STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
NPR's Rob Gifford looks back at a decade of Tony Blair.
ROB GIFFORD: When he first came into power, Tony Blair's nickname in the British press was Bambi, with his wide-eyed idealism, earnest smile, and openly Christian values. Blair had brought the old Labour Party of trades unions, nationalized industries and left-wing politics into the center, put a middle-class smile on its face and made it electable again. There was an infectious optimism in the air when he addressed the crowds on the morning of his election as prime minister in May 1997.
TONY BLAIR: A new dawn has broken, has it not?
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
BLAIR: And it is wonderful. We have been elected as New Labour and we will govern as New Labour.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
GIFFORD: Governing as New Labour meant a new approach to politics and the creation of Cool Britannia for a start.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T LOOK BACK IN ANGER")
LIAM GALLAHER: (Singing) Slip inside the eye of your mind.
GIFFORD: Brit pop was king. The rock stars of Oasis and other celebrities attended Downing Street parties in a way unthinkable under Margaret Thatcher. Soon though Tony Blair was being praised for his statesmanship as well, not least in his response to the death of Princess Diana, and perhaps most of all in Northern Ireland, where he oversaw the Good Friday Agreement and which over the last 10 years is seen by many as one of his most enduring legacies.
BLAIR: A day like today, I mean it's not a day for the soundbites, really. We can leave those at home. But I feel the - I feel the hand of history upon our shoulder.
GIFFORD: That was classic Tony Blair on the day of the agreement, decrying the new soundbite culture, and then delivering a perfectly rounded soundbite. Soundbites were what he was good at, some felt too good at. His spin-doctors were legendary, his style was famously informal: meetings on couches and the famous line, Call me Tony. But Sir Richard Wilson, former cabinet secretary under Tony Blair, says Blair was and is much more complex than the grinning creature of newspaper cartoons and that he's certainly not Bambi.
RICHARD WILSON: He appears as a really easygoing guy, a nice guy to get along with, and that is true, he is. He is in some ways the easiest man to work with you could ask for. But there co-exists with that, someone who I think is very ambitious, very ruthless, someone who is very conscious of his own ability to charm, who has more charisma, more ability to charm other people, and to leave them walking away feeling tall when they've agreed to something they didn't mean to agree to, than anyone else I think perhaps I've ever met in my life.
GIFFORD: The Blairite domestic agenda was investing in education and health care, which he did and has continued to do. With the opposition in disarray, he was easily re-elected for a second term. But just as important as his policies at home was his approach to foreign policy.
BLAIR: Mine is the first generation able to contemplate the possibility that we may live our entire lives without going to war or sending our children to war. That is a prize beyond value.
GIFFORD: Blair made that claim within months of coming to power. And yet in his 10 years in power, he would send British troops into battle more times than any prime minister since World War II. His first big test was Kosovo, where he supported the NATO bombing of Serbia. He was greeted in Kosovo like a hero.
BLAIR: This is not a battle for NATO. This is not a battle for territory. This is a battle for humanity. It is a just cause. It is a rightful cause.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
GIFFORD: Blair relished the international arena, and his Cabinet colleague, Clare Short, says it was the success and popularity of his intervention to save lives in Kosovo that may have emboldened him to intervene elsewhere in the world.
CLARE SHORT: Unidentified Man: Terrorists attack the heart of America with catastrophic loss of life. Highjacked planes smash into and destroy New York's tallest buildings.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)
GIFFORD: Then came the events of September 11th, 2001, which pushed Blair even closer to President Bush and led him to take the most fateful decision of his whole premiership.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION)
GIFFORD: Blair's support for the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq sparked huge demonstrations on the streets of London and other cities. The accusation was that Blair was just the poodle of the White House prepared to do anything that President Bush wanted and getting nothing in return. Blair himself has constantly reiterated that Iraq was not just about supporting the United States.
BLAIR: The reason that I supported the action in Iraq was not because I thought we simply had to support America. It's because I thought it was right. I still think it's right.
GIFFORD: To this day it is a mystery to many Britons how the left-of-center baby boomer who seemed the ideological twin of Bill Clinton could have thrown in his lot with George W. Bush and the American right wing. Sir Stephen Wall was Britain's ambassador to the European Union and Tony Blair's adviser on Europe.
STEPHEN WALL: He did believe that after 9/11 in particular, it was important not to let the Americans kind of go their own way without influence from others in Europe, us in particular. But in the end I think he was also a bit kind of seduced by the special relationship, which is a very seductive one. And I think that he found it difficult to distinguish between British interests and American interests.
GIFFORD: Max Hastings is the former editor of The Evening Standard newspaper and a commentator on British politics.
MAX HASTINGS: I think in many ways history will judge Tony Blair's premiership as a tragedy because if he was a man of no substance, if he was a fool, if he was an inadequate, as John Major was, then you shrug your shoulders and you say, so what? But Blair was and is a man of the highest gifts, whose premiership started with the highest hopes.
GIFFORD: Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.
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