It’s been nearly fifteen years since Labour’s last election-winning leader left No 10. Since 2007, it’s fair to say that Sir Tony’s reputation has, to put it mildly, fallen. Whether it be the findings of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War, his work globally, or his very-well recorded stance on Brexit and a second referendum, Blair’s transformation from 1997 to today is Shakespearean.
Joining the Order of the Garter and becoming ‘Sir Tony’ is a move that was always going to cause some uproar. One-million people have signed the petition to rescind Sir Tony’s honour. It’s far from a shock. Blair, like Thatcher, is a very marmite political animal. Neither, however, can be dismissed as caretaker leaders – more like gigantic figures who made the political weather.
Tony Blair is one of only nine prime ministers to have served for over a decade consistently. His long period in office is controversial for countless reasons but think of that office he held. US President Harry S. Truman once said, “When you get to be President, there are all of those things, the honours, the twenty-one-gun salutes, all those things. You have to remember it isn’t for you. It’s for the Presidency”.
Truman’s words may refer to the Presidency, but they can so easily apply to the leaders of liberal democracies. Our leaders are chosen by us, the people. Undoubtedly, we should criticise our government. We must hold our leaders to account, but the government led by Tony Blair was historically important and popular.
I’m not one of these Lord Adonis types who believes that every patch Blair walks upon brings good fortune and unlimited success. There are some areas where I disagree with the former prime minister, but there are two very substantial things you must remember. Firstly, if Labour fails to win the 2024 election, Sir Tony will be the only Labour leader to have won a general election in fifty years. Secondly, and more importantly, Blair was a truly progressive premier and his government changed Britain far more radically than many on both the left and right would have you believe.
While Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour may be far more tempted to present the achievements of New Labour than under Jeremy Corbyn, a slight element of guilt is still detectable. It’s mainly down to Iraq – that seismic event that now defines Blair’s legacy. However, after nearly twelve years of Tory-led governments, Starmer’s team would be hugely foolish not to mention Labour’s period in government from 1997 to 2010.
New Labour’s success in government came from political ideas that were an alternative to Reagan/Thatcher monetarism, and Blair’s youth and radicalism delivered a Britain worth of calling itself a 21st century country.
The National Minimum Wage, the Good Friday Agreement, an NHS which would have been far more capable of dealing with the pandemic, the longest period of economic growth in our history, devolution, Sure Start. Anybody who believes these were not achieved by Labour governments following on from Harold Wilson and Clement Attlee are blind in all senses.
The vocal crowd who protest against Sir Tony’s knighthood are the usual suspects. Hard-line Corbynites such as Owen Jones, who believe that Labour should completely separate itself from their hat-trick-winning leader, wouldn’t be pleased either way. If, let’s suggest for the sake of argument, Tony Blair turned down the Queen’s offering, then the same left-wingers would attack him for appearing to be rebellious – and the right would go for him even more.
It should be a stark eye-opener to Starmer that a backbench Labour MP elected in 2019 believes Blair’s death will be a moment worth celebrating.
Somewhat like the petition to Revoke Article 50 all those years ago, the petition against Sir Tony has gripped a section of the public. However, during the Brexit saga, the number to revoke Article 50 was only about a third of the winning 52% in the 2016 referendum and for the Blair petition, it’s even less. Just over one million is nothing compared to the 13 million in 1997, or the 10 million in 2001, or even the 9 million in 2005.
Additionally, Sir Tony’s knighthood was not a government decision. It was the Queen herself who chose Sir Tony for the New Year’s Honours. Some people may certainly disapprove of that, particularly the nationalistic right (along with many republicans). However, if the British public has radically changed their mind and believes that electing Tony Blair was bad, then their best step forward is to simply accept they got it wrong.
The past cannot be changed. Sir Tony Blair was a democratically elected prime minister and one, whether you like it or not, who changed Britain. That will forever remain a near-impossible thought to swallow for many on the extreme sides of politics.
The Commons Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, believes that all ex-Prime Ministers should be knighted for their service rather than their acts. This broadly reflects my own view – nearly every prime minister since Walpole has received an honour of some kind. Although, the saga of ‘Sir Tony’ has proved that public discourse continues to flag at an all-time low.
It’s not so much another nail into the coffin of respectable politics, but a further groan from the once-admired political establishment that died a death decades ago. And just wait until ‘Sir David Cameron’ hits the headlines…