Britain Holds Tony Blair Accountable for Problems
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Throughout the drama of the terror arrests, the search for guns in forests and more, Prime Minister Tony Blair has been on vacation in the Caribbean. He can of course stay in touch just as President Bush can at his Crawford ranch. But as the investigation has continued in Britain, accusations against Blair have grown.
Amid the Muslim population and beyond it, voters are saying Blair's policies - especially his support for the Iraq War - have caused Britain problems.
NPR's Rob Gifford reports from London.
ROB GIFFORD reporting:
When Tony Blair met Bill Clinton in 1998, the British press was full of articles about the similarities between the two of them. They were both baby-boomers. There was the Oxford connection. They were both smart, left-of-center, quick-tongued politicians obsessed with public opinion polls and focus groups. How times have changed.
That same Tony Blair is now being accused not of watching the polls too much, but too little - and of pushing through his own policies without regard for public opinion.
Wyn Grant of the University of Warwick thinks that it just took time for the real Tony Blair to emerge.
Mr. WYN GRANT (University of Warwick): I think Blair has always been a person who has had strong personal convictions. But Labor was really very insecure in the approach to 1997. They'd been out of office for so long that actually winning the election, securing power and remaining in power, you know, became the first priority.
But as time went on they saw that, really, that wasn't sufficient - that they were fairly secure in power, anyway. And, therefore, I think that Blair's own personal convictions came to the surface rather more.
GIFFORD: As Blair's personal convictions came to the surface, though, so his popularity ratings began to dive - especially because of the move towards war with Iraq. Soon he began to sound less like Bill Clinton and more like his new ally, George Bush.
Prime Minister TONY BLAIR (Great Britain): I do not seek unpopularity as a badge of honor. But sometimes it is the price of leadership, and it is the cost of conviction.
GIFFORD: That might have been fine if things had turned out well in Iraq. But as far as many of the British general public concerned, they haven't. And so Blair's convictions of what is right have been ridiculed.
Observers say he won his third term in office last year only because the opposition was in disarray, and because the British public has been anesthetized by the prosperity of the last decade.
Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible) what are you doing?
GIFFORD: Blair's conversation with George Bush in Moscow that wasn't supposed to be recorded fueled the fire as Bush appeared to treat his ally with disrespect. Certainly on the streets of the British capital today, there was plenty of anger at Blair's so-called politics of conviction from Londoners such as Bill Camp(ph) and Mark Bolson(ph).
Mr. BILL CAMP: I think he actually is a bit of a puppet to the States, and I think that's his downfall. If anything, that's going to be his downfall. When America says jump, he asks how high. And that's wrong. We're our own country in our own right.
Mr. MARK BOLSON: Oh, he's very economical with the truth. You don't actually know what the truth is, particularly with the war in Iraq. Actually, I'm not sure I trust him all that much.
GIFFORD: And that is a big problem because trust me, I'm an honest guy was everything that Blair was about. After nine years in power, comparisons are inevitably being drawn between Blair and the other long-lasting prime minister of recent times, Margaret Thatcher.
Mr. GRANT: There's a valid comparison on two levels with Margaret Thatcher. First of all, Margaret Thatcher is someone for whom Tony Blair has a great deal of admiration. And he thinks that, you know, many of the things that she did were important and necessary.
But I think also, like Margaret Thatcher, he is very much a conviction politician. He is in politics to change things. He is not in politics to just manage the political process. He wants to make a difference. And he's not particularly concerned, I think, about personal popularity. So in a sense, he has become more isolated from public opinion and even from his own supporters within the Labor Party.
GIFFORD: Tony Blair continues to insist there is no link between the plots against Britain and his own foreign policy. But as the country reels from fallout of another plot - apparently foiled this time - many Blair supporters have become disillusioned with the politics of conviction that guided the prime minister towards war.
Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.