British politician and Prime Minister Tony Blair (born 1953) ushered a new generation into parliament, and refashioned the Labour Party along the way.
Great Britain's youngest prime minister of the twentieth century, Tony Blair, is leading the charge into the next century. He changed the Labour Party from a backward-looking leftist, socialist, labor-union based political party to a forward-thinking, centrist, free enterprise-friendly organization. He rebranded-a favorite word of "New Labour"-the old Labour Party and, under his leadership, Great Britain is getting a makeover as well. The government tourist agency now touts "Cool Britannia" instead of "Rule Britannia"-a place which is young, arty, technologically advanced, and fun.
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on May 6, 1953, Anthony Charles Lynton Blair learned early on about politics and responsibility. His father, Leo, a successful lawyer and law lecturer, chose to run for parliament as a Tory (conservative) in 1963. He suffered a stroke just before the election, leaving him unable to speak for three years. The three children, Bill the oldest, Tony, and Sarah, the youngest, had to learn to become self-reliant, to be able to cope with the family's financial and emotional stress. His father subsequently transferred his political ambition to his children; and, as Blair said in an interview with Martin Jacques for the London Sunday Times magazine, "It imposed a certain discipline. I felt I couldn't let him down."
But there was another part of the family tree whose genes influenced the young Blair. His natural grandparents (his father was adopted) had been actors and dancers, and Blair followed in their footsteps during his student days. He got rave reviews for his performances at Fettes College, organized gigs for rock groups, and later as a student at St. John's College at Oxford University, he was the lead singer for Ugly Rumors, a rock band playing the music of such groups as Fleetwood Mac, the Rolling Stones, and the Doobie Brothers.
In time, however, he followed his father's, not his grandfather's career, and studied law. Upon leaving Oxford, he got an internship with Queen's Counsel (QC) Alexander Irvine. His fellow intern was Cherie Booth, a top graduate of the London School of Economics, a laborite and daughter of actor Tony Booth. Although they were competitors professionally, personal attraction won, and they were married on March 29, 1980. They have three children: Euan, Nicholas, and Kathryn.
Irvine remembered Blair in the New Yorker as being able to absorb difficult issues: "One of his principal skills was absorbing enormously complicated material. Make your best points on the issues-he was very good at that." Blair successfully worked on employment law and commercial cases. This talent to communicate well proved very useful as Blair became involved in local politics.
A Quick Rise Up the Ranks
While Blair's father had been a Tory, Blair joined the Labour Party. In the university days he had read Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky, and even then was exploring how to change the Labour Party. An article in New York Review of Books also claimed, "it is inconceivable that Blair was left untouched" by witnessing the power of the local miners where he grew up. (The Blair family had moved to the industrial city of Durham in northern England after spending several years in Australia.) Nationally, the miners were the main strength of the Labour Party, and the Durham miners were an important political force. In fact, Durham City and County Durham voted labour; only the cathedral, castle and university were Tory.
In 1983 Blair was elected to parliament along with 208 other Labour M.P.s (Members of Parliament), the smallest number since 1935. The Labour Party was in crisis. The crippling public-sector strikes by several unions in the winter of 1978 had contributed to the widespread Tory victory in 1979 because the general populace saw the Labour Party as being controlled by the unions. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's re-election in 1983 was seen as a resounding defeat for the left wing of the Labour Party, and so in October of 1983, Neil Kinnock became the new leader of the party.
Kinnock promoted Blair to opposition spokesperson on treasury and economic affairs (1984-1987), and opposition spokesperson on trade and industry (1987). Blair was then appointed deputy to Bryan Gould, the shadow trade and industry secretary, where he investigated the causes of the October, 1987, stock market crash. In 1988 he made it to the shadow cabinet itself, first as shadow energy secretary, then as shadow employment secretary (1989-1991). After the 1992 election, which brought the Tory John Major to power, Kinnock had to resign, and John Smith, another moderate succeeded him. He appointed Blair shadow home secretary. After Smith's death in 1994, Blair was elected as leader of the Labour Party.
Government and Individual Responsibility
If Labour was going to win the 1997 election, it was going to have to refashion its message. Blair combined the traditional emphasis of Labour on the responsibility of the community with the Conservative's emphasis on the individual. As he said during an interview in January of 1993 on BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend, a Labour government would be "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime." Blair also called for a nation "where people succeed on the basis of what they give to their country," as noted in Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service.
This philosophy had evolved during his early years. During university he was confirmed in the Church of England and had become committed to social change using Christian values. Family and community values were to be reintroduced into liberal rhetoric, and it was government's job to create the condition in which families could prosper. There was to be social accountability for the community and government as well as the individual. Blair also saw the disintegration of the Soviet Union and knew that the Labour Party could not hope to appeal to voters just using the old ideas of the welfare state with its emphasis on nationalized industry, union privileges, and social entitlements.
Blair was able to push through his ideas because the Labour Party had changed how it elected its leaders. In the past, officials had been elected by a system of block votes, which were divided among special interest groups and leaders-trade unions and M.P.s, for example-rather than by one vote per person. Blair had tried to institute "one person, one vote" at his local party branch in 1980, but failed. However, the system had just been changed with a compromise version of one vote per person when Blair ran for the party leadership in 1994. This worked to his advantage because the new voting method used his skills. According to biographer John Rentoul's Tony Blair, "Blair is a mass politician rather than a club operator. His straightforward, clear-speaking style, combined with his openness to the media, are qualities now needed for both kinds of contest."
A New Party Platform
In another move to reform British politics, Blair succeeded in persuading members to have the party's charter rewritten. He specifically targeted the 1918 Clause Four which called for the redistribution of wealth-a "communist equality"-through "common ownership of the means of distribution, production, and exchange." This section was rewritten to reflect modern social democratic aims. A major stumbling block had now been removed as the party could no longer be labeled just the party of the working class. Blair also eliminated planks on full employment, the welfare state, and unilateral nuclear disarmament. New Labour supported European integration and free enterprise while downsizing budget deficits and resisting inflation. It worked. Blair, with no union roots, won the national election in May of 1997, with Labour winning a majority of 179 seats out of 659 in the House of Commons, Labour's biggest majority ever.
That summer, Blair's popularity stood at 82 percent. "His youthful enthusiasm and energy add to his popularity," noted Barry Hillenbrand in Time. Britons liked his style, and as Adam Gopnik put it in his July 7, 1997, article for the New Yorker, they liked New Labour's "desire to end the deference culture." No more looking towards the upper classes, the past, or the nation's history; this was the new generation. As reported in the New Yorker, Blair told the October 1994 Labour Party conference, "I want us to be a young country again. Not resting on past glories. Not fighting old battles…. Not saying, 'This was a great country.' But 'Britain can and will be a great country again."' Blair, with his focus on the future, was able to "make optimism fashionable," according to Gopnik.
"Modernization is the young Prime Minister's mantra," noted Hillenbrand. Blair's proposed reforms to welfare spending and programs were generally well-received. "Blair thinks the government does have a role to play in helping people and assuring social justice," declared Hillenbrand. Blair's $4.33 billion training program for young welfare recipients provided education to expand employment opportunities. He also ended steps to privatize the British National Health Service, thus ensuring that all British citizens had access to health care. One of his more unpopular proposals-decreasing benefits to single parents on welfare-still passed by a large majority in the House of Commons. While Blair has made no move to change the previous administration's anti-union laws, he has managed to lessen the class divisions that separate the nation. If, as some argued, Blair had taken the "labour" out of the party, no one was listening.
Blair has also taken a high profile position on British-Irish relations. In the 30-year war in Northern Ireland between the Catholic minority and the Protestant, British-favoring majority, he has broken with the previous administration's position that all sides must lay down arms before sitting down to talk. Instead, "parallel decommissioning" calls for both sides to gradually lay down arms while talking. Although not handicapped as were his predecessors by a reliance on Northern Ireland's Protestant voters, Blair has been aware of trying to look even handed. In a series of peace talks between the warring factions, Blair has supported a peaceful Northern Ireland. He continually negotiated to keep all the political parties at the table, even those with paramilitary links. In April of 1998, the leaders in Northern Ireland reached agreement, ending three decades of warfare. According to the terms of the agreement, a new Northern Ireland Assembly would be created, giving the Irish Republic (the Southern portion of the island) a say in the affairs of the North. In return, the Irish Republic would cease efforts to reclaim the North. A British-Irish Council would also be created to link Northern Ireland with Wales, Scotland, and England. Blair has received much credit for his diplomatic skills in seeing this peace achieved.
In Europe, Blair has taken a more traditional stand. While his popularity has crossed borders and he has become a well-known and respected politician, he is definitely aware of the resistance to integration at home. While portraying Britain as "a leading player" in Europe, the country is still keeping its right to "opt-out." In his first major meeting with European leaders, he voted to block an enhanced defense role for the European Union, keep passport controls at the borders, and sided with Germany when France's socialist government tried to ease the economic rigor agreed upon to establish a single currency.
Whether or not Great Britain eventually joins the European Union, Blair hopes to turn the country into a leading force. His efforts to modernize both his political party and his country have not gone unnoticed. Hillenbrand noted that contemporary European politicians are imitating his policies, from Gerhard Schroeder in Germany to Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok. As Blair declared in his address to the October 1994 Labour Party conference: "I didn't come into politics to change the Labour Party. I came into politics to change the country."
Rentoul, John, Tony Blair, Warner Books, 1996.
Economist, May 31, 1979, p. 47-48; June 14, 1997, p. 16; June 21, 1997.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, September 1, 1994; October 7, 1995.
New Statesman, June 20, 1997; June 27, 1997, p. 15.
Newsweek, April 20, 1998, p. 34.
New Yorker, August 22, 1994, p. 66; February 5, 1996, p. 39; July 7, 1997.
New York Review of Books, June 12, 1997, p. 10-11.
Time, May 18, 1998, pp. 60-62.
U.S. News & World Report, May 12, 1997, p. 39.
Village Voice, June 3, 1997, p. 26.
Tony Blair interview with Nick Clarke, The World This Weekend, BBC Radio 4, January 10, 1993.
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Anthony Charles Lynton Blair was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on May 6, 1953. His father, Leo, a successful lawyer, chose to run for Parliament in 1963. He suffered a stroke just before the election, leaving him unable to speak for three years. His three children had to learn to take care of themselves to be able to cope with the family's stress. His father also encouraged the children to achieve in politics what he himself could not, and as Blair said in an interview with Martin Jacques for the London Sunday Times, "I felt I couldn't let him down."
But there was another part of the family tree whose genes influenced the young Blair. His natural grandparents (his father was adopted) had been actors and dancers, and Blair followed in their footsteps during his student days. He received rave reviews for his performances at Fettes College, organized gigs for rock groups, and later, as a student at St. John's College at Oxford University, was the lead singer for Ugly Rumors, a rock band that played the music of such bands as Fleet-wood Mac, the Rolling Stones, and the Doobie Brothers.
In time, however, Blair followed his father's career and received a law degree from Oxford University in Oxford, England, in 1975. He then worked as an intern (a student working under the guidance of an experienced person) with Queen's Counsel (QC) Alexander Irvine. Irvine remembered Blair in the New Yorker as being able to absorb difficult issues: "One of his principal skills was absorbing enormously complicated material. Make your best points on the issues—he was very good at that." Blair worked on employment law cases. His ability to communicate well proved very useful as he became involved in local politics. Blair married Cherie Booth, another intern and a top graduate of the London School of Economics, in March 1980. They had four children.
Rising up the ranks
Blair's father had belonged to the Tory Party (also known as the Conservatives, who preferred to maintain traditions and avoid change). Having witnessed the power of the local miners where he grew up, Blair joined the Labour Party. The miners were the main strength of the Labour Party in England, which at this time was in crisis. Strikes by several unions in the winter of 1978 had contributed to a large Tory victory in 1979, because the people viewed the Labour Party as being controlled by the unions. In 1983 Blair was elected to Parliament along with 208 other Labour Party MPs (Members of Parliament), the smallest number since 1935.
After Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's (1925–) reelection in 1983, Neil Kinnock became the new leader of the opposition Labour Party. Kinnock promoted Blair to several posts, including spokesperson on treasury and economic affairs from 1984 to 1987, and spokesperson on trade and industry in 1987. Blair also spent time investigating the causes of the October 1987 stock market crash. After the 1992 election, which brought the Tory John Major (1943–) to power, Kinnock had to resign and John Smith replaced him. After Smith's death in 1994, Blair was elected as leader of the Labour Party.
Government and individual responsibility
Blair realized that the Labour Party had to change its message; it could not win over voters using the old ideas of the welfare state and its emphasis on national industry and union privileges. He supported policies to decrease crime, lower taxes, improve trade, and give more power to local and regional governments. Blair also called for a nation "where people succeed on the basis of what they give to their country," as noted in Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service. There would be an increasing emphasis on family and community values, and it would be the government's job to create conditions under which families could prosper.
Blair was able to push through his ideas because the Labour Party had changed how it elected its leaders. In the past officials had been elected by a system of block votes, which were divided among special interest groups and leaders—trade unions and MPs, for example—rather than by one vote per person. Blair had tried to institute "one person, one vote" at his local party branch in 1980, but failed. However, the system had just been changed to a version of one vote per person when Blair ran for the party leadership in 1994. This worked to his advantage because the new voting method had the most benefit for a skilled politician such as him.
A new party platform
Blair also succeeded in convincing Labour Party members to rewrite Clause Four of the party charter. The clause called for the redistribution of wealth through "common ownership of the means of distribution, production, and exchange," which is basically a definition of socialism. With the change the party could no longer be labeled just the party of the working class. This "New Labour" supported free enterprise while working to lower budget deficits (the amount by which spending exceeds income) and control inflation (a general increase in prices). Although some argued that the Labour Party now seemed very similar to the Conservatives, Blair won the national election in May 1997, with Labour winning a majority of 179 seats out of 659 in the House of Commons.
Blair believed that the government had a duty to help people, and his proposed reforms to welfare spending and social programs were well received. He established a training program for welfare recipients to provide education and increase employment opportunities. He also came up with a plan to improve the British National Health Service, making sure that all British citizens had access to health care. Blair also won praise for ending the thirty-year war in Northern Ireland between the Catholic minority and the Protestant, British-favoring majority. In April 1998 the leaders in Northern Ireland reached an agreement to create a new Northern Ireland Assembly, giving the Irish Republic (the Southern portion of the island) a say in the affairs of the North. In return, the Irish Republic agreed to cease efforts to reclaim the North. A British-Irish Council was also created to link Northern Ireland with Wales, Scotland, and England.
In Europe Blair took a more traditional stand. He was aware that many within the country disapproved of too much British involvement with other European countries. The country maintained its right to "opt-out" of certain provisions agreed to by other members of the European Union. It chose not to participate in the European Monetary Union at its creation in 1998. (That group was created to gradually phase in a new common currency that all of its members would use.) Other European politicians began to imitate Blair's policies, including Gerhard Schroeder (1944–) in Germany and Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok.
On May 20, 2000, Blair's wife, Cherie, gave birth to the couple's fourth child, Leo. The boy was the first child born to a serving British prime minister in 152 years. In the June 2001 elections Blair and the Labour Party won easily, marking the first time in the party's history that it won a second full term. Blair took on new duties after the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. He offered full support to the United States and its President, George W. Bush (1946–). Blair visited the leaders of more than seventy countries to seek their support in the war on terrorism, and he met often with President Bush to discuss the results of those meetings.
For More Information
Abse, Leo. Tony Blair. New York: Robson Books/Parkwest, 2002.
Hinman, Bonnie. Tony Blair. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2002.
Rentoul, John. Tony Blair. London: Warner Books, 1996.
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Tony Blair (Anthony Charles Lynton Blair), 1953–, British politician, b. Edinburgh. An Oxford-educated lawyer, he was first elected to Parliament in 1983 as the Labour party candidate from a district in N England. Articulate and telegenic, Blair rose quickly in the party organization. He was chosen as Labour's leader after the death (1994) of John Smith, even though he, unlike previous leaders, had no roots in the labor movement and rejected socialist doctrine. (His principal opponent for the post, Gordon Brown, stepped aside in deal that led to Brown's becoming chancellor of the exchequer in 1997.) As leader, he endeavored to reposition the party as a moderate center-left alternative to the Conservatives.
In 1997, when Blair led Labour to power for the first time since 1979, he became the youngest prime minister since the early 1800s. He moved quickly to implement a "third way" program, reducing Labour's traditional reliance on state action to address social problems; to establish elected representative bodies in Scotland and Wales; to negotiate peace in Northern Ireland; and to cooperate politically with the third-party Liberal Democrats. Internationally, Blair worked improve ties with other European Union nations while moving slowly, due in part to public and political resistance, on monetary union and adoption of the euro; in his first term, he also was an outspoken proponent of the use of NATO forces in the Kosovo crisis. Blair's critics, however, charged that he was more style than substance. Despite a lack of enthusiasm for Blair's leadership style, which many regarded as arrogant, voters again gave him and Labour a resounding victory at the polls in 2001, making him the first Labour prime minister to win to consecutive terms in office.
Following the Sept., 2001, attacks by terrorists in the United States, Blair gave America highly visible support, including the use of British military forces, in its retaliation against Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden. He also strongly supported the Bush administration in its insistence that Iraq readmit UN weapons inspectors and disarm or face military action and, despite opposition from the British public and in the Labour party to war with Iraq, he committed British troops to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. After the invasion, when biological and chemical weapons were not readily found in Iraq, he and his government were criticized for having exaggerated the threat that Iraq represented.
Iraq hurt Blair and Labour politically and led to a diminished margin of victory in the 2005 parliamentary elections, but Blair nonetheless secured a record third consecutive term for a Labour government. Under pressure from many in his party, Blair announced (2006) that he would resign as party leader and prime minister, and he did so in June, 2007. His terms as prime minister were marked by sustained economic growth, in part due to the policies of Gordon Brown, and by steady, if sometimes fitful, progress toward peace in Northern Ireland, but in other areas, such as education and health, improvements were minor at best, and the reform of the House of Lords was largely incomplete. Brown succeeded Blair as party leader and prime minister, and Blair subsequently resigned from Parliament. After Blair stepped down he became (2007–15) special envoy for the quartet (the European Union, Russia, the United States, and the United Nations) seeking to negotiate a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians. A convert (2007) to Roman Catholicism, he established (2008) a foundation to promote interfaith understanding.
See his memoirs (2010); biography by P. Stephens (2004); C. Coughlin, American Ally: Tony Blair and the War on Terror (2005).
"Blair, Tony." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 12, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/blair-tony
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Blair, Tony 1953-
Born on May 6, 1953, in Edinburgh, Scotland, Tony Blair was elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Sedgefield in 1983. He became leader of the Labour Party in 1994, and prime minister of the United Kingdom (UK) in 1997. He played a key role in resetting Labour Party policy in the early 1990s, a resetting designed to address three things: Labour’s inability to win general elections; the impact of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal policies on UK politics and society; and the need to reposition the United Kingdom in the new global age. Blair responded to four election defeats in a row by reaching out to median floating voters, and by making real and symbolic breaks with Labour’s previous policy stance. He responded to Margaret Thatcher’s powerful legacy by linking her passion for markets to Labour’s traditional commitment to social justice. He actively welcomed globalization as a trigger to UK economic competitiveness and as an arena in which a Labour government could play a more active and ethical role.
Blair led the Labour Party to three election victories in a row, the first two (1997, 2001) with huge majorities (179 and 167 seats in the House of Commons, respectively). The 1997 victory came after a relabeling of the Labour Party as New Labour, and the rejection of what had hitherto been many of Labour’s defining policies. Out went public ownership, “tax and spend” welfare policies, unilateral nuclear disarmament, and withdrawal from the European Union. In came private funds for public investment, a freeze on direct taxation, a welfare-to-work program, and a new pro-European ethical foreign policy.
Over time, New Labor under Blair traded increased spending on health and education for public service agreements linking resources to the achievement of rising performance targets. His government made extensive use of private funds for capital projects in the public sector, and increased the degree of market competition allowed between public service providers. Blair governments also developed social policies that traded rights for responsibilities, tackling social exclusion and child poverty while simultaneously toughening the criminal code, restricting immigration, and even punishing parents for the truancy of their children.
New Labour under Blair’s leadership played a crucial leadership role in the European response to the crisis in the Balkans, in the wake of which Blair spoke regularly of the need for the international community to be proactive to avoid crimes against humanity. Accordingly, he was the key architect of the broad coalition of support for the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; and, more controversially, he remained President George W. Bush’s main ally in the subsequent invasion of Iraq.
Blair’s final years in office were blighted by growing unease—in party circles and the wider electorate—with the consequences of privatization in the welfare sector and of his close alliance with the United States in Iraq. That unease was compounded by tensions with his chancellor of the exchequer over a deal, struck in 1994, that Blair would eventually cede the premiership to him. Relationships soured over time between the factions formed around each man, eventually forcing Blair reluctantly to announce that he would resign office in 2007.
SEE ALSO Iraq-U.S. War; Labour Party (Britain); Parliament, United Kingdom; Social Exclusion; Thatcher, Margaret
Coates, David. 2005. Prolonged Labour: The Slow Birth of New Labour Britain. Houndmills, U.K.: Palgrave.
Coates, David, and Joel Krieger. 2004. Blair’s War, Cambridge, U.K.: Polity.
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Born May 6, 1953
"Iraq has chemical and biological weapons."
Tony Blair quoted in "The Tony Blair Dossier."
Avocal opponent of Saddam Hussein (see entry), British Prime Minister Tony Blair aligned himself with U.S. President George W. Bush (see entry) and urged military action to prevent the Iraqi leader from developing weapons of mass destruction. Despite widespread international opposition to the war, Blair committed British military forces to the U.S.-led invasion and postwar stabilization of Iraq. When no evidence of an Iraqi weapons program was found after Hussein was removed from power, Blair defended himself against charges that he misled the British people about the Iraq threat.
A barrister's son
Anthony Charles Lynton Blair was born May 6, 1953, in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was the second of three children born to Leo and Hazel Blair. Leo Blair supported the family by working as a barrister (lawyer). When Tony was very young, his father received an appointment as a law lecturer at Durham University and moved the family to northern England.
At Durham, Tony's father became prominent in conservative political circles and seemed likely to run for public office as a member of the Tory Party. In addition to his teaching and political networking, Leo Blair maintained a law practice and was a popular public speaker. His energy and political ambition would prove an influence on his son. But Leo Blair also worked long hours and did not spend a great deal of time with his family.
Tony's life changed dramatically when he was ten years old. His father suffered a massive stroke and nearly died. It took three years for Leo Blair to regain his ability to speak. As a result, he was unable to work, and his once-promising political prospects came to a sudden end. The family was dealt a second blow when Tony's younger sister, Sarah, was stricken with rheumatoid arthritis and hospitalized for two years. These family illnesses cast a dark shadow over Blair's early adolescence. In addition, the family's finances clearly suffered as a result of his father and sister's health problems.
Learning and breaking the rules
Blair received a scholarship to attend Fettes College in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he enrolled at age thirteen. (Despite its name, the "college" offered courses similar to those in middle school and high school in the United States.) Blair did well in his studies but had a difficult time adjusting to dormitory life, as well as to the strict rules and traditions of the school.
For instance, in his early years at Fettes, Blair was required to "fag" for the older students, meaning that he had to perform chores for them, such as cleaning their shoes. Blair found the practice degrading, and he also disliked the school's strict guidelines about issues such as hair and dress. Blair earned a reputation for questioning authority, though he never let his protests go too far. "I was never an out-andout rebel," he recalled in Tony Blair: The Moderniser, "but I was a rationalist in the sense that, if certain things were wrong, I would say so." Blair also became known for his acting abilities, assuming lead roles in several school productions.
After completing his studies at Fettes, Blair moved on to St. John's College at Oxford University in 1972, where he studied law. Surprisingly, he showed little interest in joining political organizations while at Oxford. Instead, he filled much of his free time by dating and singing in a rock band. Shortly before he graduated, however, he fell in with a group of students who were interested in public affairs and religious issues. Blair soon joined the Anglican Church. His interest in spiritual concerns became stronger after his mother died of cancer in 1975. Her death also made Blair get serious about pursuing a career in politics.
Joining the Labour Party
Though his father had been a member of the conservative Tory Party, Blair joined the rival Labour Party, which had traditionally been aligned with trade unions and socialist politics. He began building relationships with important Labour officials while completing his law training. It was during this time that he met another aspiring barrister named Cherie Booth, and the two were married in 1980. Blair practiced law through the late 1970s and early 1980s, specializing in employment and industrial cases. Though he was active in Labour Party politics, he did not run for office until 1982. His first attempt to win a seat in Parliament (the British form of government) failed, but a year later he was elected as a representative for Sedgefield, an area near Durham.
At this time the Labour Party was fairing poorly in elections. The Tories, led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (see entry), were the party in power. Blair and others within his party felt that Labour needed to change its message if it wanted to reconnect with large numbers of British voters. The change that they pioneered was to move the party more toward the political center. They felt that many voters had turned against Labour because the party was out of touch with current conditions and too closely linked to powerful trade unions and outdated economic policies. At the same time, they wanted to keep their distance from the Tories, whom they felt were too conservative. Blair and his allies proposed a "Third Way" that fell somewhere between socialism and conservatism. (Socialism is an economic system that advocates communal ownership of industry either in the form of state ownership or else in the form of ownership by the workers themselves.) Blair would later coin the term "New Labour" to describe this change in outlook, and he and his associates became known as "the Modernisers." During the 1980s and early 1990s, these lawmakers gradually transformed Labour Party policies and attitudes.
Throughout this period, Blair retained his seat in parliament and moved steadily up the ranks of the party. He became a member of the select group that guided Labour's strategy as the opposition party. By the mid-1990s, he was considered one of the party's top figures. When Labour Party leader John Smith died in 1994, Blair replaced him. Under Blair's direction, the party cut its long-standing ties to socialist principles. In the May 1997 elections, the Labour Party won enough parliamentary seats to become the nation's ruling party. Blair, at age forty-three, became one of the youngest prime ministers in British history.
In his first term Blair promoted a political agenda that mixed liberal priorities (such as a strong public education system) with more conservative issues (such as reducing government restrictions on business and cracking down on crime). On the international front, he promoted stronger links between Great Britain and its European neighbors, helped establish a peace agreement in Northern Ireland, and urged the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to take action against Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who had presided over a violent program of "ethnic cleansing" in the Eastern European region of Kosovo. In June 2001 Blair won a second term as prime minister. Just a few months later, he faced a new international crisis.
Terror and war
On September 11, 2001, members of a radical Islamic terrorist group known as Al Qaeda hijacked four commercial planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon building near Washington, D.C., and a field in Pennsylvania. Nearly three thousand people were killed in these attacks. Immediately after these attacks against the United States, President George W. Bush announced a global war on terrorism that initially focused on Al Qaeda and other known terrorist organizations.
The September 11 attacks made international terrorism an enormous issue for Blair and many other world leaders. Blair quickly pledged his support for Bush's efforts to stamp out terrorism. By early October, British forces were fighting alongside American troops in Afghanistan. The Taliban, Afghanistan's radical Islamic government sheltered Osama bin Laden, the Muslim cleric (religious leader) who masterminded the terrorist attacks, and provided training grounds for Al Qaeda. The invasion of Afghanistan aroused little opposition in the United Kingdom because there was strong evidence showing that the Taliban had supported Al Qaeda.
But there was plenty of controversy when the global war on terrorism moved on to its next major engagement. Beginning in 2002 both U.S. and British officials issued new warnings that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein posed a dangerous threat to international security. They argued that Hussein had engaged in efforts to create nuclear and chemical weapons, and that he could either use such weapons himself or make them available to terrorist groups. Both governments threatened to use military force to bring an end to the perceived Iraqi threat.
Concerns about Saddam Hussein were nothing new. The Iraqi leader's decision to invade neighboring Kuwait had led to the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In this conflict, a United Nations (UN) coalition that included both the United States and Great Britain had pushed Iraq's army out of Kuwait. The UN resolutions, or formal statements, that ended the war required Iraq to dismantle its weapons program, but Hussein consistently refused to comply with UN inspections to verify Iraq's disarmament. Because Iraq failed to comply with the UN resolutions, it had been placed under economic sanctions (trade restrictions intended to punish a country for breaking international law). In addition, British and American forces carried out periodic aerial bombings and missile attacks against Iraqi targets throughout the 1990s.
The war debate
By 2002 the leaders of the United States and Great Britain were out of patience with Hussein. The Blair and Bush administrations pressured the United Nations to authorize the use of military force to remove Hussein from power in Iraq. Their position created a prolonged international debate. Critics charged that there was not enough evidence to prove that Hussein's government possessed weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical and biological weapons. Others argued that there were no clear links between Iraq and terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda. Some charged that Blair and Bush were using the alleged weapons as an excuse to exert control over a strategic and oil-rich area of the Middle East. While the governments of several nations sided with the American and British opinion, many others were opposed. Officials from France and Russia were among the most powerful and vocal critics of military action against Iraq.
Blair remained undaunted by the opposition, and he continued to recommend tough action against Hussein. On September 24, 2002, Blair released a dossier (file) of intelligence information detailing his administration's findings on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Blair addressed the British parliament on the same day to make his argument. "Iraq has chemical and biological weapons," he said, as quoted in "The Tony Blair Dossier." Blair also asserted that Saddam "has existing and active military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, which could be activated within 45 minutes," and added that the Iraqi leader "is actively trying to acquire nuclear weapons capability."
In November 2002 a new UN resolution demanded that Iraq disarm or face serious consequences. Hussein accepted the terms of the resolution and agreed to let UN weapons inspectors return to Iraq. As they carried out their investigations, the United States and Great Britain began to station military forces in the region near Iraq. Demonstrations against the impending war took place around the world. Massive protests were staged in London, and opinion polls showed that large numbers of British citizens were opposed to an attack on Iraq.
Reports by Chief UN Inspector Hans Blix in the first three months of 2003 were critical of Iraq's level of cooperation but also found no definite proof of a weapons program. Blix requested more time to complete the investigation, but Blair and Bush continued to push for military action. In February the United States and Great Britain requested another UN resolution, this one specifically authorizing the use of military force against Iraq. The resolution failed to gain the necessary support in the UN Security Council and was dropped.
The lack of UN support left Blair with tough decisions to make. He had to decide whether Great Britain should assist the United States in a military invasion of Iraq without widespread international support. He also had to decide whether to risk the lives of British citizens when so many people in his own country were opposed to the war. His answer to both questions was ultimately yes.
Victory and more questions
The invasion of Iraq began on March 20, 2003 (March 19 in the United States). The majority of British troops were deployed in the southern part of the country, near the city of Basra, which they successfully captured in early April. Most Iraqi towns had fallen to the coalition forces by mid-April, and major combat operations came to an end on May 1. The war had succeeded in removing Saddam Hussein's government from power, but the dictator's whereabouts were unknown.
Despite the rapid victory, the controversy surrounding the causes of the war refused to go away. In the months following the fall of Baghdad, the capital city, no substantial evidence of an active Iraqi weapons program was found. Critics charged that Blair's government had either been wrong in its intelligence assessments of Hussein's weapons programs, or that administration officials had purposefully misled Parliament and the British public.
The issue grew even more heated when a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) news story questioned the accuracy of the intelligence dossier Blair had presented to parliament in building his case for the war. The story alleged that the dossier had been exaggerated to make a more compelling case. It also quoted an arms expert with the Ministry of Defense who felt that inaccurate claims had been made in the documents. One point of contention was Blair's claim that Iraq's chemical and biological weapons could be functional in forty-five minutes.
The arms expert was later revealed to be Doctor David Kelly. Shortly after his name was made public, Kelly was found dead after allegedly committing suicide. An independent inquiry into the incident was launched. Meanwhile, spokespersons for the prime minister vigorously disputed the BBC's charges. In December 2003 a former Iraqi military officer declared that he had been the source for the forty-five-minute estimate. He stood by his claim, stating that such warheads had been distributed to Iraqi troops in late 2002.
The prime minister also faced criticism about the dangerous conditions in postwar Iraq. Though formal military battles came to an end in April, coalition forces continued to endure frequent attacks from guerrilla forces. In addition, nonmilitary installations in Baghdad, such as a hotel and the United Nations headquarters, were targeted in deadly car bombings. The coalition's inability to find Saddam Hussein also followed Blair for many months, until the Iraqi leader was finally captured by U.S. forces in December 2003. In late 2003 the U.S.-led coalition approved a plan to speed the transition to an Iraqi-controlled government, but no timetable was set for the removal of foreign troops. As of early December, fifty-three British soldiers had been killed in Iraq out of a total of 520 coalition deaths.
Opinion polls indicate that Blair's popularity in Britain has dropped as a result of the war. Some British citizens feel that Blair misled them about the Iraqi threat, and there have been widespread complaints that the prime minister is focusing too much attention on Iraq and other international issues and not paying enough attention to his own country. Nonetheless, Blair's government still enjoys significant support.
Despite the difficulties and uncertainty the Iraq War created, Blair stands by his decision to confront Saddam Hussein. "We must affirm that in the face of this terrorism there must be no holding back, no compromise, no hesitation in confronting this menace, in attacking it wherever and whenever we can, and in defeating it utterly," he told Fran Kelly of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Where to Learn More
Foley, Michael. The British Presidency. New York: Manchester University Press, 2000.
"In Depth: After Saddam." BBC News. Available online at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_depth/middle_east/2002/conflict_with_iraq/default.stm (accessed March 24, 2004).
Kelly, Fran. "Blair, Bush Reaffirm Vow to Confront Terrorism." ABC News Online. Available online at http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2003/s994099.htm (accessed March 24, 2003).
"Paper Names '45-minute Source.'" BBC News. Available online at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/3297771.stm (accessed March 24, 2004).
Rentoul, John. Tony Blair: Prime Minister. Boston: Little, Brown, 2001.
Sopel, Jon. Tony Blair: The Moderniser. London: Michael Joseph, 1995.
"Special Report: War in Iraq" CNN.com. Available online at http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2003/iraq/ (accessed March 24, 2004).
Stothard, Peter. Thirty Days: Tony Blair and the Test of History. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.
"The Tony Blair Dossier." Available online at http://controversy.biogs.com/blair.html (accessed March 24, 2004).
"Blair, Tony." War in the Persian Gulf Reference Library. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 12, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/defense/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/blair-tony
"Blair, Tony." War in the Persian Gulf Reference Library. . Retrieved January 12, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/defense/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/blair-tony