The wave of popularity that carried him to 10 Downing Street ten years ago has crashed on the shoals of public discontent; yet Tony Blair is still standing.
The British prime minister has announced that he will resign on June 27. Ironically accused of both zealotry and servility, Blair has been a true leader to the British people, always acting on his beliefs. Unfortunately, public opinion has washed Blair’s approval rating—once a record high of 82 percent, now a low of 26 percent—out with the tide. But Blair has stuck to his beliefs, even when the public has grown impatient waiting for results, and history will remember him as a wise leader who tried to steer a reluctant populous onto the right course.
When Blair became prime minister in 1997, he sought to remedy Britain’s rusty socialist state, incurring the wrath of the powerful labor unions. He resisted pressure from the Trades Union Congress—whose members constitute a significant chunk of the Labour party—for repeal of anti-union laws. Union workers demanded that Blair lift prohibitions on secondary picketing, whereby people picket venues unrelated to their protest, such as the private homes of a company’s management; but Blair did not bend.
Still, Blair’s foreign policy destroyed his popularity. His detractors dubbed him "Bush’s poodle" for his support of the U.S. mission in Iraq. But his critics are unduly cynical, missing that it was Blair’s belief that drove his policy, not vice versa—he supported the mission in Iraq not to please President Bush, but to confront the spread of terrorism. He has long advocated a greater role for Britain in international affairs: He sent British troops to Kosovo to stop ethnic genocide, he traveled to Sierra Leone to help end its civil war, and he continues to support NATO’s mission in Afghanistan to stamp out the Taliban.
Opponents complain that Blair’s partnership with Bush left Britain empty-handed. At the Conservative conference last October, Opposition leader David Cameron asserted, "We must be steadfast, not slavish, in how we approach the special relationship [with the U.S.]."
These grumblers ignore the profound influence that Blair had over Bush. Most notably, he pressured Bush to act on global warming, and despite popular belief, Bush indeed changed his stance. In 2001, Bush withdrew the U.S. from the Kyoto treaty and then remained quiet on climate change for years. In contrast, The Observer reported this past January that a month after speaking with Blair about climate change, Bush announced his plan to cut U.S. consumption of oil by 20 percent in 10 years in his State of the Union. Blair, because of his close relationship with the President, was able to influence his position on global warming, an area where they disagreed. Blair has never been Bush’s poodle.
The public routinely marvels over leaders who refuse to bow to conventional wisdom. Critics claim such "stubbornness" is the tragic flaw of a popular leader, but in fact, such fortitude is the welcome sign of a true leader. Public opinion may change on a whim—it faces no consequences—but a leader’s decisions affect an entire country. That leader is stubborn when he refuses to change a failed policy, but he is spineless when he changes his personal beliefs to curry favor with the public.
Prime Minister Blair has stumbled in his choice of policies, but he has never wavered in his beliefs, even under immense pressure. For that courage, history will remember him; and posterity may one day mark his premiership as the high tide of "New Labour."
Brian J. Bolduc ’10, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Weld Hall.