The Prime Minister of Britain has finally resigned his leadership of the Labour Party. Over the last 10 years, he has managed to present himself as a flexible politician while choosing politics over policy.
When elected, Tony Blair promised to be a grand modernizer in Britain. Everything was slated for wholesale change: the House of Lords, the National Health Service and its administrative burden, devolution of power to regional legislatures and the festering sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland. He embarked upon a dual-track foreign policy of being an EU partner while maintaining a special relationship with the United States, or a self-appointed broker between EU and U.S. Finally, he set out to make Britain the least regulated economy in the EU, as a destination for European investment akin to Hong Kong.
Many achievements are indeed noteworthy over the last 10 years, and the settlement of the Northern Ireland matter merits praise. In respect to other issues, however, Britain had no choice but to modernize its old-fashioned methods. Many of those domestic programs remain half-finished. Britain appears to be a dual-tracked nation divided between Greater London and the Southeast in one economic zone and the rest of the country lagging behind in the slow lane. The “London Ghetto” is essentially an island full of foreign nationals “in transit” in a buzzing financial center of deal makers and investment bankers, a lax regulatory and tax refuge for foreign money, and a de facto clearing house for deals with Russia and its former satellite states. The other 50 million or so of the population, however, remain burdened with heavy consumption taxes (especially for fuel) and higher prices than the EU average (from cars to electricity, natural gas, and food). This economic scenario is entangled within puzzling developments in the nation’s social fabric, prone to homegrown extremists in the Midlands, periodic riots, and a widening gap in education and social skills. In practice the strong pound, and thus high manufacturing costs, is now a realistic barrier against incoming jobs, even though labor and investment rules are less rigid than continental Europe. Ireland has managed to trump Britain as the high tech capital and a center for skilled multilingual software writers in Europe.
And it remains to be seen whether the shift of British foreign policy bias -- from supporting the Muslim world to being a strong proponent of Israel -- was a product of Blair era politics or a permanent change. That could certainly complicate matters. The Iraq war is still in progress, and at best, it is unlikely to have a clear or favorable outcome for at least another 10 to 15 years. The British military budget is stretched thin and the Chancellor of the Exchequer does not have the budgetary resources to fund a long-running active war. (Parliament reminded Blair of that fact when it voted against the modernization of the nuclear arsenal.)
General elections are around the corner. The results of local elections on May 6 served as an unmistakable signal of disenchantment on the Labour Party. Moreover, and at this late stage of an exceptionally long economic boom, a tax increase to support a long war is unlikely.
A fair assessment of British foreign policy, if it can be isolated from other half-finished domestic projects of the Blair period, will probably conclude that Tony Blair experimented with diverse concepts and spun the media with a forceful intention to put style above substance. He adopted Clinton’s “Third Way” methodology early on and eventually converted to a hardened church pupil with “conservative values,” if only to please Washington and the apocalyptic fayre. Most observers of British politics will probably conclude that Blair tried to mirror and mimic the methods of Margaret Thatcher. However, he is likely to be remembered as one who sacrificed structured party principles for a series of short-term gains pushed with media spin. The net result is that Britain has distanced itself from its EU partners but has not gained an equal vote for itself in Washington, where it is regarded as a junior partner in a mixed bag of costly endeavors.
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