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March 28, 2006

What will Tony Blair's legacy be? It will be that Mr Blair brought Messiah Politics to Britain, argues Richard D. North

Posted by Richard D. North

What will be Tony Blair's legacy after he leaves office? Richard D. North - the author of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the World (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and its update Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: A Story of Inspired Government, 1997-2007 (Social Affairs Unit, 2007) - argues that Mr Blair's overriding legacy will be that of bringing something new to Britain: "Messiah Politics" - the politics of the transformational leader who centralises power in order to re-imagine the world.

Can we define Blairism? What is the real legacy of Labour's only three-term Prime Minister?

In July 2005, Tony Blair was riding high. He was the world statesman of the Gleneagles G8 summit, the Olympic winner, the bulldog facing down home-grown terrorists. Now, in Spring 2006, he seems enmired in pay-for-peerages sleaze. He may yet leap free of that.

But the big questions are being asked, and we have a respectable slew of answers.

As to the legacy, it seems commonly accepted that Tony Blair entrenched Thatcherism. In 1997 he came in saying its fundamentals would not be undone, and he will leave having made it very hard for anyone seriously to expect to dislodge them.

It is understood, too, that he failed as all modern politicians of the right have failed - including Mrs Thatcher: he could not wean the British off the nanny state, to which they cling for fear of something worse. They are at least logical enough to accept high taxes to pay for health and education (though not enough to make either really good), as Irwin Stelzer, half mourning, half admiring, admitted to the Today Programme in March 2006.

But what was the real character of his premiership? Blairism can't be summed up as a doctrine or a programme. Rather it was a phenomenon, and Mr Blair was only half-aware of its nature.

I have dubbed it "Messiah Politics", to capture something very personal, very idealistic, very powerful and very vote-catching.

Mr Blair used to try to persuade us that he was run of the mill. He sought to be a "pretty straight sort of guy" (when he was first tainted with sleaze). Over the doomed Dome, he appealed to the Euan Factor (referring to his son and the value of the kitchen table wisdom of the young).

But he soon aimed higher. Tony Blair has always had an almost Walter Mitty sense of his own possibilities. Commentators like Matthew Parris, Charles Moore (who in The Spectator, 18 March 2006, cited Blair's 1997 "a thousand days to prepare for a thousand years" speech) and Michael Portillo have sought to identify a self-deceiving, but also a grandiose, lack of reality in the man. Mary Ann Sieghart has identified an adolescent quality to Blair's "unrealistic idealism". He see himself, she thinks, as both Everyman and Superman.

Since his Oxford days, his biographers tell us, Tony Blair has conceived of himself as a man with a personal mission - a mission he discovered as part of his religious journey. He determined that he would be a transformational person: he would change the world. Like many a con-artist, he may have been dazzled and even puzzled by the degree to which others invested in him, but he knew how to put their belief to work. He understood the immense power of personal attractiveness when it could be put in front of TV audiences.

Tony Blair has now decided that being liked is obsolete. He casts himself as the principled loner. He told the Labour Party conference in 2004:

I only know what I believe.
He seems almost to delight in Commons defeats for his measures in the War on Terrorism - as when he didn't get his 90 days detention package for suspects he said in November 2005:
Sometimes it is better to lose and do the right thing than to win and do the wrong thing.
He perhaps hugged to himself the image of a leader who is luminously right and will in time be seen to be so. Like the visionary romantic in Caspar David Friedrich's famous painting, Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, such a figure is intoxicated by dreams, exhilarated by leadership, but consoled by martyrdom.

In March 2006, he told Michael Parkinson that the decision to join Gulf War 2 was:

made by God as well.
It is tempting to argue that Mr Blair was only saying, uncontroversially, that God is the ultimate judge of his actions, or perhaps that the Prime Minister was speaking vaguely. He probably doesn't suppose he has much closer guidance from his Maker than any other religious person claims. But he does have a sense of mission as grand as it is theatrical.

He was never content with little tasks: having modernised the Labour Party, he thought to modernise the entire nation. But that was soon exposed as a whimsical idea. He faced a real task, and real failure, when he sought to modernise the 1945 welfare state.

Welfare reform faces the profound difficulty that most voters don't want it. Besides, Tony Blair made the enormous mistake of hating and fearing Whitehall. In love with the personal and the informal, he concentrated power in Number 10, where a coterie was made into a court and the evolution of policy overturned in favour of a blizzard of announcements (often without follow-through) and eye-catching initiatives (which had to seem to flow from the PM). Mr Blair has returned to welfare reform too late, just as he abandoned it too early. But he also marginalised the ministers which might have delivered it when he was in full flight and had a much better chance of selling us real change.

Peter Oborne has characterised Blair's administration as uniquely mendacious. Christopher Foster is only the most clear amongst several in arguing that it damaged government. Mr Blair's Messiah Politics weren't very elegant, as we see in Armando Iannucci's The Thick of It. They marked a low point in our representative democracy, as we learned from the inquiries by their Lordships Hutton and Butler. They have involved unedifying flirtations with Bob Geldof and Bono. But they put Britain at the side of the US in Iraq. An honest prime minister working with a strong Westminster and Whitehall could not have achieved this last.

So, in one vital respect, his personal mission, including his hi-jacking of the tools of administration, enabled the largest most noble - perhaps the maddest - of his goals to be fulfilled. Mr Blair's Messiah Politics eventually led him - for a while - to be windy and lofty in the trendy causes of saving the planet from climate change and solving the Africa problem. Of course, he soon realised that nothing he could do would persuade the public quickly to take these seriously. But he did get hold of the idea of putting British military force on the side of good in the world. He started to feel this was valuable in the case of the former Yugoslavia. He warmed to it in Africa. But it became an absolute imperative in Afghanistan and later in Iraq. It was work which appealed to some of us, and commentators like David Aaronovitch have probably surprised themselves in their enthusiasm for it. Here at last was something important that could flow from the sofas in the Den.

Biographers will continue to wonder how Mr Blair, an apparently insubstantial man, managed also to be so steely. Historians will marvel at how we let him get away with it. And by the time Labour celebrates its second hundred years in the Commons, people will know whether Tony Blair picked the right side in Iraq. He may yet be judged kindly on those grounds alone.

Whatever the political agendas of the prime ministers who succeed Mr Blair, they have a great opportunity to undo the harm he did government.

Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the World can be ordered directly from the Social Affairs Unit, or from, or through any UK bookshop. Its update - Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: A story of inspired government, 1997-2007 - can be read online, or ordered from

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An interesting analysis. But can I ask Richard North, why does he think Blair is the first British Messiah Prime Minister?
Why not Thatcher?

Posted by: Jonathan at March 28, 2006 05:04 PM

Good point.
Mrs T seemed to burn with certainties - for sure. And she was prepared to hector and lecture in their cause. But I don't think of her as messianic, and I suppose it's because she didn't seem loftily inspired. Nor did she concentrate power on herself in the Blair way (though she tried): she had "Big Beasts" in her Cabinet, for a start. I am also inclined to think she was "modern", not "post modern": she didn't sense the transformational power of the imagination in the way TB does.
Oddly, though, it makes sense to talk of Thacherism being a doctrine, whilst - as I said - Blairism is a phenomenon. To a degree which would shock both of them, Blairism is Thacherism by other means.

Posted by: Richard D North at March 28, 2006 08:34 PM

I am increasingly amused by the gaggle of writers on this website who insist against all evidence that the invasion of Iraq will sooner or later be hailed as a masterstroke. I have no doubt that they will never stop insisting this, rather like palsied, droopy-mustachioed and rheumy-eyed Southern colonels, wheeled out in their wickerwork bath chairs, draped in the stars & bars, shaking their canes and crutches beneath the magnolias at any whipper-snapper bold enough to assert that the Confederacy, um, might not actually rise again.

Too much has been written about Blair already. He will be remembered as an engaging but profoundly corrupt egomaniac who destroyed much of the internal workings of government, who lied his country into war and lost, and who just as disingenuously passed off a Swedish socialist mixed economy as rebranded Thatcherism. That's it. When all the silliness about celebrity worship blows away, as it does for all celebrities eventually, that is all that will remain. Personality and dishonesty.

Posted by: s masty at March 29, 2006 07:05 AM

I think Blair's legacy will be remembered not through the prism as Prime Minister, but as Leader of the PLP.

His great success has been based on keeping the Conservative Party OUT of office, and as a result, keeping Labour in.

For the Labour machine, and a significant number of left-of-centre voters, that will have been more than enough, given their tribal attitudes that were forged during the 1980s.

Posted by: Alexander Drake at March 31, 2006 11:09 AM

Changing GP's waiting lists as a sole legacy is the stuff of minor civil servants OBE's, not Prime Ministers' Auto Biographies. Ordering the death of innocent Iraquis is not a legacy, it is a record.

Posted by: t.paine at February 1, 2007 06:18 PM

Tony Blair has led a Government that has shown no respect whatsoever for Christian values, not once in 9 yrs of government, as far as I can see.

When it comes to any moral issues like reducing or reviewing outdated abortion laws he sits on the fence or even worse votes with the secularist/ atheist view.

His Government has used political correctness to try and control society..

His Government introduced multi-culturalism, that has also divided the nation and created religious and cultural ghettos.

His Government through devolution has broken up the union and divided the nation leading to a rise in English, Scotish and Welsh nationalism.

His Government have led us into several wars that had nothing to do with us and led to the deaths of 100,000s of innocent civilians

His Government have introduced at least 8 new gay rights laws and repeatedly bowed down to the gay militant gay rights lobby, even if it means riding roughshod over the beliefs and values of faith communities and the silent majority to appease them....

His Government have done nothing to protect Asian British women from abuse ... forced marriages and honour killings and the like, they have consistently turned a blind eye to this known problem.

His Government have been the most arrogant government in history completely ingoring public opinion and the majority view...

This Government have put new labour cronies in the House of Lords, not on merit but how much they donated to the party!

His Government have controlled the nation with sleaze and spin, shamelessly telling one untruth after another!

His Government will go down in history as the most atheistic/ secularist liberal Government ever..

His Government did absolutely nothing to support family values, in fact it seems it did everything they could to undermine the family.

Blair might claim to be religious but he is certainly not a Christian on the evidence I can see.

He will be judged by his actions not his glib claims.

He and his Government have consistently behaved like trendy secularist/ atheistic liberals. with...

In my opinion BLAIR IS NOT A CHRISTIAN! One day when he meets his maker..... God will say 'I don't know you'!

My view on Tony Blair is good riddance, your legacy is that you brought far more harm than good to the British Nation and its society......

If I ever meet Tony Blair... I would say to him... I'm sorry but have no respect for you, as respect must be earned and may God forgive you for what you have done to our once great nation.....

Posted by: Simon Icke at February 8, 2007 04:09 PM

Blairs real legacy is nothing to do with Iraq or any other wars, but in reality is the destruction of the United Kingdom piece by piece. His party is single handedly ripping the union apart without any thoughts to the effects.

Posted by: Chris Swan at April 13, 2007 08:36 AM

No, it's really simple. Blair's enduring legacy is the phrase "I deny all wrong doing"! which has been rapidly taken up by despots the world over.

Posted by: Alvin at December 25, 2008 10:11 PM
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