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Published:June 30th, 2007 09:17 EST
The Blair Decade

The Blair Decade

By Krzys Wasilewski

During his 10 years at the helm, Tony Blair has changed Great Britain unlike any Prime Minister before him. Having inherited a politically divided and economically depressed country in 1997, he leaves Great Britain the most prosperous economy in Europe, with London being the continent`s financial and cultural capital. It`s no surprise that when Tony Blair was locking the doors of 10 Downing Street for the last time, he was not the only one who shed a tear. He has become a symbol of Great Britain, like the Union Jack and James Bond.

The Blair era began in a cozy London restaurant. It was May 1994, shortly after the sudden death of John Smith, the leader of the opposition Labor Party. Tony Blair, one of the party`s rank-and-file at that time, met with his Scottish friend and party opponent alike to talk about some important issues. The pleasantries exchanged, the two spoke about their chances in the upcoming leadership contest. They were both taking part in it - Blair representing the centrist option, his friend sticking to a more traditional left-wing program. After several hours, the two struck a deal: the Scott would withdraw his candidacy and support Blair instead. Should Blair win and lead the party to victory in the general election, the friend would satisfy himself with the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer, the second in command. After two terms, they would switch roles. Three years later, their dreams materialized. Tony Blair, as the first Labor leader in 18 years, became Prime Minister of Great Britain, with his close friend " Gordon Brown " assuming the role of Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Blair`s catchphrase in the 1997 general election was: Because Britain deserves better. " Unlike most of the ossified British political establishment, the youngest Prime Minister for almost two centuries could feel that times had changed since the Labor party was established by a group of socialist ideologists, in 1900. Long before the queen appointed him as the head of her government, Blair had moved his party from the far left to the center. The New Labor was to forsake the myths of common ownership of the means of production and exchange. " With a vigor envied by most of conservatives, the left-wing government implemented Thatcherite reforms " first securing the independence of the Bank of England, then curbing public spending. But although Blair hogged the limelight, it was Gordon Brown who deserved it, as he was holding the national finances in reigns. Not that he craved popularity. Unlike the Prime Minister " a skillful technocrat, basking in the glare of media " the Chancellor was a type of intellectual, withdrawn, concentrated on efficiency rather than superficial effectiveness.

Since the economy was in good hands, Blair focused on foreign policy. The preceding conservative government had been partially torn apart by its unclear stand on European integration. Blair resolved not to repeat the same mistake where Prime Minister was at odds with his own cabinet. European affairs were run by people who, like Blair, believed that Great Britain belonged to the continent and London should play a more distinctive role in the European Union. Less Euro-enthusiastic Brown was marginalized outside his office.

Where the two spoke in unison was over the relations with the United States. Both wanted to secure ties with the overseas big brother " guessing correctly that, only with strong support from Washington, Great Britain could protect its world-wide interests. The decision to send British troops to Iraq came naturally, although the British Intelligence repeatedly warned the Prime Minister that Saddam Hussein was very unlikely to harbor weapons of mass destruction. But it was March 2005, and Blair stood firmly at George W. Bush`s side, having the support of the majority of his party as well as the opposition. The streets were less enthusiastic, but the percentage of disapproval among ordinary Brits was still relatively low. Tony Blair became the foreign leader who visited the White House the most, with the American media, not without reason, dubbing him the Prime Minister of the United States. American opinion polls showed him the most trusted politician, just after President Bush. At home, however, Blair`s unwavering support for the War on Terror soon gained him the nickname of American puppy, " while newspapers constantly criticized the Prime Minister for colonial-like dependency on Washington. Later, as Bush and Blair`s ratings drastically fell, the latter tried to distance himself from his American counterpart, but the Iraqi fiasco remained one of the main reasons for Blair`s decision to step down.

To shore up his image at home and abroad, Blair engaged himself in the fight on poverty. He employed such monuments of pop culture as U2`s lead singer Bono, as well as Bob Geldof and dozens of lesser known stars who could win people`s attention. For the first half of 2005, when Great Britain presided over the European Union and The Group of 8, the words Africa, " famine, " and hunger " did not disappear from TV news programs and newspapers. Blair set up the Commission for Africa which, for the first time, gathered both African statesmen and Western experts together. However, the Commission`s report, published in March 2005, repeated the same, worn-out phrases about foreign aid instead of giving a clear answer about how Africa could help itself. In July, Scotland`s Gleneagles hosted the leaders of the seven most developed countries, in addition to Russia, who agreed on writing off most of Africa`s mammoth debt. At about the same time, hundreds of thousands of young people on all continents attended Live Aid concerts where musicians lobbied for donations for the poor. For a short period of time, the world seemed to have forgotten about the war in Iraq. Blair triumphed.

But when the last amplifier was turned off and the magic of the moment withered away, it turned out that nothing had really changed. Despite lofty announcements, the big and rich of the world did very little to alleviate the suffering of their poorer relatives. Africa was left to tend to its problems alone, as soon as the media found another leitmotif to broadcast. The crash with reality was painful for Blair, too. The new general election was approaching and more and more voices inside his party demanded him to step down and let some new blood into the leadership circle. Do what you promised, they said, and choose Gordon Brown for your successor. But Blair was obsessed with making his place in history as the first British Prime Minister to win the third consecutive election. The year 2006 brought the New Labor another victory although the number of Labor backbenchers had considerably shrunk.

Tony Blair`s time as Prime Minister was slowly, but inevitably, running out. Whereas in international relations things seemed to be stagnant " the Iraqi quagmire was no longer bad news " domestic problems hit Blair with their entire strength. In early 2007, the BBC unveiled the scandal which was to be remembered as the Cash for Peerages. According to the BBC, the leaders of the Labor Party granted life peerages to the party`s most generous donors. Obtaining a peerage guaranteed a chair in the House of Lords, the upper chamber. Although such an exchange was nothing new in British politics, the fact that Tony Blair`s government not only accepted it, but also tried to prevent the media from discovering the story, greatly weakened the position of the British Prime Minister. If this wasn`t enough, several months later it turned out that to secure a multi-billion pound contract between the British arms manufacturer BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia, the former had paid Saudi politicians over £4 billion in bribes between 1985 and 2007. The deal was orchestrated by Margaret Thatcher`s government and received support from the following Prime Ministers " conservative John Major and socialist Tony Blair. Please resign, pledged Labor members of Parliament when opinion polls began to give the lead to the Conservative Party.

The epilogue to the 1994 cafe meeting was written on June 27, 2007. On that day, Tony Blair delivered his last speech as Prime Minister in Parliament to a standing ovation from the ruling, as well as from opposition parties. He spent the remaining hours of his being in office receiving California`s governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Unlike the Terminator, however, Blair refrained from saying: I`ll be back. " Just as they had established thirteen years earlier, Gordon Brown took office. In a few days, Tony Blair is leaving for the Middle East where, as a special envoy, he will try to convince Palestinians and Israelis to renounce violence and go back to the negotiation table. Tony Blair has already gone down in history as the first British Prime Minister to win three consecutive general elections. Now he wants to be remembered as the person who has brought peace to the Middle East.


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