The failure of Tony Blair

02.01.07 Publication:

It is common for prime ministers to end their time in office by being disliked at home, but admired abroad. It has something to do with the fruits of excessive familiarity: an old English saying, that “no man is a hero to his valet”, captures the reason. This is true of many nationalities, but especially of the British, perhaps because popularity in America is always available to English-speakers from that country’s closest ally but also because British leaders typically manage for linguistic and historical reasons to project a global aura far beyond the underlying strength or importance of the United Kingdom. Margaret Thatcher, who was hated at home by the time she left office in 1990 but lauded all around the globe, is the prime example. Tony Blair, who will leave office during the first few months of 2007, ought to be rather similar to Lady Thatcher. But he is not. He will leave in the unusual state of being disliked abroad almost as much as he is at home.

            The best measure of Silvio Berlusconi’s political genius is that he does not fit this pattern at all: during most of his time in office he was viewed outside Italy with feelings ranging between amusement, derision and outrage. But inside Italy, as the 2006 election showed, he remained popular. Yet it may well be that narrowly losing that election was the best thing that happened to him politically, for it meant that he left office on a heroic note, almost defeating the opinion polls, his critics and the bad state of Italy’s economy. Tony Blair’s misfortune may have been that he won his last general election, in May 2005.

            The reason is that if he had stepped down then, or during the months following that election, much of his reputation would have remained fairly good, especially outside Britain. His legacy, especially in the eyes of non-Americans, would always have been tarnished by Britain’s support for the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, but most of the blame for that debacle is rightly allocated to George Bush rather than Mr Blair. The British prime minister would have been viewed as an honourable man, one who did the wrong thing but for morally good reasons. But by staying on for what could well turn out to be two years, Mr Blair has lost much of that creditable reputation. His actions since re-election in 2005 have looked increasingly futile, or even hypocritical.

            The month of December provided three sad examples. Mr Blair’s tour of the Middle East was an attempt to use his famous powers of persuasion to advance the peace process between Israel and Palestine, and to ease tensions surrounding Iraq. It failed: his arguments were ignored, or else governments in the region treated him with disdain. The second example also involved the Arab world: his decision to abandon an official investigation into whether a British defence company had paid bribes to Saudi Arabian princes in return for a huge defence contract. This punctured any remaining claims Mr Blair might make for being an idealist, standing for high moral and political values. And the third example was more domestic, but still damaging globally: in December, Mr Blair became the first British prime minister ever to be interviewed by the police while still in office, in an enquiry into a big campaign-finance scandal.

            The lesson of Tony Blair is not that he was a bad prime minister, nor a bad politician. Far from it: the winner of three successive elections, and hugely popular for many of his now 10 years in power, he has been more successful than most political leaders can ever dream of. The real lesson is that he lacked one final, but crucial, political instinct or talent: the ability to choose when to leave. Few politicians have this talent, admittedly: the arrogance that the profession requires in order to secure power is also the biggest obstacle to wisdom about when to relinquish it. But by thus being just an ordinary politician, Mr Blair has thrown away the chance to retain the extraordinary reputation that he once had. So the lesson for his successor, Gordon Brown, and indeed for Romano Prodi, is this: decide what it is that you really want to achieve, do it, and then quit.