Only the grin was left
So now we know: it’s to be June 27.
For certainly more than half of the last ten years I have wished Tony Blair were not prime minister. I cannot pinpoint the moment I turned, for though I voted for him in 1997, I certainly didn’t in 2001 so it must have been in the first half of his tenure. Was it the millennium dome? Was it his failure to stamp down on the fuel protesters? Was it the repayment of £1 million to Bernie Ecclestone? Was it the reinstatement of Peter Mandelson? Or was it that I just couldn’t take that disingenuous, smug, ‘I’ve got a huge majority and there’s nothing you can do to shift me’ grin any longer?
Blair is highly unusual, perhaps unique, among British prime ministers for being in office for over ten years and leaving it at a time (more or less) of his own choosing. On top of that he has (more or less) nominated his successor, though whether that is a considered decision, the keeping of a promise or simply faute de mieux we shall probably never know. Indeed, it is Brown’s accession and its implications that is a far more intriguing question than what immediate history will make of Blair.
For we know what immediate history will make of Blair. It will see him as a huge let-down, a leaking helium balloon that floated high and cheerfully at first, deflated until it could barely support its own weight and finally sagged limply as the elevating gas dispersed into the atmosphere of public disillusionment. A dot-com bubble of a premiership. Northern Ireland apart, his legacy is unfinished business, a vast extension of the nanny state and the surveillance society, and government that is further from being by the people and for the people than ever before. He gave us three different forms of devolution, with involvement of the peoples concerned, while imposing unelected regional assemblies on England without consultation (a referendum in the north-east after they had been set up was hardly democracy) and without answering the West Lothian question. He emasculated the House of Lords but we still don’t know what we will get instead. He ignored valid concerns over council tax while centralising control over local government. He allowed swathes of parliamentary time to be taken up over the harmful and sterile debate on foxhunting, basically as a Pontius Pilate like sop to his backbenchers. He was prepared to employ a director of communications with the qualities of Alastair Campbell and a deputy with the qualities of John Prescott. His relationship with George W Bush has led millions of Britons to a cynical, jaundiced view of our best friend and a country that still has a better grasp of democracy than ours. He wanted to join the euro and adopt the EU constitution (how about one of our own?), was saved from the first by Gordon Brown and from the humiliation of a certain referendum defeat over the second by the French and Dutch but now wants to sneak in a modified form of constitution that he will claim is not enough of a change to need to be put to the vote. He held off honouring the commitment to a Freedom of Information Act for as long as possible and has presided over attempts to emasculate it ever since. He seems prepared to let our electricity generating capacity fall behind demand by prevaricating and dissembling on the nuclear power debate while time runs out. He answers all criticism with a litany of how things have supposedly improved since 1997, delivered with that smug grin that says he knows he can’t be contradicted because he controls the rules under which the data is gathered.
But ten years of this has left the public more cynical and distrustful of politicians and government than for many years. They are coming to realise that there has been no achievement, there is no substance, just the grin.
As to what more distant history will say, that’s easy too. In twenty years time we will simply look back and wonder how we were ever seduced into taking him seriously. At least by then the grin will have gone.