History ought to take a more balanced view of Tony Blair’s record as prime minister

In this extract from their new book, Jon Davis and John Rentoul, who teach a course in The Blair Years at King’s College London, argue that many of the criticisms of New Labour in government are unfounded

Thursday 21 March 2019 14:25
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Cherie Blair looks on as her husband addresses the nation as prime minister in 1997
Cherie Blair looks on as her husband addresses the nation as prime minister in 1997

It is often said of an unpopular politician that history will be kinder to them. For some time we assumed that this would be true of Tony Blair, but it is now apparent that such a verdict will not be clear-cut. Will posterity see him as brilliant? Probably. Will it see him as tricky? Also likely. But will the overall verdict be positive or negative? We are not sure. As prime minister, he was popular enough to stay in office for 10 years and to leave pretty much on a date of his own choosing.

Since then, however, his reputation has failed to recover, as the Iraq war, the financial crisis and immigration became the dominant themes of his record. Although Blair won the 2005 election two years after the invasion of Iraq, the belief that he deceived parliament and the nation in making the case for the invasion has become firmly established. The financial crash of 2008 has cast a shadow over the golden economic record of the previous decade. And, as the free movement of workers became the focus of the campaign to leave the European Union, Blair’s decision to allow the citizens of new member states to come to the UK from 2004 without the delay imposed by Germany and France has often been cited as a reason for the vote to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum.

We had thought, all the same, that a more balanced assessment of the Blair period would assert itself in time. Instead, history became less kind to him. When Robert Tombs’s bestselling The English and Their History was published in 2014, it repeated all the negative readings of the country’s most recent period. New Labour, Tombs said, was “authoritarian”; it was too attentive to the rich in general and to Rupert Murdoch in particular; it was responsible for “bypassing parliament”, “subverting normal administrative methods (such as taking minutes of meetings), and tending to politicise or bypass civil servants”; it used the press as an “instrument of politics” and was guilty of “spin”; and it achieved a settlement in Northern Ireland only at “a cost”.

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