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Assessing Tony Blair's Decade in Power


British Prime Minister Tony Blair leaves office on June 27. What is Mr. Blair's legacy after a decade at 10 Downing Street?

More than ten years ago, on May 1, 1997, the British Labor Party won a general election by a landslide, ending 18 years of conservative rule by Margaret Thatcher and John Major. At 43, the leader of the Labor Party - - Tony Blair - - became the youngest British prime minister since Lord Liverpool in 1812.

"A new dawn has broken has it not? And it is wonderful. We always said that if we had the courage to change, then we could do it. And we did it. We have been elected as 'New Labor' and we will govern as 'New Labor,'" Mr. Blair proclaimed to applauding supporters.

Achievements in Office

Many experts, including British historian Andrew Roberts, say one of Mr. Blair's enduring achievements was to make the Labor Party 'electable'. "He moved it to the center; some in the Labor Party say he moved it to the right. He has effectively gotten rid of the idea that profit is evil, that the rich are monsters, that high taxation is a good thing culturally and socially as well as economically," says Roberts. "He got rid of the whole concept of nationalization and he didn't attempt to nationalize any of the industries that the conservatives had privatized in the previous 18 years."

Roberts adds, "And so in many ways, in the great sort of ideological struggle between right and left, he came down very much on the right. And he is accused of being the heir of Margaret Thatcher by those people from what's called 'Old Labor' -- the original kind of Labor -- who do really want to use the powers of the state to redistribute wealth."

Roberts and others say Mr. Blair transformed the Labor Party into a political machine -- winning three consecutive general elections, a feat never achieved by any other Labor Party leader. Experts say during his decade in office, the British economy grew without interruption and London solidified its reputation as a world financial center. Many analysts say the British people are better off today economically and socially than they were ten years ago.

Another success story has been Northern Ireland. Mr. Blair worked tirelessly to bring the warring parties to the peace table, culminating in the power-sharing agreement between Catholic and Protestants in Northern Ireland's Assembly. Decades of animosity and violence costing the lives of more than 3700 people came to an end.

Anthony King, a professor of British politics at Essex University, says Tony Blair wanted the Northern Ireland peace process to succeed. "He decided right from day one, when he entered Downing Street back in 1997, that he was going to make bringing peace to Northern Ireland one of his principal objectives," says King. "And he worked away at it. Somebody told me a few years ago, somebody close to Number 10 [Downing Street], that he reckoned Tony Blair has spent more time on Northern Ireland than on any other single subject."

King adds, "And in the end, it has clearly worked. Whoever would have thought that you would have seen Ian Paisley, the pretty extreme leader of the Unionists, and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein [the political wing of the Irish Republican Army], in office together, appearing to get along pretty well together. That's an extraordinary accomplishment."

Criticism of Blair's Tenure

But the Blair decade also had its low points. His government was tainted by several scandals -- the most damaging one being the so-called "cash for honors affair." Police are still investigating allegations that people close to Tony Blair have accepted large sums of money for the Labor Party in exchange for honors, such as peerages in the House of Lords. Experts say such dealings have been going on in Britain for centuries, but never in such an obvious way.

John Rentoul is one of Tony Blair's biographers. "He had promised to be different. And he had suggested that somehow, his ethical standards in those sorts of respects were higher than those of his predecessors. Now I think the charge that has really caught him out is that of hypocrisy," says Rentoul.

Experts say that in international affairs, Tony Blair had an interventionist foreign policy -- sending British troops to Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq. Many analysts say his decade in office will be forever marked by his decision to back the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq coupled with his unwavering support of President George Bush -- support that earned him the nickname, in some quarters, of "Bush's poodle."

John Rentoul, one of Mr. Blair's biographers, says the prime minister's problems began September 11, 2001 -- the day of the terrorist attacks on the United States -- when he said Britain would stand "shoulder to shoulder" with America.

"When he said he was going to stand 'shoulder to shoulder' with America -- he meant it -- whereas the rest of us, all cheered and clapped and had all these mental reservations about the sort of conditions under which we would offer that kind of support to the United States. His language and his unwillingness to condemn things like Guantanamo Bay and the abuses at Abu Ghraib certainly made matters worse," says Rentoul. "But I think the real difficulty was that half his party in parliament, half the Labor MPs [members of parliament] who were not members of the government and therefore free to vote either way, voted against the Iraq war and ever since then, he's been fighting his party on that."

Not only fighting his party, says Rentoul and others, but the British public as well which overwhelmingly opposes the war in Iraq and Britain's participation in it. Many analysts believe Mr. Blair's reputation has been severely damaged and his successes overshadowed by the war in Iraq. And they say were it not for the situation in Iraq, Mr. Blair would probably continue to be prime minister and lead his Labor Party through another general election which must be held by May 2010.

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