Kenneth O Morgan: The judgement of history

The Prime Minister will survive. But what will be his legacy

The coming week is not make-or- break time for Tony Blair, nor should it be. He has a majority of 161, a lead in most polls well into his second term, and he has no immediate rival. But, since it may bring his first Commons defeat, it offers an opportunity to measure the longer term historical importance of his premiership. This is true even of a post-modernist leader who believes that history will "be our judge" or that it has its "hand resting on our shoulders".

The New Labour years have been a strange half-world. Blair's own philosophy has been hard to sum up, obscured rather than illuminated by the generalities of "the third way". The next three days, which will focus on university top-up fees and the Hutton report, illustrate this starkly. So far, these issues have shown Blair both at his courageous best and at his unsettling worst. University fees have seen him grappling boldly with key issues long neglected: underinvestment in higher education; enabling universities to sustain their independence and diversity; still greater access for students from all classes and ethnic groups; charges matched to the ability to pay. He has thrown his authority behind them all, and shown genuine leadership. His arguments to the Parliamentary Labour Party were coherent and reflected Labour's values of redistribution and social justice. The backbench critics largely reflected fears about élitism. Even if the rebels win the vote, it has been - almost - Blair's finest hour.

By contrast, his leadership on Iraq and the whole grisly scenario leading to Dr David Kelly's suicide has been deeply damaging. He has offered moralistic mission statements rather than arguments; he gave personal endorsement to an illegal war made in Texas, followed by an illegal occupation; he bypassed Cabinet, Parliament and party; he has made scant effort to offer factual evidence on weapons of mass destruction, on Iraq's alleged involvement with global terrorism, or on the positions adopted by the UNor our European partners.

Sometimes - on uranium from Niger, on biological laboratories, on the 45-minute claim and so on - the Government has apparently lied. The Kelly tragedy revealed that the public service - defended in the top-up fees debate - was badgered by No 10's press office, particularly over the intelligence services, as the Hutton evidence from John Scarlett, Sir Richard Dearlove and Sir Kevin Tebbit already shows. To adapt Nye Bevan, why use the crystal ball when you can read the website?

These two contrasted crises are typical of Blair's premiership, which has had broad contradictions. For example, there was the Social Chapter welfare ethic vs the economic deregulation of the American way; devolution in Scotland and Wales vs extremes of dirigisme and the centralising agencies of what the political scientist Trevor Smith calls "the demi-monde"; the communalism of industrial old Labour vs the consumerism of New Labour's bourgeoisie. What links them all is Blair's main historical legacy: his uniquely personal style of leadership. He has made Labour a credible governing force, but at a cost. Whereas Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan all governed collectively, through a team, Blair's methods show that, unlike every previous Labour leader from Keir Hardie to John Smith, he has few roots in his own party.

Labour won in 1997 with the image of Blair's babes, glorying in youth and the cult of the new, strongly to the fore. Since then his method has been increasingly presidential, bolstered by the populism of the Big Tent, what David Marquand calls his "history-less, free-floating, secular ecumenism". A highly personal machine was run by a legion of unelected special advisers. One after another, they are slipping away - Peter Mandelson twice over - as autocratic power turns into a well of loneliness.

New styles have followed new technology. New Labour, unlike old Labour's "penny-farthing", was the child of the information revolution. The on-message protective army of spinners and pollsters, rebutters and image-makers is light years away from Attlee being driven down country lanes by his wife in an old Humber. Since 2001, we have had a 200-strong prime minister's department in No 10. Perhaps, indeed, it has been all for the best. Blair has been the first Labour premier not be harassed by union pressure or the unreconstructed left.

But this control-and-command method has its dangers. The pressures on him since the Iraq war show how self-promotion becomes self-defeating, and how even the most driven leader, such as a Lloyd George or a Thatcher, needs to locate the brakes, even a reverse gear, as in the case of Ken Livingstone's return to the Labour fold. British politics does not naturally lend itself to the Napoleonic style.

On policy, Blair's record has been mixed. The most dramatic achievement is constitutional reform - getting rid of most hereditaries, devolution in Scotland and Wales, electoral and legal reform and a new culture of human rights. These will be an enduring legacy, and Britain is the better for it. The negative side has been the sidelining of Parliament itself. Interestingly, Blair himself has shown little interest in this area. In Northern Ireland, by contrast, he has invested his authority in courageous diplomacy. Being undermined by the ageless sectarian hostilities of that unhappy province is not his fault.

Generally, the best feature of the Blair era has been its tranquillity. Based on Gordon Brown's effective economic strategy - easily the most successful of any Labour government - Blair's years have brought social peace. There is no winter of discontent now, nor any race or poll tax riots. Poujadist protests by farmers, fox-hunters and lorry drivers in 2001 vanished at a stroke. Despite prejudice whipped up against asylum-seekers, we have avoided the racist extremes of Jean-Marie Le Pen or Jörg Haider. Sexual tolerance has progressed, though civil liberties certainly have not. Most of the pledges to improve public services and the quality of life - arts and leisure - have shown limited success, despite increased funding. The Dome was embarrassing. Both primary and secondary education have shown the best results, splendidly marshalled by the Delivery Unit. Other public services, especially transport, have stagnated. The very idea of the public domain has been debased, partly through whipping up a flagrant kind of populism in the media. British people are mostly in jobs and enjoying stable prices, but the social returns are limited and class inequality has remained endemic.

Foreign policy has, perhaps, been the least successful area of all. As John Kampfner's Blair's Wars described, a government, returned on a mainly domestic programme, fought five wars in six years. The last of them, in Iraq, has largely defined the second term. It has left our people physically less safe. It has divided Blair's party and diminished the Prime Minister's key asset, public trust. Worst of all, it has undermined the Government's main policy priority: placing Britain in a new, settled relationship with the European Union, including its monetary system. We are not much closer to the heart of Europe. This week's crises will not overthrow the Prime Minister, but they might encourage reappraisals of his methods and values. The first term was too cautious; the second - destabilised in Iraq - briefly went haywire.

Winning a third term should be more than just a trophy. A post-Hutton Blair government should be different. It should be more collective and reflective. It should be one that has an organising theme, that harnesses the idea of community and the public good to citizenship and popular accountability, community and citizenship. We should breathe new life into the neglected Labour values of solidarity. Despite the top-up fees dispute, Blair should discover how to govern less as a people's prime minister, more as a specifically Labour one. Attlee said the party should be led from the left-of-centre. For Labour's first non-socialist prime minister, that could be the greatest, but most fulfilling, challenge of them all.

Kenneth O Morgan is a historian and Labour peer whose books include Keir Hardie', Labour in Power, Callaghan: a Life and The People's Peace

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