LONDON—His approval ratings have tanked, mainly as a result of his fateful entanglement with the Bush administration and its war in Iraq. But there is little doubt that history will record Prime Minister Tony Blair as one of the British Labor Party’s most successful politicians.
By the time he announced his resignation Thursday, he had become the party’s longest serving prime minister and the first to win three successive elections. He leaves behind a legacy of accomplishment that includes a peaceful Northern Ireland, a decade of steady economic growth, and a Labor Party that has become a viable political choice for Britain’s increasingly prosperous middle class.
Blair was 43 when he took office in 1997, the youngest prime minister since Lord Liverpool in 1812.
He had campaigned on an upbeat promise that “things can only get better” and he quickly demonstrated his sure instinct for the public mood when he led his nation in its grief after the 1997 death of Princess Diana in an automobile crash, calling her “the people’s princess.”
It is the war, however, that will be the most controversial chapter of his legacy, and it was the subject that seemed to be most on his mind when he announced his decision to step down.
Speaking to supporters in his home district in northeast England, he called the war a test of will that Britain could not afford to fail.
“I decided we should stand shoulder to shoulder with our oldest ally. And I did so out of belief. And so Afghanistan, and then Iraq, the latter bitterly controversial,” he said.
“And removing Saddam (Hussein) and his sons from power, as with removing the Taliban, was done with relative ease - but the blow-back since, in global terrorism and those elements that support it, has been fierce and unrelenting and costly,” he said.
“And for many, it simply isn’t and can’t be worth it. For me, I think we must see it through. The terrorists who threaten us around the world will never give up if we give up.”
But he also acknowledged that the war had divided the country and, perhaps, had brought a premature end to his political career.
“I ask you to accept one thing. Hand on heart, I did what I thought was right,” he said.
“I may have been wrong. That is your call. But believe one thing, if nothing else. I did what I thought was right for our country,” he said.
Blair came to power as a new style of British politician, one whose instincts were more akin to American campaigning styles than to those in his native land. He displayed a firm grasp of the national mood and a gift for eloquence, drawing comparisons to his friend and fellow world leader, Bill Clinton.
Not long after taking office, he famously eulogized Princess Diana as “the people’s princess” - endearing himself to a mourning public at a time when the royal family was widely criticized for remaining silent. That period would later be portrayed in the motion picture “The Queen.”
Ironically, he entered office promoting “education, education and education” as the three most important issues facing Britain. War, which would become an inextricable part of his legacy, appeared remote. “Mine is the first generation able to contemplate the possibility that we may live our entire lives without going to war or sending our children to war,” he said only weeks after moving into 10 Downing St.
But ultimately Blair would send British warplanes into Kosovo, dispatch troops to Sierra Leone, and commit thousands of British soldiers and planes in support of U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
It was part of an evolving policy of supporting military intervention to stop atrocities, one that he unveiled in April 1999 in a speech before the Economic Club of Chicago.
On some occasions, Blair said that day, human rights were more important than national sovereignty, and “the principle of non-interference must be qualified in important aspects.”
He outlined five major conditions that should be satisfied before confronting dictatorships such as those of Saddam Hussein and Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic: That those conducting the intervention be sure of their case; that all diplomatic options be exhausted; that military operations would be sensible and prudent; that those conducting the intervention be prepared for the long term; and that national interests be involved.
“If we can establish and spread the values of liberty, the rule of law, human rights and an open society, then that is in our national interests too,” he said.
He enjoyed a warm friendship with Clinton, but his fortunes would be intertwined with those of Bush, whom he met only after Bush took office.
Immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Blair promised to stand by the U.S. He came to Ground Zero little more than a week after the attacks and sat in the audience as Bush spoke to a joint session of Congress, with the president declaring that the U.S had “no truer friend than Great Britain.”
As the years went on, it was increasingly clear that among world leaders, Bush had no truer friend than Blair. Although Blair’s personal approval ratings at home suffered as a result of the Iraq war, he was widely admired in the U.S.
Four years ago, Congress voted to award him the Congressional Gold Medal, a prize he may finally pick up when he visits Washington next week.
President Bush, among others, was fulsome in his praise of the British leader:
“I have found him to be a man who kept his word, which sometimes is rare in the political circles I run in,” the president said. “When Tony Blair tells you something, as we say in Texas, you can take it to the bank.”
Commentators in Britain were more measured. The Guardian newspaper asked a panel of historians how they thought Blair would be remembered.
“Blair’s legacy will be remarkably like Margaret Thatcher’s. We pretty much are where we were. What the British electorate wanted, and got, was the Thatcherite economics without its rather harsh face, Thatcherism-lite, with a degree of old Labor income redistribution smuggled in by the chancellor,” said Niall Ferguson, a British historian who teaches at Harvard.
Eric Hobsbawm, the elder statesmen of modern British historians, said the peace in Northern Ireland might be remembered as Blair’s greatest accomplishment.
“Blair is mainly responsible for what looked like an armistice turning into a lasting peace,” according to Hobsbawm.
But he also said Blair’s legacy would be damaged by Iraq.
“Except for Iraq, he would have been remembered as a reasonable PM, about the same level as Harold Macmillan. But Iraq wasn’t an accident. He stopped being the brilliantly successful intuitive vote-getting politician and developed a missionary conviction for saving the world by armed interventions, most catastrophically with Bush.”