There are many things for which I am grateful. I enjoy good health, have a wonderful wife and home, superb colleagues and enjoy my job. I am grateful for the opportunities sheer luck has granted me, from the privilege of being born in the global north to the remnants of British social democracy and the NHS. I am grateful for my friends, family and the gift of life. This week I discovered something else I am supposed to be grateful for: Tony Blair.
In fact according to some, the entire country – the whole world, even – owes the newly beknighted Sir Anthony a “debt of gratitude”. Precisely what we should be grateful for isn’t clear, however.
Am I supposed to gaze at my ballooning student debt, introduced by the Blair government, dewy-eyed, my mouth curling into a smile as I recall it gathering interest while I earned the minimum wage? Or perhaps I’m obliged to be thankful that I had to give more than £80,000 to landlords before finally getting on the property ladder, the result of rocketing house prices since, you guessed it, the late 1990s? Between 1997 and 2007, while Blair was in Number 10, house prices rose by 21% a year. If you owned a house, that was great, if you didn’t, well, it put you squarely in the crosshairs of the present housing crisis. Yet tenant, landlord and homeowner alike are expected to admire the former PM.
Presumably, I should also admire how Blair oversaw a 30-fold increase in buy-to-let mortgages, another trend that powered the rise of “generation rent”. As an act of devotion to the public good, Blair and his family were beneficiaries of that shift and today enjoy a portfolio numbering three dozen properties valued in the tens of millions. There’s another fact we shouldn’t forget: New Labour built far fewer council homes than Margaret Thatcher. Yes, really.
There are innumerable other debts we all owe the former Sedgefield MP. One is the attention he gave to the country’s banking system which, by 2008, resembled a giant casino. That was the year the British economy imploded as part of the global financial crisis – whose model of “light-touch regulation” Blair and Brown had zealously supported. Even today, more than a decade later, real wages and productivity have barely moved.
Perhaps I should be more appreciative of the decline in trust felt by my fellow citizens as a result of Blair’s premiership. Or the fact that, yes, he marshalled this country into an illegal war that led to as many as a million Iraqi deaths, destabilising the region to such an extent that it created ideal conditions for the emergence of ISIS. Then there’s Afghanistan, where Britain spent £37 billion – and sent 457 armed personnel home in coffins – so that the Taliban could be in charge two decades later while the country faces widespread starvation.
That isn’t to say good things didn’t happen under Blair. There was the introduction of a national minimum wage, first pitched by his predecessor John Smith, as well as Freedom of Information legislation (something Blair would later regret, referring to himself as an “idiot” for introducing it). Elsewhere there was national and regional devolution, a piecemeal agenda that represented progress nonetheless.
Yet despite all that the truth is that Blair’s domestic record was, at best, mixed. Given the cards he was dealt – governing in the Goldilocks period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Lehman Brothers, as the global labour market doubled and inflation remained low – this is a historic tragedy. Just when we should have been building council homes, high-speed rail and preparing for climate transition, we instead waged futile wars while ministers gawped at the swelling ranks of the global rich. After 2008 that meant austerity was ‘inevitable’, and something agreed on by all sides.
Yes record funding went to the NHS, and Sure Start centres were built, but most key aspects of the Blair legacy – unlike Attlee and healthcare, or Thatcher and privatisation – failed to endure. Why? Because while New Labour grasped the consensus to improve public services, they never made the argument as to how they should be funded. In a context of unprecedented economic expansion, and the aforementioned Goldilocks period, that was less important. Now, in a world of low growth and potential deglobalisation, it is unavoidable. Arguing for better public services without also demanding the wealthy pay more tax, meant Blair’s gains would always be fleeting.
The truth is that besides war abroad, Blair oversaw today’s housing crisis, spiralling regional inequality and deindustrialisation; on that last count, British manufacturing experienced a greater decline under Blair than Thatcher. In the face of this century’s challenges, Blair’s default was to say globalisation is good while compulsively ignoring industrial strategy, betting the house instead on financial services and rising asset prices, specifically housing. We shouldn’t be grateful for that – such choices are at the heart of Britain’s current predicament. In response, Blair’s supporters wheeze about things like the “Chicago Doctrine of liberal interventionism”. This is political hobbyism, not serious analysis, and underscores how little of lasting substance he accomplished in power.
That Sir Anthony Blair has been granted a knighthood doesn’t bother me – after all, the likes of Mussolini, Ceausescu and Mugabe have received similar honours. Indeed not so long ago his government even considered awarding that same accolade to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. That I should be grateful to a man who put me in a lifetime of student debt, however, as well as creating the conditions for the housing crisis, is plainly ridiculous. Most of Blair’s biggest supporters are older and benefit from the surging house prices which characterised his tenure. That I disagree with them, therefore, shouldn’t be a surprise – indeed I’m thoroughly glad I do. He cemented the Thatcherite settlement and worse, made too many believe that doing so was progressive.
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.