For a moment in time, many who make a living assessing British politics seriously felt the name Tony Blair would one day rank alongside that of the great wartime leader Winston Churchill in the annals of what Churchill called “our island story.” More than a moment, really. The high-tide of Blair’s reputation lasted half a decade, from his landslide election ten years ago this week to his decision to commit Britain to a war in Iraq that was never strongly supported by his electorate. On May 10, Blair told Britain's parliament he would resign his posts (BBC) both as Prime Minister and as the chief of the Labour Party. He is expected to endorse Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown as his successor.
Invariably questions turn to Blair's legacy, and the conventional wisdom rates him harshly (Daily Telegraph). Blair entered office as “a poster child for cool Britannia” (MSNBC video), but leaves with his popularity ratings having steeply declined from pre-Iraq war highs, though the Guardian notes he still receives “grudging respect” from the British public. But emphasizing declining poll numbers to assess Blair may be only a fleeting measurement. As Jonathan Marcus, the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent, tells CFR.org in this Podcast, Blair’s legacy won’t be that easy to peg. Churchill, for instance, left office at a nadir after his second term as prime minister in the 1950s, and Margaret Thatcher’s popularity had all but disappeared when she was ousted by a Tory shakeup in 1990. Indeed, an Ipsos-MORI poll of British historians in 2004—well after the Anglo-American project in Iraq began to unravel—still ranked Blair sixth among the twenty politicians who led Britain during the 20th century.
The fact is, Iraq notwithstanding, Blair can claim accomplishments few would have imagined during Labour’s sixteen years in opposition. Reforming Labour, which spent most of the Thatcher and Major years as a disgruntled left-wing debating society, into an “electable” party may be his main contribution. The British economy grew without interruption during his term, and London in many ways surpassed New York as a financial center. He pushed reforms that made the central bank independent for the first time and gave Scotland and Wales their own parliaments. He broke taboos (Guardian) to help bring Northern Ireland’s warring parties to the peace table.
Overseas, Blair’s influence also helped push NATO to take up causes like Bosnia, Kosovo, and more radically, Afghanistan (BBC), which would have been unthinkable in the early 1990s. He pushed climate change against Washington’s wishes, and challenged the developed world to do far more battling disease and poverty. A separate, independent assessment (PDF) of his foreign policy legacy by the Chatham House think tank gives him high marks in many areas, but concludes the Iraq war decision overwhelms the positive. The report singles out “the inability to influence the Bush administration in any significant way despite the sacrifice—military, political and financial—that the United Kingdom has made.”