Can Blair Be Seen as the Greatest Labour Leader?; Lindesay Irvine Examines the Dedication the Prime Minister Has Needed to Enter the Record Books

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Byline: Lindesay Irvine

Harold Wilson's stated ambition to make Labour 'the natural party of government' in Britain looks as if it has finally come true. Political biographer and historian Ben Pimlott says of New Labour: 'It's been dramatically popular, which sounds an odd thing to be saying at the moment, but actually, it's been ahead in the opinion polls for longer probably than any government.'

Even now, six years into Blair's administration, with Iraq, the NHS and criminal justice all creating problems for him, opinion polls suggest the electorate is not yet even thinking about electing anybody else.

This is no small achievement for a party which spent more than three-quarters of its first century in opposition.

But will longevity alone make Blair the best of Labour's prime ministers? How does his record in office compare with that of the four others -MacDonald, Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan -who shimmied up Disraeli's 'greasy pole' to hoist the Labour flag over Britain?

Neither James Ramsay MacDonald, Labour's first PM in the 1920s, nor James Callaghan, at the tail end of the 1970s, represent much of a challenge to Blair's reputation.

But then they both led minority governments at extremely tough times -at the start of the Great Depression and in the wake of the Oil Crisis -and had little room for manoeuvre.

MacDonald's triumph was to prove that a Labour government could be elected at all, and in securing the party's place as one of Britain's two main political parties -a trick that, in some ways, Blair could be said to have repeated after the party's long period in the wilderness in the 1980s and 90s.

For Matthew Taylor, director of the influential Institute of Public Policy Research, 'the only Labour leader you could seriously compare him with in terms of his overall impact is Attlee'.

Clement Attlee, who won a resounding victory in 1945 after the Second World War, is still thought of by many Labour supporters as the party's best-ever leader.

The famously taciturn administrator, who delivered little in the way of 'personality', nonetheless led a government which changed the face of Britain. Under Attlee the modern welfare state was firmly established, with the institution of national insurance and the NHS. His government nationalised a number of key British industries and also began the process of granting independence to Britain's colonies.

Has Blair done anything to compare to this? Well, yes, according to Taylor. 'Blair, like Attlee, has under his belt 'legacy achievements' which cannot be reversed in the conceivable future. Blair's devolution in Scotland and Wales is changing the nature of Britain in a way that is all but irreversible'.

Ben Pimlott agrees that devolution is a landmark reform, but suggests that Blair's is a 'middle of the road' government more reminiscent of Harold Wilson's premiership in 1964-70, although 'when Wilson came to power there were high expectations and ambitious plans and people still talked very much about socialism'.

Wilson's was not an economically radical government, but he did pass dramatic social reforms such as the legalisation of homosexuality and divorce, and the abolition of capital punishment, playing to an appetite for social change in 60s Britain. …