Commentary: Left, Right or Center? Tony Blair Leaves a Double-Edged Legacy. the New 'Politics of Pragmatism' Is All about Delivering-Wherein Lies the Catch

By King, Anthony | Newsweek International, February 26, 2007 | Go to article overview

Commentary: Left, Right or Center? Tony Blair Leaves a Double-Edged Legacy. the New 'Politics of Pragmatism' Is All about Delivering-Wherein Lies the Catch


King, Anthony, Newsweek International


Byline: Anthony King (King is a professor of government at Essex University.)

Tony Blair will leave an enormous political legacy. There can be no doubt about that. Trouble is, it will comprise large debts as well as large assets, and history will have to decide the balance. Blair's putative heir, Gordon Brown, will be at once the principal beneficiary and the man who will have to try to pay off the accumulated debts.

First, the positive side: Tony Blair has transformed the Labour Party and, more important, British politics as a whole. When he took the leadership in 1994, Labour had lost four consecutive national elections and had been out of power for nearly a generation. By jettisoning socialism, loosening ties with the unions and presenting Labour as the party of fiscal responsibility, Blair made it electable. More than a decade later, it still is.

Blair's transformation of the entire British political landscape has been even more remarkable. Before him, Labour was still a party of the traditional European left: identified with the working classes, wedded to a philosophy of tax-and-spend and equally wedded to the idea of state-centered solutions to social and economic problems. The Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher and a succession of others, all now largely forgotten, were best understood as Labour's alter ego: everything Labour was not.

Blair's triumph lay not in moving Labour from the far left to the center but in abolishing left, right and center. 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. The British people cared little for class politics--and cared less and less as time went on. They wanted better schools, better health care and better roads and had no strong views about how all these wonderful things could best be achieved. By the government? Sure: if the government could do it, fine. By private enterprise? Sure: if private companies, could do it, that too would be fine. The post-Thatcher Conservative Party has been slow to adapt, but under its new leader, David Cameron, it has begun to. Ideology and exclusivity are out. Pragmatism and inclusiveness are in. David Cameron, just as much as Gordon Brown, is Blair's political heir.

Now for the debit side, which also weighs heavy as both Brown and Cameron know. Large numbers of Britons have fallen out of love with the entire political class. Opinion polls show record numbers unwilling to vote for any of the main parties--or to vote at all. …

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