Tony's ten years at the top

HAILED as a “new dawn” for Britain, Tony Blair's government promised “things could only get better”. Today, as the Labour leader prepares to leave Downing Street, JAMES MARSTON reflects on how Blair changed British society, and how he will be perceived by future generations.

HAILED as a “new dawn” for Britain, Tony Blair's government promised “things could only get better”. Today, as the Labour leader prepares to leave Downing Street, JAMES MARSTON reflects on how Blair changed British society, and how he will be perceived by future generations.

TONY Blair's Britain is a worse place than it was ten years ago.

Well of course it all depends on your judgement, as to whether you agree with that statement.

Is it a good thing hunting is now banned or is it an intolerable infringement on civil liberties?

Was the introduction of civil partnerships overdue or an unnecessary legislation to please the politically correct?

It also depends on how you think society has changed - that is of course, if it has at all.

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There's no doubt that when Tony Blair came to power, he did so on a groundswell of massive support. He won a landslide victory. He was liked, trusted and, perhaps crucially, the first viable alternative to an administration that after 18 years appeared stale, stagnant and possibly corrupt.

Today Tony Blair may not quite be reviled but he is no longer perceived as the popular saviour he once was.

His likely successor, Gordon Brown, has also yet to strike a popular note.

But how has ten years of new Labour made a difference? Has Tony Blair got a legacy beyond a disastrous war in Iraq?

As professor of politics at the University of East Anglia (UEA) John Street thinks historians might yet revise any current low opinion of the premier. He said: “I suspect in the immediate aftermath to his departure he will be perceived in the light of Iraq. There are differences of opinion on this but in the same way that Harold Wilson's reputation was reconsidered some years after his premiership I think Tony Blair's leadership will also be revised.

“He will probably be remembered as a major reformer and innovator. His most obvious reforms are constitutional.”

They include:

Political changes (devolution) in Wales Scotland and Northern Ireland - “These are hugely significant for the future character of the United Kingdom.”

Introduction of the minimum wage - “An important social change.”

Freedom of Information Act/adoption of Human Rights Convention - “These are significant differences to the relationship between the people and their government.”

Mr Street said in education and health, both hugely controversial issues, there is no denying the money that has been invested in both. He said: “The interesting point is that these changes are not likely to be reversed by future administrations.”

The gap between the rich and poor in modern Britain seems to many bigger than ever. But is this just a matter of perception? Mr Street said: “Sociological changes are the most difficult to detect as they are often subtle and only noticeable years afterwards.

“But it is clear there hasn't been the transformation between rich and poor that might have been expected. Indeed it could be argued the difference is getting bigger.

“In the field of crime, statistics suggest there is less violence and society is less crime-ridden than it was ten years ago. But these matters are hugely controversial and opinion is divided.”

Often maligned as a nanny state, Blair's government has banned hunting and later this year a smoking ban in public places will come into force. So has our freedom been curtailed?

Mr Street said: “It is impossible to grade degrees of freedom. It is likely that the introduction of civil partnerships is a reflection of a more tolerant and freer society but equally the ban on smoking and hunting can be seen as a dire restriction on treasured freedoms.”

Experts have argued that the secret to getting re-election is how governments manage the economy.

Mr Street said: “It's probably the economy that explains how John Major got re-elected in 1992, people thought they were doing ok. Prudent and careful economic management and a huge amount of luck have produced a sense of economic well being as Blair has gone to the polls.

“But whether we have become more greedy or grasping I don't know. Our houses and cars are important to us but at the same time it would appear we are paying more in taxes and for the most part people haven't been up in arms about this.

“We know we have to pay for roads and hospitals and schools and there are arguments to suggest that greed is exaggerated, often these happiness surveys that get published show money isn't always the be all and end all.”

At the cultural level Blair has also presided over a government that successfully bid for the 2012 Olympics. Mr Street said: “The Blair government has also taken the arts seriously and invested in them.

But it is Iraq that commentators today are predicting will be what Blair is remembered for. An unpopular and disastrous war Iraq may well eclipse anything else he has achieved.

Mr Street said he will watch with interest to see if Blair revises his opinions on the war after he has left office. He added: “The Iraq war has cost him dearly. Whether he was right or wrong I don't know but it has clearly dogged his last two terms of office.”

Who will govern Britain next?

Gordon Brown is the obvious answer to that question, and it seems almost inevitable that Brown will take up the reins of the premiership after Blair resigns.

However, Brown will have to go to the polls - the latest he can do so is 2010 - if he wants to win his own mandate as PM. Mr Street said: “It's obviously very difficult to predict what will happen next. You would expect the Labour majority to be cut again but the conservatives have a huge mountain to climb as well. It is possible Labour would not have a majority.”

N How do you think Tony Blair changed society? Write to Your Letters, The Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, Suffolk, IP4 1AN or e-mail eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk.

“A new dawn has broken. Isn't it wonderful? We always said that if we had the courage to change we could do it and we did it. The British people have put their trust in us. It is a moving and humbling experience' - To Labour supporters after winning power, May, 1997.

“People everywhere, not just here in Britain, kept faith with Princess Diana. They liked her, they loved her, they regarded her as one of the people. She was the People's Princess and that is how she will stay, how she will remain in our hearts and our memories for ever.” - August 31, 1997, on the death of the Princess of Wales.

“Now is not the time for sound-bites. I can feel the hand of history on my shoulder' - On the signing of the Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement.

“I can only go one way. I've not got a reverse gear” - Speech to the Labour Party conference, September 30, 2003.

“I think the majority of people in the party do understand that it's the public that comes first and it's the country that matters and we can't treat the public as irrelevant bystanders in a subject as important as who is their Prime

Minister” - September, 2006, on the question of his forthcoming departure from office.

“Once my wife goes to sleep, it takes a minor nuclear explosion to wake her” - Undated.

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