O dear, Iím afraid there is no escape. I really canít avoid writing about Tony Blair and the longest goodbye in history. I imagine that the public tolerance level for comebacks and further goodbyes by ageing singing stars, Frank Sinatra and his ilk, must be drastically reduced in the case of politicians. So perhaps the prime minister feels that he has to drag the whole thing out for the sake of his adoring public. If that is the case, I fear he forgets the Iraqi elephant in the room and is sadly deceived. The only thing stopping the population cheering his departure to the rafters is the thought of dour and, more importantly, unelected Gordon Brown stepping into the hotseat and making us squirm with his vain attempts to become warm and cuddly. A natural gift for communication ó and no one can say that Blair does not have that, it is his gift and stock in trade ó is not a skill that can be learned.
Gordon would do well to stick with fostering real respect for his serious intellect and very Scottish sense of Calvinistic work ethic and probity, dumping at the outset any attempt to be loved or even liked. We want to respect politicians anyway, but their recent desire to fit into the culture of celebrity and get cosy with their constituency, rather than representing its voice and people to the best of their ability in national and international forums, has crumbled the pedestal of good but disinterested government. We are lucky, at least, that most political scandals from the Sixties to the 21st century have been more about sexual peccadilloes than major misappropriation and corruption. But the last Conservative government, and ultimately Blairís New Labour, have managed to appear distinctly seedy at times. Somehow the prime ministerís revolting toadying to the United States of America has become expectable, if not ever acceptable.
I used to know Tony Blair fairly well in the days before 1997 and in the early days of his premiership. Iíve probably said this before, but I am still quite certain that he was then the genuine article. He believed in what he said and he was determined and indeed carried the country with him in his certainty of making a difference. He was unique among heavyweight politicians too in his ability to listen to the views of others. Real politics and the pressures of the world stage cannot have destroyed those beliefs and that certainty entirely. But they have been warped, ultimately and most memorably by the compulsions of making an unjust war and being forced continually to justify it to an unforgiving public.
Aside from that, and this is something I have harped on about ad nauseam, government by a tight Downing Street clique, policies appearing in a carefully orchestrated press before or bypassing proper parliamentary debate and procedure have not gone down well even with those for whom politics is of little interest. That may be part of the problem. Blair and his crew made absolutely certain that we were all aware of the endless new policies and proposals pouring out of Downing Street, not out of Parliament, where, in the past, all had been seen to be done by our democratically elected representatives for good or ill. In contemporary government, the lowly back-benchers, who are those representatives, have become irrelevant.
In fact, had Blairís governance continued as successfully as much of the early new legislation, had there not been seen to be a too obvious and unattractive alternative form of government, and had Iraq not happened, the administration in this country might have metamorphosed quite cleverly and quietly into an entirely new form. Well, dictatorships and oligarchies, of the Florentine variety rather than the contemporary Russian style, usually did achieve results, albeit with alarmingly ruthless methods. 9/11 could have been the catalyst here for more dictatorial and less representative government on grounds of national security.
As it was, that happened only to a minor extent as prime ministerial attention was caught by the fervour of propagating a Ďjustí, almost religious, foreign war on entirely spurious grounds, hand in hand with the most powerful and most scary ruler in the world. Blairís bizarrely personal relationship with George Bush, based on everybody supporting everyone else doing the wrong thing, appears even more damaging to his image than their mutual activities on the world stage.
It bears mentioning that everything that was happening during Blair Rule might have been different if there had been any viable opposition to Labour. Numbers were clearly against them, but a Conservative leader of greater calibre and presence than any that materialized during the last ten years could have made his or her dissenting voice heard both in and outside parliament. William Hague had the skills but not the image, Ian Duncan Smith was frankly ridiculous, and Michael Howard is creepy. None of them really decided which way to jump on important international matters until after the event, and none had a hope of standing up to the persuasive charms of the peopleís prime minister, even when we knew things were going wrong.
Ignoring for a moment Iraq screaming in the corner, what are the other overriding memories of the last ten Blair years' First of all, the overwhelming thrill and relief of the Labour landslide in 1997, the excitement as we looked towards a transformed future with a Ďcan doí young government; equality for all; a new and secure future for an ageing population; new opportunities and health security through an improved National Health Service; and, more importantly perhaps for our children, improved and more inclusive education targeted towards 21st-century careers.
Vast amounts of money have been pumped into both health and education during this government and have had an effect. The NHS has benefited in terms of salaries, services and shortened waiting lists; improved care for diseases like cancer and heart diseases. Education standards have risen, but still the public perception of both services remains low ó NHS hospitals are still understaffed and fears of antibiotic-resistant hospital infections prevail, and there is still not enough in public education to cater either for the poorest or for the least academically able.
Climate change has edged forward from a relatively back-row position in the public consciousness in 1997, and is liable to cause Gordon Brown more of a headache than it did Tony Blair. Missed green targets and a sense among the public that, as a result, their cheap foreign holidays and rubbish production are being made scapegoats for much greater issues of climate change should make the green agenda redhot by the next election. Poverty and child poverty levels, pivotal issues to New Labour in terms of more targets, have not apparently reduced, they may even have risen and so it goes on through other policies, more legislation and always more goals. In the end, the fanfared focus on goals has focused the public eye precisely on what has not been achieved even when great forward strides have been made ó big mistake.
The most extraordinary success has been in the return of peace and power-sharing to Northern Ireland. The Reverend Ian Paisley is an old man and I donít know what his expectations of his lifetime were, but I seriously would have doubted in mine, which hopefully will go on a bit longer than his, to see Ulster Unionist and Sinn Fein leaders laughing together over a tea break in the newly shared seat of Northern Irish government at Stormont. The desire for continuing peace and future prosperity in Ireland really does seem this time to be built on strong foundations.
So there we all are. A bit battered and bruised from the constant battle for goals at home and alternately energized or enervated by continual action and change. We are, I hope, unhappy about a government that can override the voice of the people in parliament, and ultimately bitter and reduced from our leaderís eager involvement in a war built on misinformation, lies and half-truths. Tony Blair will get more than a passing mention in history, his imprint on this country and in the international arena are inescapably apparent. Things may look different with hindsight, and a judgment on his leadership may change in the light of events in the Middle East in the future, and the fulfilment or failure of the last few yearsí domestic policy over the next few. We will observe with interest and may find, if we can exclude the Iraq debacle from the frame, that we would rather look back than look forward with Gordon Brown and whatever may come after or defeat him.
Roll on a general election though, I think the country needs a say in choosing any new prime minister, whoever he or she may be.