Blair, Tony (b. 1953)

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BLAIR, TONY (b. 1953)


British prime minister.

Tony Blair was born in 1953 in Edinburgh but grew up mainly in Durham. He returned to Edinburgh at age fourteen to complete his education at the private Fettes school and went on to read law at Oxford University. He qualified as a barrister and entered Labour Party politics in a by-election at Beaconsfield in 1980. Though ticking all the correct radical boxes for the Labour Party of the 1980s—a party which at that point in its history was committed to unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the European Economic Community (EEC), and widespread nationalization—Blair was impatient with the rhetoric and frustrated with continued electoral defeat. He won a safe seat at Sedgefeld in 1983 at the age of thirty, and was given a room at Westminster with Gordon Brown. Brown had deep roots in the party and was initially the senior member of a political double act that led the modernizing wing of the party. Under the patronage of Neil Kinnock and then John Smith, Blair and Brown rose to the Shadow Cabinet, Brown having given Blair his most famous sound bite of these years, "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime." When John Smith died it looked likely that Brown would take the leadership, but instead, after a meeting with Blair, the modernizers decided that Blair would be the better candidate to continue the process of modernization that had been started by Neil Kinnock's wide-ranging policy review.

Once leader, Blair quickly developed a striking ability to communicate effectively with "middle England"—the suburban middle class—which Labour needed to win over to achieve power. In 1997 Labour won a landslide victory over a discredited Conservative government. This opened the most sustained period of electoral and political success in the history of the Labour Party. Blair developed an ideological approach called the Third Way and branded his party as New Labour. The Third Way owed a great deal to U.S. president Bill Clinton's ideas of triangulation, but it also had a strongly British perspective based around the forging of a new progressive consensus. The basis of Blair's statecraft was presidential rather than prime ministerial and his major policy achievements—the introduction of a minimum wage, devolution of power, reform of the House of Lords, modernization of the management and running of schools, the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into U.K. law—were all effectively communicated. Brown became chancellor and delivered sustained economic growth, falling unemployment, and low interest rates. Labour was reelected with reduced majorities in 2001 and 2005 and Blair became the longest serving Labour prime minister.

The early part of the new Labour period in office was characterized by radical reforms that had a strong civil liberties content, for example, the European Convention and the passage of a Freedom of Information Act. The momentum for this process of reform was stopped in its tracks by the attacks on New York's World Trade Center. In the aftermath of this attack, as the United States launched its war on terror, Blair's liberal instincts were largely replaced by a realist analysis of measures necessary to combat international terrorism in the United Kingdom and abroad. This "realism" resulted in the creation of the most draconian set of anti-terrorism legislation in any major democracy. Blair's liberal credentials had already been brought into question by his pursuit of highly populist policies on issues such as asylum and immigration. Most British prime ministers move to the center as their administrations develop. In Blair's case, the impact of world events on his political philosophy transformed what had been a keen populist political instinct for mainstream political positions into a harder edged belief in the use of force, in the need for a coercive police power to combat terrorism, and a broadly illiberal attitude to immigration and asylum.

Major problems during his term of office were protests against the price of fuel by truckers and a sustained confrontation with the pro-hunt lobby when his government made fox hunting illegal. Both issues concerned relatively small and politically isolated groups of voters. The broad coalition that supported Blair in 1997 remained remarkably solid over the first two terms, though Labour's vote and voter turnout dropped sharply. However, while his premiership has been characterized by almost unbroken approval ratings for domestic policy, his foreign policy has been more controversial. Coming to office with virtually no foreign policy experience, Blair advocated and then committed British forces to a series of humanitarian interventions to control or remove unacceptable regimes. British troops were involved in five armed conflicts culminating in the invasion of Iraq. This foreign policy, coupled to an increasing move toward individualism, choice, and private sector involvement in public service delivery made him deeply unpopular with his own party and saw his approval rating decline. Following the 2005 general election he announced that he would retire before the next election.

Blair's record suggests that he will go down in history as one of the most successful British prime ministers of the last one hundred years, but it is a record that is contested. Critics from the Left argue that his period in office was based on the endorsement of the reforms in political economy introduced by Margaret Thatcher and that his foreign policy has been based on appeasing the United States rather than pursing vital British interests. Critics from the Right argue that he failed to solve the problems of the public services but instead massively increased the administrative burden on teachers and doctors with a system of league tables and performance indicators. Both Left and Right characterize Blair's governing style and policy approach as being more akin to management consultancy than socialism. Others criticize Blair's alleged obsessions with message over content. Part of the modernization of the Labour Party introduced by Blair was the professionalization of communications. This continued in government with all communications centralized through a strong communications unit in the prime minister's office. This was heavily criticized, especially when it became clear over time that it was not the cabinet that was the central decision-making body of government but rather the prime minister working through a small group of senior aids and key ministers. Constitutionally the role of these special advisors on policy and communications remained a major issue in Blair's period in office.

Internationally, Blair's record was also contested. Widespread opposition to the Iraq war, along with deep divisions within his own party on the future of the European Union with respect to the single currency and the accession of Turkey, contrasted with a settled advantage over the other parties on a domestic policy that centered on a £42 billion investment program in public services. Blair's premiership coincided with the increasing maturity of the knowledge economy and a broad sense of social and cultural confidence in the United Kingdom. Blair's own confident style of communication, his ability to spot and capitalize on populist issues such as asylum, youth crime, and antisocial behavior, were not matched by the substance of his reforming achievements. Much of the credit for the success of the administration lay with his chancellor Gordon Brown, but Blair retained one virtue that places him in the forefront of British prime ministers: he was the greatest election winner the Labour Party has ever produced.

See alsoThatcher, Margaret; United Kingdom.


Brivati Brian, and Tim Bale, eds. New Labour in Power: Precedents and Prospects. London and New York, 1997

Brivati Brian, and Richard Heffernan, eds. The Labour Party: A Centenary History. New York, 2000.

Seldon, Anthony. Blair. London, 2005.

Seldon, Anthony, and Dennis Kavanagh, eds. The Blair Effect, 2001–2005. Cambridge, U.K., 2005.

Stephens, Philip. Tony Blair: The Making of a World Leader. New York, 2004.

Brian Brivati

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Blair, Tony (b. 1953)

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