There was a time — around the turn of the millennium — when Tony Blair could do no wrong. There were, to be sure, holdouts on the Right against “Phoney Tony”, and on the Left against the man who had taken on the unions and was seen as too close to the rich. By and large, however, the country welcomed the more inclusive, confident and outward-looking vision that New Labour offered. Above all, Blair bestrode the world with an authority not enjoyed by any British prime minister since the Second World War, perhaps including even Margaret Thatcher.
Since then, the nimbus has evaporated, not least because of the economic crisis, the controversy over immigration, and the general sense that the New Labour project has unravelled. In no sphere, however, has the collapse been as precipitate as in foreign policy, where Blair’s legacy is widely regarded as having been a stooge of the US whose utopian design to remake the Middle East came disastrously unstuck when confronted with reality. The pro-Islamist Respect MP George Galloway claims to be making a film entitled The Killing of Tony Blair, as part of a campaign to have the former PM tried for war crimes in an international court (thought not President Assad for massacring his own people). The recent refusal of Parliament to support intervention in Syria to punish the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians has been celebrated as the moment when Britain emancipated itself from the US, and secured “payback” for the “lies” it was told over Iraq.
Some of these criticisms are justified. The then Prime Minister did not consciously mislead the country, but he was wrong to believe that Saddam Hussein had retained his chemical weapons programme. Like many interventionists, including this author, he was too confident that the post-invasion vacuum could be quickly filled with the democratic structures the region so desperately needs.
The pendulum has swung far too far the other way, however. Blair’s legacy in foreign affairs may be complex but it is largely positive. More than anybody else, he showed that the defence of human rights and the promotion of democracy internationally was in Britain’s national interest, because the failure to do so both emboldened aggressors and allowed terrorist elements to nestle in failed or repressive states. This was a profound departure from the previous “realist” consensus, which took a much narrower view of what constituted British interests, and tended to see in Middle Eastern dictatorships a safeguard against the radicalism of their populations. In his famous Chicago speech of 1999, Blair formally set out these principles, which became known as the “doctrine of the international community”.
These convictions drove Blair to stiffen President Bill Clinton’s resolve and, despite vehement Russian and Chinese opposition, forced the Serbian leader Slobodan Miloševic to break off his strategy of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in 1999. They also underpinned his attitude towards Saddam Hussein, who along with Milosevic was the only foreign leader specifically singled out for mention in the Chicago speech, well before George W. Bush appeared on the scene. Indeed, far from the UK acting as “poodle” to the US President, the close Anglo-American co-operation after 2001 represented the conversion of a Republican determined to eschew the nation-building nostrums of the Democrats into a full-blown interventionist determined to recast the Middle East by deposing its (then) worst dictator and supporting the growth of democracy.
Although the post-conflict planning was woeful, in particular the failure to move to rapid elections, the removal of Saddam Hussein was the precondition for progress in Iraq. The country is a much freer place today than it ever was under the Baathists and no longer poses any threat to its neighbours or the region. Strikingly, a BBC poll published in February 2006 — nearly three years after the invasion and in the midst of the turmoil — showed that 74 per cent of Iraqis supported the removal of Saddam Hussein.
What recent events have shown is just how much the Conservative establishment now shares Tony Blair’s analysis of the world outside. The determination of David Cameron, William Hague, George Osborne and Michael Gove to punish the Syrian regime vividly contrasts with the steadfast refusal of John Major’s government to intervene earlier over Bosnia in the 1990s when about 100,000 people, mainly Muslim civilians, were killed and more than a million displaced or deported. One can argue about the wisdom of intervening, but not about the fact that President Obama — who like Bush had originally set out to act with more humility on the world scene — is following where Cameron has led, not the reverse as many in parliament and the country seem to believe.
In short, whatever the vote in Westminster and the current public mood may appear to suggest, Tony Blair fundamentally changed the way in which Britain thought and acted on the world stage, and very much for the better.