The Blair audit: war, human rights, liberalism

About the author
Brian Brivati is professor in the faculty of arts and social science, Kingston University.

As Tony Blair's departure approaches - he has promised to step down in the course of 2007, and the date is likely to be nearer the middle of the year than the end - how the British prime minister's place in history is viewed really depends on where you are standing. There are many pockets of this globe - East Timor, Kosovo, Kurdistan - where Blair is now and always will be a hero. But if you are in a bunker in Baghdad or the detention centre at Belmarsh then Blair's heroics will seem like the action of a reckless adventurer who broke international law and reversed what had been a growing place for human rights in the British judicial system. In the end, I think, the heroic will outweigh the illiberal.

This is hard to see if you are in north London, the heartland of media, academic and intellectual opposition to Blair. Here, the leading voices and currents of feeling are fixated with post-imperial guilt. Our vision is tainted by the consequences of hubris in post-invasion Iraq. A longer perspective - perhaps even decades - will be needed before we can properly look at Blair. But in this longer run Blair might well go down as one of the finest "foreign policy" premiers.

Brian Brivati is professor in the faculty of arts and social science, Kingston University. Among his books are The Labour Party: A Centenary History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2000) and Hugh Gaitskell (Politico's, 2006)

Compare his record to that of his immediate predecessor. John Major's governments were complicit in genocide in both Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Their major triumph was to ensure that we opted out of the social provisions of the European Union treaties, provisions which today we would see as below most minimum standards.

But Blair's potential for greatness stems from more than his actions. It also comes from the articulation of complex convictions that have characterised the decade-long double act he has performed with his chancellor and probable successor Gordon Brown on a range of key policy issues: intervention, anti-terrorism, debt and aid.

At the heart of this approach, emerging only now at the end of Blair's premiership, is the basis for a European alternative to hard American power. It is the combination of soft and hard power in the process of encouraging, cajoling and maybe even forcing powers in regions outside Europe to take responsibility for the problems around them.

Whether or not these states will abandon their post-colonial alibis for inaction remains to be seen. In Blair's liberal interventionism, there was the possibility of the United Kingdom waking from the mesmerising effect of post-imperial guilt and being once more a force for good in the world. In his approach to international relation we see the basis for the next move in the global war on terror. This will entail forging a closer linkage between the right to development, the reassertion of international law, and continuing efforts to prevent terrorist attacks and capture perpetrators.

Also in openDemocracy on the British prime minister's legacy:

Roger Scruton, "Tony Blair's legacy"
(18 December 2006)

Norman Fairclough, "Tony Blair and the language of politics"
(20 December 2006)

Felix Blake, "Blair's foreign-policy legacy" (21 December 2006)

The challenges to this record of achievement are significant. Two stand out. First, the performance of the Blair years on human rights has been dismal. The initial grudging advances have been followed by prolonged backtracking. The provisions of the Terrorism Act (2006) are more illiberal than anything passed by the Thatcher governments. Tony Blair would probably (and regrettably) take such a statement as a compliment to his ability to rise to the challenge posed by contemporary terrorism. Yet such measures contribute to the recruitment of domestic terrorists and undermine the ability of the British government to support the moderate Muslim world in its civil war against Islamic fascism.

Second, the illegality of the Iraq war compounds the sense of failure which pervades current reading of the prime minister's place in history. But Blair's legacy to Brown on the world stage is more defined by Iraq in the British media than it is anywhere else in the world. Much of the globe sees a Britain that has emerged from decline with a leader who can speak and act in ways that make sense across the competing agendas of proponents of the "new American century" and the mainstream voices of the human-rights industry alike.

If Blair, in his last five or six months, can redress the balance towards his earlier liberal instincts on human rights he might regain his reputation. In the longer run he has probably passed the test of greatness for future generations even as he is despised by his own.