Even Thatcher Didn't Last, So What Chance Has Blair?

Roundup: Media's Take

William Rees-Mogg, writing in the Times (London) (Jan. 5, 2004)

How long will Tony Blair last? Margaret Thatcher had ten years of real power, from her election victory on May 3, 1979, to Nigel Lawson's resignation as Chancellor on October 29, 1989. There followed a dismal year which included the poll tax, rising unemployment, the Gulf War, the pound joining the Exchange Rate Mechanism, the resignation of Geoffrey Howe and finally the end of her own leadership.

Mr Blair has now had six and a half years of comparable power. It is too early to judge the outcome of his radical constitutional reforms which, perhaps to his surprise, have been the most striking aspect of his domestic policies. In economic policy, he gave power to his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, and Mr Brown gave power over interest rates to the Bank of England. So far, this double delegation has worked surprisingly well, but the results are credited to the Chancellor rather than the Prime Minister.

In foreign policy, Mr Blair, like Margaret Thatcher, has had his most important successes as the leading international ally of the United States. Mrs Thatcher's support for Ronald Reagan helped the Americans to win the Cold War and destroy the tyranny of the Soviet Union; that led to the liberation of Central and Eastern Europe and, indeed, Russia itself. Four people deserve to share the credit: Reagan, Gorbachev, the Pope and Margaret Thatcher. It was incomparably the most significant historic event of the second half of the past century.

After the 9/11 acts of terrorism President Bush decided to confront the Islamic states which supported terror. This involved victorious campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq and pressure on Libya, which had proved successful. Similar pressure is being maintained on Iran and Syria.

Mr Blair has given British military support to this American policy in the Middle East, in the same way that Mrs Thatcher supported President Reagan. No doubt victory in the Cold War was more important than the counterattack on Islamic terrorism, but Mr Blair had to risk splitting his party. Mrs Thatcher's task was simpler in that the Conservatives were solidly in favour of her pro-American policy. To that extent, Tony Blair deserves exceptional credit.

The Prime Minister's visit to British troops in Iraq is therefore more than a formal gesture of gratitude. He was always with them in spirit. They risked their lives, and he risked his Government. As it becomes apparent that American policy in Iraq was necessary, and has been successful, Mr Blair deserves his share of the credit. So, incidentally, does Iain Duncan Smith who, as leader of the Opposition, gave solid support to the Iraq policy and left the Conservatives with a credible and not a partisan position.

The Anglo-American relationship has been the central concern of both prime ministers. Both have been much less successful in their relationship with the European Union. By hard bargaining, Margaret Thatcher did win the British rebate, but Europe became far more federalist in the 1980s, under the influence of a Franco-German alliance which distrusted her as much as she distrusted them. Her final defeat was the result of a calculated European trap, contrived by a decadent and corrupt Italian government. The European issue split her Cabinet with ministers such as Geoffrey Howe and Kenneth Clarke manoeuvring against her European policy.

Mr Blair has had as many rebuffs from the European Union as Mrs Thatcher herself, probably more, but has pursued the opposite course. He has chosen to appear as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed European idealist, though he has almost consistently chosen the United States when American and European policies diverge. His eager Europeanism does not seem to have served any British interest.

In foreign policy, both administrations have been effective when allied to the United States but unsuccessful when dealing with Europe. On European policy, Mr Blair has been much the more naive. When it came to the proposed European constitution, Peter Hain's negotiation was slack to the point of incompetence. The resulting draft was dominated by French stated policy, which is contrary to the British democratic tradition. It is not certain that the Prime Minister can put that right -at present he depends on the Polish veto, which could be changed by a revision of the proposed European voting rights.

In 1979 the Conservatives campaigned against the"winter of discontent". The electorate resented the stranglehold of trade union power and the high rate of inflation; the Conservatives won 43.9 per cent of the vote, even larger than the 43.2 which Mr Blair won in his landslide of 1997.

Thatcherism proved to be an effective ideology; it was certainly a tough minded one. The abuses of union monopoly power, excessive taxation, nationalisation, overregulation and exchange controls were swept away. In Nigel Lawson's final Budget, in 1988, income tax was reduced to a standard rate of 25 per cent, against the 33 per cent the Conservatives had inherited; he set a top rate of 40 per cent, which has stood to this day.

The economy was set free; before Thatcherism Britain had been the sick man of Europe. Now that unenviable title has been transferred to Germany.

Mr Blair promised a similar period of reform, but he has not delivered it. Trade union power is creeping back; taxation has risen, and will rise further; there is far more regulation, particularly European. If the Government had its way the pound would be dissolved in the euro. Britain may still have a freer economy than the Germans, but the gap in our favour has narrowed. Perhaps no one expected a Labour government to avoid more regulation and higher taxes.

In 1997 Mr Blair promised reforms of the social services, but here Blairism has turned out to have little to offer. In the first Parliament, Gordon Brown stuck with Conservative spending plans; in the second he has poured in the money, yet almost all of it has gone to increase pay and pensions. In the terms of Labour's 1997 propaganda, the social services remain largely unreformed.

From the point of view of the historian, the Blair administration may come second to Thatcher among the post-1950 governments but he cannot seriously claim a similar level of achievement. The Thatcher administration was a radical one which gave Britain a new and much more competitive economic structure. We are still living off that. Mr Blair has not achieved anything of the same importance.

In domestic policy he has spent more money on unchanged social structures. Both administrations have had achievements in foreign policy, but Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are not threats of the same stature as the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, a continental power armed with nuclear weapons.

We do not yet know whether Mr Blair's constitutional changes will prove a lasting benefit to London, Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland. It is obvious that the judicial system and the House of Lords have been botched in a reckless way.

Charles Falconer is a truly dreadful Lord Chancellor.

Once administrations start to lose their momentum, the process rapidly becomes irreversible. No prime minister in the past hundred years has surpassed the achievement of his first years; no prime minister has reversed a decline once it has set in.

Despite his considerable achievements, Mr Blair is now past his zenith. We do not know whether the Downing Street clock stands at 3.30 or 6.30 or 11.30pm, but we do know that it has passed noon. So does he.

When the last stage comes, it comes quickly and it come harshly. It is as fast and lethal as the headman's axe. I have seen the closing months of Attlee, Eden, Macmillan, Heath, Callaghan, Thatcher and Major. I would not wish any of them on my worst enemy. It is as though the oxygen were being sucked out of Downing Street by a vacuum. The poor fluttering bird cannot get its breath.

At this moment it still seems possible that Mr Blair will last his ten years, which would take him to the middle of the next Parliament. But somehow I doubt it.

There are new national problems to be dealt with, a new agenda for a new generation.

Whoever may have the solution, it seems increasingly clear that Mr Blair does not.

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Bill Youngs - 1/9/2004

Erik Dellums's call for "accurate depiction of black people and American history in film and on television" is well taken, but his criticism of Cold Mountain for insufficient African American content is misplaced -- just as it would miss the mark to criticize Glory for insufficient attention to white soldiers, or the Miss Jane Pittman for leaving out white contributions to the Civil Rights movement. I would agree, however, that there are many stories deserving to be told which focus more on African American history -- how about a good big-budget Tuskeegee airmen drama, for example?