Book review: Heroes or Villains? The Blair Government Reconsidered

‘Blair sought to amplify and expand on Thatcher’s legacy, creating the situation where large parts of the country are now so desperate to take back control of their lives and communities that they’re prepared to take the risk of chaos and crisis in the hope of something better emerging from the ruins.’ Natalie Bennett reflects on Jon Davis and John Rentoul’s Heroes or Villains? The Blair Government Reconsidered, and Blair's controversial legacy.

Tony Blair
Tony Blair
Natalie Bennett

Last week, I was asked “who was the worst British Prime Minister in recent British political history?” My questioner clearly expected me to say Theresa May or perhaps David Cameron, both of whom have good claims to the title. May for uncritically swallowing the extreme European Research Group idea of Brexit and refusing to work with others on the way forward, Cameron for calling the Brexit referendum for narrow tactical reasons, only to suffer an enormous strategic defeat that could see the end of the Tory Party.

But neither was my choice. For if you take the long view of history, and ask who got us into the mess of which Brexit is a symptom rather than a cause, then the answer has to be Tony Blair. He was a ‘child of Thatcher’, a devotee of her neoliberal ideology, if with added trappings of humanitarian rhetoric (and some action) for those judged as ‘deserving poor’, such as children living in poverty.

His prime ministership sentenced British politics to remain on the economic far right into which Thatcher had directed it, as he presided over a government comfortable with people being ‘filthy rich’, that privatised hospitals, schools and prisons for claimed ‘efficiency’, and followed a foreign policy of ‘all the way with Clinton and Bush’ – or even rushing ahead and dragging them behind him. 

One of the typical characteristics of first-past-the-post electoral systems, as Stein Ringen in his Nation of Devils identified is that they usually produce governments seeking to undo almost everything the last government did, a political seesaw. Donald Trump, whose one clear consistency in policy is the aim of undoing everything Obama did, is a perfect case study of that.  

But one impact of that is at least to provide a rough, if expensive and damaging, balance, one that’s provided in proportional systems by the need for different views to work together and reach consensus. 

Blair, however, instead of being a counterweight, sought instead to amplify and expand on Thatcher’s legacy, creating the situation where large parts of the country are now so desperate to take back control of their lives and communities that they’re prepared to take the risk of chaos and crisis in the hope of something better emerging from the ruins (the clear stance of many now who call for ‘no deal’ rather than any other way forward on Brexit).

We now need to think strategically and deeply about where we are and how we get out of this political mess, so I was intrigued when I saw in the London Library Jon Davis and John Rentoul’s new book, Heroes or Villains? The Blair Government Reconsidered.

If you want a detailed, blow-by-blow account that is obviously well informed by the recollections and records of the players (if largely on the Blair side), then this will give it to you. It is also a useful source on the extreme disfunction of our unwritten constitution, noting ‘a fundamental truth of the British constitution: being uncodified, and hugely complex, means much can be debated without a clear, definite answer’. Heroes or Villains? never gets to the obvious need for a complete new start, a written, democratic, functional constitution, but it certainly provides plenty of ammunition for the cause.

It makes the interesting point that the Blair government was in effect a Coalition, despite the 1997-2005 elections being the last for which any claim for first-past-the-post producing clear results can be made. The Labour Government functioned, the authors argue, like a coalition of the Brown and Blair parties, but with far less transparency, and more friction, than the 2010 official Coalition.

But when it comes to its assessment of Tony Blair himself, the frames of reference are remarkably narrow. In its own terms, I suppose that’s fair enough. This is an assessment of how he ran the country in technical terms, being particularly interesting in responding to the accusation of ‘sofa government’, and making a respectable claim that there was nothing new about this. 

And there’s of course an assessment – a defence that goes really about as far as a defence could possibly go – of his decision to take the UK into the Iraq War.

But of the damage done to the NHS by the start of privatisation, and the massive reorganisation in preparation for privatisation, there’s scant mention. Of the impact of the immensely wasteful and damaging privatisation of schools through the academy programme, there’s only a short reference from Ed Balls about this being a source of conflict with Gordon Brown. Any broader view is utterly lacking. 

And then there’s ‘climate change’. Or rather there isn’t. I had to check the index to find the two mentions that I’d missed – both of which are simply references to the term without any detail or discussion. If we want a sign of how the political commentariat has yet to grasp the existential threat of the climate emergency, of the centrality of environmental policy decisions to all of our future, then this lacuna is yet another of them. An assessment needs to be made of the Blair record on the environment, but you won’t find it here.

And of the ideological shifting of the Overton window, the continuation of neoliberalism when a different direction would reasonably have been expected, there’s almost nothing.

These limitations matter not just for history’s record, but for the understanding of why Britain is now in the political chaos in which it finds itself today, and what happens in the immediate future.

While academics seeking to revise our understanding of an historical figure is standard grist to the ivory tower mill, we still have Blair popping up regularly seeking to intervene in the Brexit debate.

Which as someone who’s passionate about winning a final say for the people in the form of the ‘People’s Vote’, and winning a stop to Brexit, makes me angry. 

Because any statement from Blair is counterproductive and damaging. He is a profoundly discredited figure, and rightly so.

The damage he did to the body politic will not be easily repaired, and the people are all too aware of that. Now is no time to seek to justify his actions or legacy, or do anything to encourage further counterproductive interventions in UK politics.

Natalie Bennett is a member of Sheffield Green Party and former leader of the Green Party.