The release of Tony Blair’s memoirs this morning has returned him to the front pages, but in truth he has rarely been out of them, whether for his donation to the Royal British Legion provoking criticism, or calls for another Iraq-related inquiry. What is surprising about today’s Blair is the intensity of criticism he attracts from the left. While most of the criticism from the right can be explained as sour grapes, one would have assumed that his three successive election victories would have earned him at least some grudging respect from his own side.
Of course, one has to concede that some of his critics do have a point. Blair’s post-office involvement in various business projects gives the impression that he is overly concerned with making money. Even his strongest supporters would agree that some of the decisions he made in office, such as the failure to close tax loopholes, the constant NHS reorganisations and the introduction of top-up university fees were wrong. It was also inevitable that his decision to follow in the foreign policy footsteps of Ernest Bevin, rather than those of Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock, would provoke controversy given that Labour has always been divided between muscular liberals, internationalists and non-interventionists.
However, Blair’s ten years in office also saw some substantial achievements. The national minimum wage and Sure Start are two of many examples of solidly left-of-centre policies that improved the lives of working families. Labour’s unprecedented electoral success forced the Conservatives to change their tone. For instance, the coalition has been forced to commit to “an NHS that is free at the point of use and available to everyone based on need, not the ability to pay” and to “guarantee that health spending increases in real terms in each year of the Parliament”. Although it remains to be seen whether this promise will be kept, such a pledge would have been inconceivable from the Conservatives of the 1990s.
One has to question the selective outrage of Blair’s critics. There has been little discussion about John Major’s City directorships and string of London properties. Similarly, few complained that the millions that Margaret Thatcher made from her memoirs went straight into her pocket. While many on the left…