Blair Shows Flair in First Year British Leader Marks His First Anniversary with a High Profile on the World Stage and Huge Popularity at Home. Series: Tony Blair Enjoys a Light Moment with His Wife, Cherie, as the Pair Congratulated Winners of a Youth Ambassador Contest April 7. the Youngest British Prime Minister This Century, Blair Has Worked to Cultivate a More Modern Image of His Country Abroad. BY DAVE CAULKIN/AP
Alexander MacLeod, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
It's been a hectic first year for the politician who ended 18 years of Conservative Party# rule in Britain. In the world beyond the island nation, Prime Minister Tony Blair is winning a reputation as a high-profile international crisis-buster.
In strife-ridden Northern Ireland, he helped bring the warring parties together and brokered a historic peace settlement. After talks with Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat last week, Mr. Blair appears to have prepared the way for a new spurt in the Middle East peace process.
Most commentators appear surprised at the diplomatic skills Blair is exhibiting. Political analyst Philip Stephens says Blair "has shown grit as well as youthful style" in his approach to both problems. According to Mr. Stephens, the prime minister is "the object of admiring fascination abroad." But he points out that Blair's ability to maneuver rests heavily on "a seemingly impregnable approval rating at home." Blair is backed by a 179-seat majority for his Labour Party in Parliament. And he has also taken full advantage of Britain's chairmanship of the 15-nation council of European Union (EU) ministers, making use of the extra clout this gives him, as on his recent Middle East trip. Significantly, #however, in his venture into Middle East diplomacy on behalf of the EU, Blair has been careful to avoid suggesting that Europe wishes to upstage the United States in pursuit of a settlement. Says a Blair aide, "Britain realizes that Washington has to play the major role. But the prime minister has been able to create the prospect of a meeting next month between Netanyahu and Arafat, and the Americans are happy with that." Blair's performance during his recent visit to Israel merited him praise in the influential #London Economist. The magazine contrasted his restrained diplomacy with earlier interventions in the Middle East by former Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major, who both "harbored delusions" that Britain could "punch above its weight" in foreign affairs. In British politics, the biggest impact Blair has had in his first year is rooted in an evident determination to persuade his country that it must change its political values and its idea of itself in the world. In this, he has tried to employ the same "feel" for what people are thinking that he exhibited last September, when within hours of the Aug. 31 death of Diana, Princess of Wales, Blair captured the public mood by describing her as "the people's princess." From that point on, it was clear that the Labour Party leader was much closer to the hearts and minds of Britain than his Conservative Party counterpart, William Hague, whose bland response to Diana's death was widely criticized. Although Blair's drive to promote the image of a modern "Cool Britannia" around the world has also come in for its share of criticism, behind the effort lies a conviction that in the postwar years Britain lost its way. As the youngest British prime minister this century, Blair has been able to devote a huge amount of energy and considerable charm to a series of initiatives. Blair has made it plain that the welfare state must be modified to encourage people to work rather than rely on state handouts. In the future, recipients of welfare must accept work if it is offered to them. Unemployed youths# are to be given special training by employers who would receive government subsidies for agreeing to give them jobs. Blair has also demanded higher standards of education across the board from preschool classes to universities. …