New Labour Revisited

“A new dawn has broken, has it not?” was Tony Blair’s first question to the country after
securing a landslide 179-seat majority in May 1997. Britain was buzzing; the Cold War
was over, the country was experiencing a cultural revival with popular culture
celebrating this new sense of ‘Britishness’ (we all remember the significant cultural
moment that was Geri Halliwell in that Union Jack dress!) and the youthful, slick new
Prime Minister representing a ‘New Labour’ positioned himself as a key part of this
movement, wanting to be Britain’s first “rock and roll prime minister” (BBC,
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-39717751
). His new cabinet was diverse, with
more women than ever and the first openly gay politician being given a cabinet role
(https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/tony-blair-1997-new-labour-jeremy-corbyn-
general-election-theresa-may-blairites-a7712816.html )
. Many felt that Blair was leading
Britain into the new millennium, and a new age.

So, given the Blair-mania of the late 1990s and his immense electoral victories, many
are wondering why the situation now looks so different. In 25 years, the transformation
of Tony Blair’s public image has been dramatic. The man who, in the wake of Princess
Diana’s death, was referred to as “Mr 93%” after party polls showed him as the most
popular democratic leader in modern history (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/blair-
is-mr-93-1241567.html
), is now facing a petition with over a million signatures to strip
him of his recently bestowed title of “Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the
Garter”. What legacy did Mr “Call me Tony” leave behind, and should he really have
been granted one of the highest honours this country can award?

If you talk to anyone who was around during Blair’s premiership, it is likely they will
mention one thing. Not, as he said himself, that his “top priority was, is and always will
be education” (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2001/may/23/labour.tonyblair ). Not that he oversaw increased investment in social services and education, a rise in
minimum wage, or his role in the formation of the devolved governments. One thing
which has arguably tarnished Blair’s legacy forever, was the Iraq war.

It was the early 2000s and the memory of 9/11 was still extremely raw. Britain’s most
powerful ally, led by George W Bush, was on the warpath with their ‘War on Terror”.
Rumours were spreading that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction
that could cause catastrophic damage .Blair maintained throughout the debate over Iraq that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, declaring to Parliament that the “regime is despicable, he is developing weapons of mass destruction” and Saddam was “a threat to his own people” and to the world (https://www.france24.com/en/20100129-what-tony-blair-has-said-wmd-iraq ). He used this argument that Iraq posed a significant danger as a way of persuading Parliament to back the invasion, despite immense public pressure against it.

Despite the UN finding no evidence of WMDs in Iraq and many countries opposing the
invasion, in March 2003, the US-led troops invaded. Soon enough however, assurances
that Iraq posed an imminent threat to our way of life began to crumble. Investigations later outlined that the evidence the government used to justify the attacks was unreliable, and Tony Blair’s image as a modern statesman began to dissipate, with public opinion turning and his popularity plummeting.

Even after his resignation, questions about Blair’s conduct as Prime Minister continued with the Chilcot report in 2016 provided a scathing criticism, highlighting that he was not transparent with ministers, and that in 2003 Iraq did not propose an imminent threat
(https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/jul/06/chilcot-exposes-how-blair-kept-
ministers-and-generals-in-the-dark
). Looking back, it seems that Tony Blair strayed a
long way from the “rock and roll” Prime Minister of 1997.

Overall, Tony Blair has become a divisive figure in British history. The same nostalgia
attached to previously controversial political figures such as Margaret Thatcher is not
granted to him, with him lacking a loyal support base that have remained committed to
preserving his legacy. Only 14% of Britons approve of his knighthood, and only 21% of
Labour voters (https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/polling/2022/01/how-unpopular-is-tony-blair

Despite Blair’s role in revitalising Labour’s electoral appeal and championing ‘NewLabour’, I am cynical of such an important honour being bestowed on someone just for
being Prime Minister. His support for the invasion ultimately led to a long, violent conflict
that caused significant loss of life and destabilised a region that has never really
recovered. His dishonesty depicts him as a mysterious, shady figure who is quite hard
to defend. There are so many people in Britain who have done countless brave things,
or dedicated their lives to serving others, that it makes a mockery of the Honours for
such a controversial figure to be celebrated.

— Ciara Howard

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