British Prime Minister Tony Blair, after weeks of speculation and leaks about when exactly it would come, has announced he is stepping down as leader of the Labor Party and therefore as prime minister — as of June 27.
As the longest-serving prime minister besides Margaret Thatcher in recent British history, he leaves behind a mixed legacy.
For Americans, the most striking aspect of Tony Blair was the closeness he cultivated with two very different American presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He took the Anglo-American “special relationship” very seriously. He encouraged the United States to intervene in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and after 9/11 he brought Great Britain firmly behind the U.S. response, including the ill-considered invasion of Iraq. He defended that decision repeatedly, with a charm and eloquence that many U.S. supporters of the war wished their own president was able to muster.
Yet what for many Americans was Tony Blair’s finest hour was the major source of his plummeting popularity at home. Most Britons were skeptical of the war from the outset, and that skepticism only increased as the occupation failed to stifle — indeed, may have helped to precipitate — an ugly sectarian conflict inside Iraq.
Domestically, he was the first Labor leader to hold power in 18 years — and to win three consecutive elections. As an apostle of a “third way” between freebooting capitalism and pure statism, he governed more as a moderate than a socialist, leaving in place many of the market-oriented reforms initiated by Thatcher while promising to improve the public services such as health and education. The improvements were more incremental than dramatic.
Largely because politicians were not micromanaging the economy, Great Britain has enjoyed a decade of sustained economic growth. London has become a major — perhaps the leading — financial center in the world. Great Britain, perceived as being in the doldrums under Tory prime minister John Major, is now seen as vibrant and forward-looking, a more tolerant place.
He was not immune to left-wing enthusiasms. He abolished the House of Lords, replacing it with an “upper” house now criticized as a haven for cronies. His efforts to devolve power in Scotland and Wales led to greater support for nationalist parties in both countries, making the break-up of the United Kingdom a bit less unthinkable than before. His efforts to improve government services were characterized more by earnest promises than follow-through. He started out promising a cleaner-than-clean government and ended (as do most parties who hold power too long) criticized for corruption and carelessness about truth.
Blair can take a great deal of credit for the breakthrough agreement this month in Northern Ireland under which two former adversaries, the protestant Rev. Ian Paisley and former IRA commander Martin McGuiness, share power in an arrangement that, if not warm, is at least cordial and (so far) non-violent.
Blair might also be able to say that, even as Margaret Thatcher did, he has shifted the terms of political discourse in Great Britain. Even as many left-wing Laborites groused that Blair changed the Labor Party into one whose policies amounted to Thatcherism-lite, today’s Tory party scrambles to present itself as the party of compassion and caring, a party of Blairism-lite rather than a home for crusty conservatives or unapologetic individualists.
In his resignation speech Blair offered a reminder that too few politicians heed: “Sometimes the only way you conquer the pull of power is to set it down.” Considering his approval numbers he had little choice but to relinquish power, but he has done so with grace and dignity.