Entirely by chance, I happened to be in England when Prime Minister Tony Blair announced his forthcoming resignation. A long-planned trip coincided with the least well-kept secret in the United Kingdom's recent political life: Blair's stepping down as Labour Party leader after 10 exceedingly mixed and increasingly rancorous years. Observing the British system in action provided a contrast with the current American political paralysis.
Commenting on another country's politics is hazardous for an infrequent visitor. Even so, one thing seems clear. Despite his enormous political talent and important domestic accomplishments, Blair will exit widely disliked, if not despised, by what commentators call "Middle England."
Partly geographical, partly sociological, the term refers to voters mainly in the prosperous counties around London, i.e., people whose class and political identity wasn't determined at birth. Basically, Blair and "New Labour" won Middle England's loyalty in 1997 by promising to mitigate the harshness of Margaret Thatcher's Tory regime without socialist excesses.
Mostly, they succeeded. Enacting minimum-wage laws Tories warned would wreck the economy (sound familiar?) helped lead to the longest, deepest economic growth in Britain's history. By so doing, Blair altered the national political conversation, perhaps permanently.
"The fact is," wrote Polly Toynbee in The Guardian, "after Tony Blair, no party can be elected without espousing Labour's progressive social policies. All must promise generous spending on health and schools, pensions, childcare and families. Blair has set benchmarks no future government dare retreat from. NHS (National Health Service) waiting lists must keep falling; exam results must keep rising. Progress is hard-wired across the political spectrum, where it used to be stop-go."
Even Blair's keenest rivals praised his role in settling "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland. Immediately before his farewell speech, Blair had flown to Belfast to witness the formal acceptance of a power-sharing agreement between once-embittered Protestant and Catholic leaders nobody thought they'd live to see. IRA terrorist bombs killed far more Londoners within living memory, it's worth recalling, than Islamists.
Few in Britain, and nobody in Ireland, it's safe to say, have forgotten President Clinton's crucial role in getting the Belfast peace process going.
Everybody acknowledges Blair's manifest gifts. Former Tory leader William Hague wrote that "try as I might, I cannot actually dislike him." Like many British pundits, Hague marveled at Blair's unique ability "to turn an audience, escape from disaster, and, Clinton-style, to empathise simultaneously with differing and even irreconcilable points of view."
Ironically, those very skills led directly to Blair's demise. True, accumulating financial scandals, most notably the appearance of auctioning peerages (and seats in the House of Lords) to the highest political contributor, chipped away at the prime minister's popularity. Yet there's little mystery where he lost Middle England's support: He lost it in America.
Even Blair's warmest supporters concede his absolute folly in putting his faith in George W. Bush, turning himself into the Iraq war's most (some would say only) articulate spokesman. Greatly esteeming thespian skills, the British no sooner concluded that their prime minister had lied to them about Iraq, than they resented all the more how very articulately he'd done so.
At first, Blair reacted to 9/11 with the same sure instincts that guided his response to the death of Princess Diana during his first months as prime minister. As he'd helped save the royal family from itself by dubbing Diana the "people's princess" and embracing their sorrow, so he vowed to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with the Bush administration come what may.
So long as that involved sending British troops into Afghanistan along with U.S. and NATO forces in pursuit of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, the prime minister's actions were both broadly popular at home and deeply appreciated by Americans. It's no exaggeration to say that Blair's ability to articulate ideals Bush could only mumble about made him a trans-Atlantic TV star.
Blair's lack of experience in America, however, thinks British author Jonathan Freedland, left him dangerously "ill-equipped to realise quite what an aberrational, and ideologically extreme administration he was dealing with under Bush. He underestimated what the neoconservative project amounted to —and underestimated, too, his power to resist it."
All the rest is bitterly remembered history. The so-called "dodgy dossier," revealing the fraudulence of evidence Blair had described as "beyond doubt" about Saddam Hussein's nonexistent WMDs, the suicide of the government official outed for leaking it, the infamous "Downing Street Memo" cautioning the prime minister in 2002 that in Washington "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" of invading Iraq, these and subsequent revelations lost Middle England's trust and esteem for Blair so completely that no fine speeches could possibly bring them back.
On the telly, the most frequent comment from ordinary Brits was what a shame it was that so gifted a man turned out so comprehensive a liar.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a national magazine award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2007, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.