by Matthias Matthijs
The curtain is finally falling over Tony Blair’s tenure in 10 Downing Street . After ten years as prime minister, Blair will step down on June 27. He will be succeeded by his stoic chancellor, Gordon Brown, although many Labour Party faithful are far from enthusiastic about the pending “coronation.” After almost ten years of Blair in Number 10, there is a widespread sense of disappointment – across the political spectrum – with the man who promised to create a “new Britain” and pledged to forever change the face of British society. On the left, there is frustration with New Labour’s slow progress in poverty reduction and the unacceptable levels of income inequality; while on the right there is criticism for excessive micro management and endless tinkering with the tax system, which supposedly harms the country’s international competitiveness. An overwhelming majority of the British population disapproved of his foreign policy, seen as too close to the Bush administration and often actively harming fundamental British interests.
What started out as a potentially brilliant premiership in 1997 was halted by excessive caution in domestic politics during the first term and his controversial decision to join US forces in what most Britons saw as an illegal war in Iraq during his second term. Where Thatcher was able to fuel nationalistic fervor and pride in 1982, and mask her initial failure in economic policy with a resounding military victory over Argentina in the Falklands; Blair’s disastrous adventure in Iraq would soon overshadow his successes in the domestic economy. History will judge Blair as a rather weak consolidator of Thatcherism, both in domestic and foreign policy. During his first term, most of Thatcher’s economic reforms were made all but irreversible by formally institutionalizing them (Bank of England independence forever banished the goal of full employment to the dustbin of history, and Brown’s “golden rule” made a virtue of fiscal austerity). Market mechanisms have been infused in all parts of government, something even Thatcher would not have dreamt of. In foreign affairs, Blair’s knee-jerk reaction to relations with Europe and America has been the same as Thatcher’s. However, Thatcher was much more independent from Washington than Blair, more ready to defend the plight of the Palestinians and criticize Israeli policy if she felt it justified. And whatever has been said about the Falklands, it could be defended in terms of the British national interest, which is not the case for Blair’s participation in the Iraq war.
Given the vague ideas of New Labour and Blair’s internal Party reforms while in opposition, one should probably not be so surprised that Blair and Brown acted the way they did once in power. It was never their intention to attack the emerging Thatcherite consensus in economic policy – even though they could have made the case and definitely had the overwhelming majority to do so – most of which they saw as inevitable in an increasingly globalized world. From the very beginning, Blair’s goals in government were much more modest than Thatcher’s were in 1979, and consisted in merely tweaking what he saw as a fundamentally sound economic system inherited from Major and Clarke. The fact that New Labour had such a large majority in the House of Commons, the widespread disillusion with the Tories after eighteen years in power, together with the ceaseless rhetoric and promise of “a New Settlement for a New Britain,” created too high hopes and unrealistic expectations – especially on the left – for the incoming government.
After ten years in power, it is clear that Blair is not in the same league as Attlee or Thatcher, and will never be seen as a politician who “changed the weather.” Maybe he was unlucky in this respect. Both Attlee and Thatcher came to power supported by a changing tide of the dominant ideology. It should have been clear from the start that The Third Way – or at least the interpretation given to it by New Labour – was ideationally too close to Thatcherism to create widespread enthusiasm and significant change. In the end, Mrs. Thatcher herself is perhaps the best judge. During her 81st birthday party in London last October, a guest asked her what she thought of new Tory leader David Cameron. With a smile, she answered: “I still prefer Tony Blair.”
But what are the prospects for Gordon Brown? Maybe he is secretly hoping that he can repeat the stunt of John Major in the general election of 1992. He is wrong for two reasons. Firstly, Major – for all his shortcomings – was a relatively new face which Britain seemed to trust. He had only been in high politics for about a year and a half when he got the top job. Brown is as much – if not more – associated with New Labour as Tony Blair. Secondly, the opinion polls in October 1990 showed that 34.3% intended on voting Conservative at the next general election against 46.4% for Labour. Just two months later, in December 1990, after the defenestration of Margaret Thatcher, 44.6% of the electorate told Gallup they would vote Tory compared to 39.1% for Labour. It is unlikely that Brown can bring about the same dramatic change in public perceptions. One recent poll by The Guardian gives Cameron’s Conservatives a lead of 10 points if Brown were to face an election as Prime Minister. The similarities with Al Gore in 2000 become more striking by the day.
The author is a Professorial Lecturer in Economics at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC.