Yesterday, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that he will stand down on the 27th of June after being in office for ten years. He is the first ever Labour leader to have won three consecutive general elections. I don't usually do politics at Exiled Preacher, but here's my assessment of the Blair years.
1997 election victory
As Leader of the Opposition, Blair transformed the Labour Party. He abandoned outdated policies and imposed discipline on a historically fractious and divided party. Under Blair's 'New Labour', the party perfected the art of media manipulation and 'spin' to discredit the ailing Conservative government led by John Major. Blair was marketed as a man who the middle classes could trust to run the country. In opposition, he assured the people of Britain that he would be "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" and that his priority would be 'education, education, education'. In May 1997, the Labour Party won a landslide General Election victory. Blair has been a charismatic Prime Minister with a gift for the winning sound bite. He has re-shaped British politics during his time in power. Blair's postmodern suspicion of the old left/right ideologies made for a new, more pragmatic, centre-ground politics. Labour no longer demands the nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange. All parties have embraced the power of the markets. The Conservatives are wary of pledging tax cuts and emphasise that they will match Labour's pubic spending commitments. Pragmatism, rather than ideology now rules.
Alasdair Campbell, the Prime Minister's chief spokesman once told an inquisitive journalist, 'We don't do God.' But Blair often talked of how his Christian beliefs have affected his politics. He became a Christian Socialist while at University at about the same time he became interested in politics and joined the Labour Party. Many Christians greeted Blair's 1997 victory with a sense of hope and expectation.
Under Blair, the UK's economy has grown steadily. This has enabled the government to invest in social justice. Unemployment has dropped. The gap between the richest and poorest in society has widened. But Labour introduced a national minimum wage that has helped to lift many people out of poverty. Low income working families (including Pastor's households!) have benefited from the Working Families Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit systems. These credits aim to get poorer families off unemployment benefits by making work pay. The crime figures are down, although the prison population is at record levels.
There has been record investment in health and eduction, leading to improvements in these sectors. But opinions are divided over whether the money has been used as effectively as possible. In all, Britain is a better place to live for the low paid and the sick than prior to Labour coming to power. I welcome Blair's determination to help working families and his (yet unfulfilled) aim of abolishing child poverty in Britain.
Blair worked tirelessly to bring an end to the troubles in Northern Ireland. His efforts paid off on Tuesday of this week with the restoration of devolved government to the province.
Singing a hymn
Blair made alleviating poverty in Africa of of his main goals. Debts were written off and the Prime Minister identified himself with the Make Poverty History campaign. Britain's overseas aid budget has gown substantially over the last ten years. But he will be remembered above all for taking the UK into the Iraq war. The decision to go to war was opposed by many British people. Even those who supported the war initially became disillusioned when it was revealed that Parliament made the decision to invade Iraq on the basis of poor intelligence. This, together with the (thus far) disastrous aftermath of the invasion, led to a collapse of trust in Blair's leadership. The Blair-Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war pushed the just war criterion beyond breaking point. It seems that little thought was given to planning for peace once Saddam had been toppled from power. This has let to a catastrophic loss of civilian life in Iraq and the deaths of many US and British soldiers. In my opinion, we cannot simply abandon Iraq to spiralling sectarian violence. We must try to bring peace and order to the country that we invaded. But the Iraq campaign has discredited the neo-conservative doctrine of pre-emptive war. The UK/US 'special relationship' has been preserved, but at what cost?
Blair's use of media manipulation and spin, especially during his first term in office, has led to a breakdown in trust between politicians and the people. This has been made worse by indications of sleazy, corrupt practices that have led to ministerial resignations and the 'Cash for Peerages' investigation. Blair's claim that he was 'a pretty straight kind of guy' whose government would be 'whiter then white' now seem to ring pretty hollow.Blair abandoned the symbolic married couples tax allowance that distinguished marriage from all other forms of relationship. His government initiated a raft of gay rights legislation. The age of consent for homosexuals was reduced from 18 to 16. A law that forbade the funding of gay propaganda in schools was repealed. Gay couples are now allowed to adopt children. Civil partnerships have been introduced for gay couples. Recently, the Sexual Orientations Regulations privileged gay rights over the rights of religious people. Blair's period in office has also seen an increase in gambling, with the introduction of American-style 'Super-Casinos' in some UK cities. Religious freedom was challenged with the failed Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill. I am fed up with having to write to my local MP to express concern about these issues.
From a Christian point of view, the State's duty is to reward good behavior and to discourage sin. Not all sin should be criminalised, but a good government will not encourage sinful behaviour. Many Christians hoped for better from Tony Blair, who has often made reference to his faith. In his valedictory speech, the Prime Minister said that he always did what he believed to be right. The problem is that sincerity does not guarantee that we act rightly. Politicians as much as everybody else need to be guided by the values and principles of God's Word.
Being Prime Minster of a country like Britain is a huge task that brings with it great expectations. Blair was unable to fulfill the hopes of the British people. The Blair years have not been an unmitigated disater from my point of view. Many good things have happened. But much harm has been done to the moral fabric of our country. I suppose that the lesson of the Blair Premiership is that we should pray earnestly for our leaders. They are but men at best, who need God's help. And beyond that we are reminded, "Do not put your trust in princes" (Psalm 146:3).
Valedicory speech (here)