were killed by police in the town of Zhanaozen in 2011. This does little to enhance his credibility. Yet, despite all of this, does Blair deserve the contempt with which he is held in British society? I would argue not. His invasion of Iraq was widely supported at the time by his cabinet, his MPs, and the public. Twenty-one YouGov polls taken between March and December 2003 put public support for the war around 54 per cent. Of course, Blair was re-elected in 2005. There were mistakes made, as the Chilcot report will undoubtedly show, but the blame cannot be put entirely on Blair. Remember: Britain was only one of a coalition of countries that went to war in Iraq. Blair’s critics also often overlook his domestic

and foreign policy achievements. He led one of the most progressive governments in British history, introducing the minimum wage and the Human Rights Act to Britain. He also reformed the House of Lords, and worked for gay rights by equalising the age of consent at 16, lifting the ban on gays in the military, introducing the Civil Partnership Act, and scrapping Thatcher’s Section 28 law. Blair also oversaw devolution in Scotland and Wales, expanded the welfare state, introduced tax credits, and invested more in the NHS than any previous government. Britons generally became richer and poverty declined. He helped prevent the ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo in 1999 and sent troops to stop a civil war in Sierra Leone in 2000.

Tony Blair made mistakes when he was in power, but so has every other prime minister Arguably, Blair’s centrist Labour government managed to change Britain for the better more than any Labour government that came before. He certainly won more consecutive elections than any previous Labour leader. So why then are the young so disillusioned with him and the pragmatic centre he represents? Many young Britons do in fact appreciate Blair’s achievements – they just don’t recognise them as his. The huge waves of student protests over cuts to the NHS and welfare state, for example, are protests defending achievements of Blair governments. Political disillusionment leading to polarisation is not unique to Britain’s youth. Voters everywhere, especially young ones, are flocking to the far-left and far-right (think: the popularity of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the US, and of Syriza in Greece). Tony Blair made mistakes when he was in power, but so has every other prime minister. Few have had the positive impact on their country that he has. Blair deserves a more nuanced look at his time in government, especially by the young. If he is lucky, perhaps history will grant him this, but it’s likely this redemption isn’t coming any time soon.

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Profile for Pi Media, UCLU

Pi Magazine, Issue 713 - Re:Generation  

Our third issue of 2015-16 explores our generation of millennial, and our collective identity. Why is our generation the way it is - what ex...

Pi Magazine, Issue 713 - Re:Generation  

Our third issue of 2015-16 explores our generation of millennial, and our collective identity. Why is our generation the way it is - what ex...

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