Blair decade leaves a double-edged legacy


London : During his 10 years at the helm of British politics, Prime Minister Tony Blair, at once charismatic and controversial, has put his stamp on an era that will forever be linked to his name.

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Blairism will be a dirty word for those believing that New Labour reforms have fallen short of expectations, and that an aggressive foreign policy has tarnished Britain's reputation abroad.

But others will credit the longest-ever serving Labour leader with having transformed and modernized his party, and with it Britain's entire political landscape, to bring it into the 21st century.

"He caused British politics to pivot on an axis of delivery and accomplishment rather than on the creaking axis of class versus class and ideology versus ideology," Professor Anthony King, a leading political analyst at Essex University, said.

"Blair's triumph lay not in moving Labour from the far left to the centre, but in abolishing left, right and centre," King said in an assessment of the Blair decade.

In that way, Blair's achievements have been compared with the profound changes brought about under the 1980s leadership of Conservative ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a politician Blair is known to have admired.

Despite having won three consecutive election victories – a record in Labour Party history – Blair has not succeeded in his ambition to surpass Thatcher's rule of 11 and a half years.

While initial initiatives, such as military campaigns in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan were judged a "qualified success," Blair's response to the September 11 attacks in the US, and the subsequent invasion of Iraq, is seen as having marked a watershed in British foreign policy.

"The post-9/11 decision to invade Iraq was a terrible mistake and the current debacle will have policy repercussions for many years to come," the Royal Institute of International Affairs, also known as Chatham House, said in a recent assessment of the Blair years.

"The root failure of Blair's foreign policy has been its inability to influence the Bush administration in any significant way despite the sacrifice – military, political and financial – that the United Kingdom has made," the report said.

"Iraq may have been the defining moment of Tony Blair's premiership," it concluded.

An opinion poll published in the Observer newspaper showed that 58 percent of Britons judge the Iraq war, as being Blair's "biggest failure," and two-thirds believed he had "just followed America."

Blair had also been unable to prevent Britain's standing in the Middle East "from declining sharply" despite his willingness to invest personal political capital to tackle the most sensitive issues.

He had not "fully reaped the dividend" that might have been expected to come from India's close historical ties with Britain, and allowed his government to be "dragged into a classic European fudge" over lifting the arms embargo on China.

The European dimension of Blair's foreign policy had suffered from the divisions caused by the Iraq invasion, a trend enhanced by the "crumbling of the European project" following the rejection of the constitution in key member states.

"Britain is no longer the outlier when it comes to Europe, but British influence is strictly limited and the British public is still uncomfortable in its European skin," said the Chatham House report.

The most positive part of Blair's legacy in foreign affairs would be climate change policy, an area where Blair's "powers of persuasion" had been effective in pushing the international agenda, analysts said.

The same was true of the focus placed on Africa by the Blair government, while the conclusion of the peace process in Northern Ireland must rate as Blair's "biggest success."

"Tony Blair will have an enormous political legacy. There can be no doubt about that. The trouble is, it will comprise large debts as well as assets, and history will have to decide the balance," Professor King concluded.