A man with luggage in his hands shoves aside other passengers to board a train that is about to leave the platform. He manages to board, and
as the train makes it to its destination, he finds himself, along with his wife,
stranded as his car is not there to pick him up. His wife is getting anxious and enquires, "Where is it?" He has no answer, but a BMW approaches. He thinks this is it,
approaches the driver, but is informed that he is mistaken. An approaching Vauxhall honks, signalling that his transport has finally arrived. Relieved, he beckons his wife and off they go.
This was Tony Blair, the Prime Minister of Great Britain till a few days back, who after submitting his resignation to the Queen was travelling to his constituency to inform his loyal followers of the last two decades that he will be leaving domestic politics to try his hand at international peace-making. It was indeed extraordinary to watch one of the most powerful men in the UK becoming bereft of all power so swiftly after moving out of 10 Downing Street, unable even to get a car on time for his transport. But power in parliamentary democracies is a fickle mistress and so it should be if democracy is to have a real meaning.
Yet, make no mistake, Blair did indeed go with a bang. He chose the time and place of relinquishing power on his own terms and just two years back was voted back to power for a third time, even when the debate over Iraq was turning acrimonious. In an unprecedented gesture, the UK House of Commons gave Blair a standing ovation after he muttered his last words in there, "And that is that: the end." It was a recognition from his friends and foes alike that tainted though he might be by the Iraq fiasco, Blair remains one of the most successful politicians that Britain has produced in recent times. Try as they might, his detractors can’t push his accomplishments under the carpet, especially as the threat of radical Islamist forces has come to haunt Britain in recent days. Even those Britons who had begun to distrust every word of Blair had to concede that the threat from radical Islam remains as potent as ever, something of which Blair had been warning his country for the last few years.
Of course, Blair’s lasting legacy is there for all to see in the form of his Conservative opponent, David Cameron, who has paid Blair his biggest compliment by moving his party to the centre. Tony Blair has made sure that elections in Britain from now on will be fought on the centre ground. The extremes on both the left and the right have been relegated to the margins.
Blair made it clear to one and all that economic growth and social inclusion are not incompatible. One of the fastest growing economies in the world, Britain today is also a more confident and socially progressive society than when Blair assumed power. Blair government undertook some of the most politically difficult tasks as it embarked on the journey to restructure British public services, be they health or education. The journey is not yet complete and much remains to be done but Blair showed his successors that sometimes in politics difficult choices are also the ones that voters want their leaders to make.
The big issues in British politics today are all, in one way or another, the ones that have been defined by Blair. The restructuring of public services, the disparity between the rich and the poor, crime, environmental issues, multiculturalism, and of course liberal interventionism are the issues that animate British populace today and all of them have been shaped by Blair’s leadership. Blair led from the front, and even when the British public was not particularly supportive, had the courage of his convictions to have his ideas out in the open to be debated and refined. He took intellectual and politics risks and often paid the price but never shirked from his responsibility as a leader.
On domestic issues, he has laid down the benchmarks and despite his successor, Gordon Brown, entering office claiming that "let the work of change begin," all major political forces in the country know that they will be operating within the parameters set by Tony Blair. It is on the issue of Iraq that both the Labour and the Conservatives would want to prove that they are different from Blair. But the irony is that even here Blair has outdone them. He already announced a drawing down of British troops in Iraq a few months back. And this he did while the US was announcing its plans for a new "surge" in Iraq, belying once again the claims of his critics that he had been a poodle of George Bush. There is little that Gordon Brown can do now as far as Iraq is concerned. If he decides to withdraw completely, it would not only be seen as an irresponsible move but might also jeopardize Britain’s ties with the US, something that even he has conceded remains central to British foreign policies.
But there is also a larger issue that British policy-makers will have to squarely address. So long as Tony Blair was there, the anger of the anti-war crowd was directed against him on Iraq. But it was this same crowd that cheered him when he fashioned an aggressive liberal interventionist agenda for Britain, Europe, and the West. Long before, George Bush appeared on the global stage, Tony Blair was calling for the use of force against tyrannical, genocidal regimes. In one of his famous speeches in Chicago in 1999, he declared "We are all internationalists now." He led the international community’s actions against the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevich and used British forces in Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. The liberals in the West were all for such actions and found in Blair a true champion of their ideas.
Iraq has confounded most ideological categories and has shattered a lot of myths about the use of force but the truth is that liberal interventionist agenda remains a potent one in Britain and in the West at large. While there might be a lot of temptation to refute Blair’s legacy by disowning his interventionist agenda, it’s a choice that British foreign policy elite cannot make easily. Again, Blair has succeeded in leaving his imprimatur on an issue that might be his most controversial legacy. His legacy in British and European foreign policy is also more significant than Iraq. He was successful in putting Africa and its issues at the centre of British foreign policy. This was particularly true in the way he forced the G-8 to address the issue of global poverty by providing debt relief to the most needy countries and increasing their share of aid. He was also one of the first world’s leaders to see the importance to engaging emerging states, particularly China and India, more substantively. He forced the EU to take India more seriously, almost on the same plane as China and pushed for China and India’s inclusion in major global organizations and meetings.
As Blair moves away from public glare, "Blairism" lives on and, in all probability, will thrive under Brown and Cameron. That’s the biggest tribute one can expect in public life even though one might have to wait a bit longer for one’s own transport once out of office.
Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College, London.