Blair's Legacy: Steeped in Disappointment? The decision by British Prime Minister Tony Blair to step down in June is already sparking assessments of Blair's tenure at 10 Downing Street. Blair's legacy is an ambiguous one, the London Times'Peter Riddell tells Robert Siegel. Riddell, who has written two books about the British leader, says Blair's is a story of disappointment.
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Blair's Legacy: Steeped in Disappointment?

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Blair's Legacy: Steeped in Disappointment?

Blair's Legacy: Steeped in Disappointment?

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So the man who heralded the triumph of new labor in Britain will likely leave No. 10 Downing Street an unpopular leader strongly identified with his advocacy of the war in Iraq. What legacy does he leave? Has Britain's Blair created some place that is uniquely Blair's Britain?

To address those questions, here's Peter Riddell - columnist for the British daily The Times and author of a Blair biographer. Peter Riddell, what do you think? How would you describe or write down the legacy of Tony Blair?

Mr. PETER RIDDELL (Columnist, London Times): I think it's ambiguous. On the one hand, as you said, there's Iraq, there's the closeness to George Bush - which made him very unpopular in Britain and the war was very divisive in Britain. On the other hand, a lot has spent on education, on health, on pensions, and his reduction in child and pension of poverty. So those are positives.

But at present, certainly, his ratings are very low. People who feel he's been prime minister for too long. He's promised a lot and delivered less. So he certainly goes out under a very dark cloud, a feeling of, well, it hasn't really worked out. But I think in the longer term, some of the legacies had to do with the way we fund our public services in Britain and some of that may endure because some that has also been accepted by the conservative opposition party.

SIEGEL: A couple of other points. This week, we saw a ceremony in Northern Ireland, confirmed developments that Blair's government was party to bringing about and that is a very serious development for Britain.

Mr. RIDDELL: Absolutely. And he was clearly extremely happy on Tuesday when he in Belfast alongside the Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness. In two opposite wings, this is a real success.

SIEGEL: On Europe, Tony Blair leaves Britain - well, British are not likely in your next election to be nearly so unhappy about their lot as the French were in their election this year.

Mr. RIDDELL: I think on Europe, there's been ambivalence. Britain has often an uneasy partner while it's been in the European Union, which is now over 34 years. When Tony Blair came in, promising to be very positive about Britain's place in Europe, that was undermined partly because he developed bad relations with Jacques Chirac who's just stepping down as France's president, and Gerhard Schroeder as German chancellor.

And funny how he gets so much better with Angela Merkel, even though she's on the center right. And one of the wishful things about Tony Blair, he was looking forward to working with Nicolas Sarkozy, the new French president. Hoping for a, kind of, troika of Sarkozy in France, Merkel in Germany and Blair in Britain. Well, it's going to be Gordon Brown, his successor, who develops that. But the fundamental issues of Britain's place in Europe remains unresolved.

SIEGEL: And yet, Britain is one of - today, one of the economic success stories of Europe.

Mr. RIDDELL: Well that's partly the irony because yes, it is. And indeed, president-elect Sarkozy in France has looked enviously across to Britain and pointed out that London is the seventh largest French city in the world because of so many French people working in London now.

But at the same time, Britain has not been part of one of the central European projects, which has been the euro, the same old currency, which now embraces 12, 13, 14 countries. So that shows, again, we're not quite the heart of Europe even if we did quite well on its periphery.

SIEGEL: Do you think that Tony Blair's policy on Iraq and his closeness to George W. Bush is part of a larger British alignment and Atlanticism that will now stick and that is a permanent legacy of his? Or, is Iraq just a peculiar one off issue that happened to attract Blair enthusiastic support?

Mr. RIDDELL: I'm going to distinguish two things there. In his attitude to working with the U.S. president, he was a very traditionally mold. Going back to Winston Churchill, Harold MacMillan who was very close to Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, to Margaret Thatcher with Ronald Reagan. He was terribly traditional in that way. The trouble was - it occurred at a time - when you had a U.S. administration, which is very unilaterist and was very hostile to Europe. That would create as his difficulties.

On Iraq, he was a believer in the existence of weapons of mass destruction, and the evils of Saddam way before George W. Bush became president, way before 9/11. And that's one of the things we're talking that's fully appreciated. He was very critical of Iraq a long time before the problem was. He didn't pause to say, well, do we have to go to war to contain Saddam, or can we just do it by tougher sanctions?

But I think the Iraq episode - well, Britons just hope it's exceptional on that respect. I think Gordon Brown, as successor, will not be as personally close to George W. Bush. But I don't see a dramatic change in British foreign policy at all.

SIEGEL: Well, now I know that it's really up to historians with the benefit of some passage of time to make historical judgments. But to simply speculate right now on what those judgments might be, do you think Tony Blair's going to be remembered as one of the great prime ministers of contemporary Britain, like Churchill or Clement Attlee for that matter, or is he in the lower tier, do you think, of the national leaders?

Mr. RIDDELL: To use a very British, formally, he'd be in the upper middle tier. I think the view of Tony Blair would be that he transformed his own party to make it electable in a way it never been before.

The Labor became a party of government. He did some very big changes to public services, some which I think would last. I think those will be more appreciated. But fundamentally, he didn't achieve as much as he should have done.

It is a story of disappointment. He had enormous political of opportunities after his first two elections. And (Unintelligible) were derailed by Iraq. Just at the time, he had a plan for what he wanted to do. His political authority was undermined and his energy was distracted by Iraq.

So I think people will say it's a disappointment. It's not a big a change as someone with his political advantages should have achieved.

SIEGEL: Well, Peter Riddell, thank very much for talking with us.

Mr. RIDDELL: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

SIEGEL: That's political columnist Peter Riddell of The Times in London. He's also the author of "The Unfulfilled Prime Minister: Tony Blair's Quest for a Legacy.

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