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January 31, 2007

A Report Card on the Blair Government: Historian William D. Rubinstein offers his assessment

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

William D. Rubinstein - professor of modern history at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth - offers his report card on the Blair government. The views expressed here are those of Prof. Rubinstein, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director. The Social Affairs Unit is not a party political organisation.

Tony Blair will retire within the next six months or so. This will obviously be the occasion for assessing his ten years in power. To beat the crowds, I would like here to offer my own assessment of Tony Blair's government. It is written from the viewpoint of an independent Tory - the views expressed are, of course, my own. I am also trying to be reasonably objective, and, as an historian, have tried to write from an historical perspective. I think that the assessment offered here is likely to be echoed by many historians writing in the future, although of course I do not own a crystal ball.

It probably makes most sense to divide this assessment by category, and award a grade on a scale from A+ (the highest) to F.

The Economy: B+/A- This is certainly one of the Blair government's stronger points. Britain's economy has remained extremely successful - when was the last time anyone heard about "Britain's economic decline", the mantra of the thirty-five years after Suez? - with full employment, low inflation, and reasonably low interest rates. The success of the British economy has continued despite the collapse of the h-tech and Stockmarket boom of the 1990s. Gordon Brown's decision to allow the Bank of England to set interest rates was plainly a correct one. Most of these achievements, to be sure, merely represent the long-term dividends of Thatcherite reforms, and would not have occurred, in all likelihood, under Old Labour. Nevertheless, one central achievement of the Blair government has been ideological, the end of even a theoretical socialist or semi-socialist option for Labour, and its generally full acceptance of Thatcher's reforms.

Standards of Living: B/B+ This is not exactly the same thing as the performance of the British economy overall, but relates to the actual living standards and prosperity enjoyed by the average person. Living standards have probably risen continuously over the past decade, but there are many caveats. Income tax, to say nothing of indirect and local taxes, remain far too high and are certainly higher de facto than in 1997. Many (most) people suffer from mountains of personal debts at extraordinarily high interest rates. Pensions are under threat, with no government solutions in sight. The cost of houses has skyrocketed; the price of a house in most areas would certainly be far lower had (among other things) immigration been restricted. These aspects of the British economy are poised on a knife-edge, and may well result in much trouble ahead. My overall grade may well prove to be far too kind.

Foreign Policy: B+ This grade will not be shared, of course, by the left-liberal cognoscenti, but Tony Blair deserved considerable praise for restoring the Anglo-American alliance, whatever the final outcome in Iraq. He also deserves some praise for distancing himself from extreme pro-Europeanism. That Europe has moved to the backburner as a major issue since 1997 has been due in part to Blair's apparent lack of sympathy for the more federalist aspects of the European project. Concerning Iraq, critics of the war fail to tell us what life would have been like for the Iraqi people had Saddam Hussein remained in power, or how a continuing Saddamist regime would have affected the Middle East as a whole. At the very least this genocidal dictator would have continued as a strong and dangerous anti-Western presence in the region, although his regime might, I suppose, have been used as a counter-weight against the even more appalling and dangerous government of Iran.

So far, so good. From now on it's pretty much all downhill:

Immigration: F The long-term demographic and sociological changes of the Blair government's unwise policy of virtual open slather to immigrants will surely result in enormous trouble for Britain in decades to come. In the contradictory and confusing manner so much a hallmark of this very confused government, its open floodgates have necessitated a sharp crackdown on the negative results of this flood in the form of Islamic terrorism. There are at least 500,000 and probably one million people in Britain, mainly unskilled and uneducated migrants from the Third World, who would simply not have been allowed to come had the Tories remained in power since 1997.

Constitutional and legal matters: D/ C- Most Tories will regret the pointless changes to the House of Lords - although the Monarchy has been left alone and is more popular than in 1997 - as well as many of the wrong-headed legal changes brought about by the Blair government, especially the enactment of the idiotic European Human Rights Act. Typically, too, the Blair government has had to balance its foolishness over these matters by tougher sentencing, easier criminal convictions, and more prisoners serving longer sentences. Northern Ireland has been an overlooked bright spot.

British Society: C/C- A very mixed picture. The number of university students has increased without (I think) more meaning worse. On the other hand, Blair's introduction of almost wholly artificial targets and bureaucracy across the range of public services, his fetish with ultra-expensive computer systems rather than with genuine positive change, and the atmosphere of corruption hanging over the Honours system, are aspects of what is wrong at heart with the Blair government - the fact that it has at all times been centrally driven by spin and media impressionism.

Blair came to power prattling on about "stakeholders" (when was the last time this term was heard in a public place?) and the "Third Way" between capitalism and socialism. This represented an arguable seriousness about politics which vanished by the end of Blair's first year in office. The Blair government, I suppose, represents a kind of left-of-centre upwardly mobile class from the 1960s and 1970s which has abandoned any pretence at idealism in its furious attempts to remain in power; it has also abandoned any pretence at "levelling down" in the old socialist sense so long as it constitutes a new governing class. As a result, cynicism about politics has never been more obvious, with most young people regarding politicians as, by definition, professional liars and crooks, and with voting turnout declining to levels unknown since Britain introduced democracy.

In all then, a very mixed picture. Perhaps the best summary one can offer about the Blair government is that it has not been quite as bad as one imagined that it would be. But there is possibly no aspect of its policies which would not have been better handled had the Tories remained in power over the past decade, as unsatisfactory as in many respects they obviously were.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth. He is the author of Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution, (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

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"Foreign Policy: B+ This grade will not be shared, of course, by the left-liberal cognoscenti": nor by this right-liberal-conservative cognoscento.
Perhaps the biggest failure - apart from the loathsome lack of propriety - is the cowardice in the face of the reforms needed to the welfare state. He sacked Frank Field within months and thereby showed himself to be spineless.

P.S. if you are the Rubinstein of The Myth of Rescue, hats off!
If you are the Rubenstein of William Nonshakespeare, hats back on again!

Posted by: dearieme at February 1, 2007 10:00 PM

Thanks! I am indeed the author of both books, so you will have to keep your hat half on and half off!

Bill Rubinstein

Posted by: Bill Rubinstein at February 16, 2007 09:45 AM
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