06/28/2007 11:53 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Toasting Tony

Everyone says it to someone: "You will miss me when I'm gone." But they rarely say it to an entire nation. Will we miss Tony Blair? We may have hated him, we may have loved him, but we got to know him. Will we not miss him?

Like many commentators, I must have written more than a million words on this man. Their objective was to scrutinise and criticise power, not act as its cheerleader. Power does that for itself and at our expense. As a result, precious few of those million words have been complimentary. To me, Blair was a remarkable politician but not a good prime minister, a skillful operator but not a great man. But then "the evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones", so Blair is entitled to his Mark Antony moment. Let us find something to praise in Blair, even as we bury him.

I shall certainly miss the incessant cheerfulness. It is not a quality much given to modern politics. Margaret Thatcher was rarely a happy bunny and John Major whinged incessantly. Blair, the chap with the impish grin, always seemed happy in his skin. Being prime minister is both the most rewarding and most difficult job a country has to offer. I prefer leaders who acknowledge their good fortune and take the hard knocks as they come, which Blair did until his final ridiculous "feral beast" speech.

Blair was master of the new politics. This requires a leader to project himself over the head of his party and over the institutions meant to curb his power, to conduct a "running conversation with the people". The political scientist, the late J H Grain-ger, assessed Blair as the "ideal leadership type" of German charismatic romanticism, who falls in love with his own personality and portrays himself as "the political wing of the whole nation". He was a chameleon, able constantly to reflect the colouring of the public mood, an outsider with no hinterland, no destination and no friends. Such a figure never discusses policies or programmes, only values, convictions, beliefs, pledging himself to a perpetually vague covenant with the people.
The abdication: a portrait of Blair's last days

There is nothing new in what is now called celebrity politics. It was practised by Gladstone, Lloyd George and Churchill among others. Their mass appeal was, if anything, greater than Blair's, if only because they materially altered the condition of the people. Blair modernised this romanticism. His was the charisma of the television sofa, the pseudo-friend to millions. He was the nation's kid brother and favourite son-in-law. He turned the aloofness of office into the virtual acquaintance of the television studio.

On the rare occasions when Blair was not smiling, he contrived exquisite pain (mourning Diana), innocent entrapment (sleaze) and a sort of ecclesiastic sincerity over Iraq. His original motto came with the notorious Bernie Ecclestone affair: "People think I'm a pretty straight sort of guy - and I am." The accompanying smile was that of a rueful schoolboy caught smoking behind the bike shed. When he reduced the 2005 European summit to a fiasco, he treated it as a dropped catch that cost the team the game, but "I did my best".

Even when Blair was at his most hyper-ventilating, as when "turning 1,000 days into 1,000 years", his phraseology seemed to make Britain feel bigger and grander. Iraq, involving mendacity and error that would have forced many men from office, was explained away much as a priest discussing the horrors of wars and famine. It was God's doing and it seemed right at the time. Besides, Blair meant it and what could be more sincere than that?

He may have sent hundreds of soldiers to a pointless death, but he correctly judged the country's mood. Blair is what political historians call an "occasionalist". He could grab any passing incident and turn it to account. Where Major was constantly floored by events, Blair contrived to capitalise on them. Any reverse, over Iraq, Europe, prison numbers or hospital closures, was somehow a platform for renewal. To maintain such optimism in the face of disaster is a real talent in a leader.

Blair thus enabled the nation to relax under the scourge of Gordon Brown's Treasury turbo-Thatcherism. Even as he was destroying everything for which his party had once stood, he seemed sympathetic, liberal, compassionate, in tune with an ageing country that wanted to be told it was still young.

Immigrants flooded into London, which "swung" as never before. Britons benefited from cheap flights, broadband access, soaring house values and colossal debt. Gay couples married. In all Europe, Britain was among the most tolerant of foreigners. Wealth was celebrated as never under a Tory government. Labour was no longer the killjoy party of envy but the hedonistic party of excess. Under Blair, anything seemed to go, even if it meant the mild tap of an Asbo. Blair really did give Thatcherism the human face that Major professed.

However dazzled by spin, the world came to see Blair's Britain as a place confident in itself. It had a leader unashamed to declare his commitment to bettering his nation and the world. So what if it was mostly talk? It was better talk than the moody aloofness of a Chirac, the naive malapropism of a Bush or the sinister Putin. Blair's last words to his party were: "I've been very lucky and very blessed: this country is a blessed nation."

You can jeer, but you can also shed a tear of recognition. It was a remark inconceivable in 1979 and would have rung odd in 1997. To give it plausibility was no mean quality in a leader. We shall miss it.

That said, there is a difference between missing someone and auditing his account. Blair's achievements in office were mostly a hangover from those of opposition, of the Labour "modernisation" drive of 1992-6. The era of "the project", of the clause 4 moment and Harry Enfield's "new improved newness" served the job in hand, disembowelling the Labour party.

The savage assault of Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell left Major's Conservative government floundering. "Team Blair" behaved like masters of the universe, strutting, crowing, bullying, buoyed up by astonishing opinion polls of a nation that in truth simply wanted the Tories out.

Guided by adviser Philip Gould's work as a student of American presidential campaigns, Blair recognised a turning point in politics. The days of the Westminster club were over. Parties should be converted into machines for the election of the leader. This involved not harnessing a movement to a cause, but generating a familiar relationship with the electorate. This required charm and sincerity, not policy commitments and pledges. The success with which Blair pursued this strategy greatly influenced the Conservatives in their choice of David Cameron to succeed the "four clubmen" of Major, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard.

Blair craved presidentialism, embodied in his longing for a palace and a private jet, but he was not wrong in seeing that such individualism held the key to the future of democracy. (Hence his support for directly elected mayors.) He also knew that Britain's parliament was a vulnerable flank that had to be covered.

It was he, not the Social Democrats of 1981, who "broke the mould" of British politics by flirting promiscuously with the Liberal Democrats' Roy Jenkins and Paddy Ashdown before the 1997 election. Brown is doing likewise, laying the groundwork for a possible hung parliament coalition and a realignment of the British left away from a reliance on the organised remnants of trade unionism and public housing.

With a vast floating electorate, a party cannot rely on its traditional bases of support. They may be vote-gatherers at election time, the poor bloody infantry who need massaging with power and patronage. But a new leader needs wider appeal than that. Blair understood this. It is a lesson that Cameron's Tories have learnt but have yet to implement.

Blair also understood, if largely by instinct, what such personalised leadership meant for his office. By pursuing a Napoleonic style of government, with a cabal of potent aides, he focused every decision on himself. Such elected monarchy accepted an immense burden of decision and of blame on the leader directly, which is why it is a form of government rarely imitated. It left Blair visibly aged and exhausted. While he was only extending a centralism practised by many of his predecessors, he all but completed it. As such, his rule was a milestone on the road of constitutional change.

Blair was the boy who pointed at the naked emperor of the British constitution and said it had no clothes. Rather than treat its informal disciplines with respect, Blair simply disregarded them, indeed probably never understood them. He once regretted to Jenkins that he had never studied history -- and it showed.

He reluctantly devolved power to Scotland and Wales in what was the only serious decentralisation of his administration. He spent 10 years of trial and often grievous error restoring home rule to Northern Ireland, which has yet to prove itself durable. He tried and failed to reform the Lords. But he was right that it should not become an elected superannuated House of Commons. He gave London at least a properly elected mayor and, although he lacked the commitment to follow it through, took it beyond a headline-grabbing initiative. No leader after Blair could complain that "the constitution" stopped him doing what he wanted to do.

Blair never understood why he ended his term in office with so little achieved and so many "scars on my back" from failed reform. Time and again he had sought to refashion the public services along lines soon lost in the numerology of his delivery units and target-meisters. Abstract nouns such as choice, empower-ment, stakeholder, joined-up, sus-tainability and partnership polluted public debate and left the booming civil service disoriented and confused. Everything was ceaselessly reorganised.

Where Thatcher battled for and delivered reform to the culture of private enterprise in Britain, Blair failed to do the same in the public realm. The reason was that under Thatcher the government machine knew what she wanted.

Blair never appreciated the difference between public and private administration. His love of consult-ants, his conviction that tycoons might make ideal reformers of hospitals and schools, his appeasement of Brown's Treasury, destroyed what the civil service under Thatcher showed it could do, which is to take a clear lead from the top. Nobody knew what Blair wanted other than a feelgood headline. Like a music hall magician, he thought that a frown of concern and a smile of reassurance would cut the lady in half.

Blair never shirked responsibility for the increasingly formless and chaotic outcome of his rule. Shielded from the internal wrangling of Downing Street, the nation believed that he was in control. He never shirked the burden of his centralisation. He behaved throughout his term of office as if he were foreign secretary, home secretary and lord chancellor. He behaved as if he ran every health district and every school, was responsible for every waiting list and every league table result. He was mayor of England. He regulated every train service, jailed every criminal, censored every mullah. He stripped his cabinet colleagues of power and tolerated for too long the nastiness of Campbell's influence over the government machine and similar bullying by Brown's Treasury.

Campbell's role as the snarling teeth behind the Blair smile worked in opposition, when negativity was all. But when the boot was on the other foot Campbell could not hack it. Blair paid the price in a public sector that simply would not respond when he pulled the levers. The much-cited slogan "Tony wants it" did not make it happen.

It was abroad, in a world of red carpets, fine residences, guards of honour and glittering occasions, that Blair found his comfort zone.

He led Britain back into the top league. From the start he sensed that what worked at home might work abroad. His boyish charm, cycling through the streets of Copenhagen, seemed a refreshing contrast with the starchy elites of Europe. Yet, like all British leaders, Blair soon found Europe only trouble, a tedious parade of conferences that stirred a nest of vipers back home.

Blair was a better rhetorician of war than of diplomacy and by the end he was wearing his Euro-scepticism on his sleeve. He failed to get a reform of the common agricultural policy, outflanked by France at every turn, and was finally browbeaten to compromise on a competition policy that did not suit Britain's interests. He was forced to play Major at Maastricht, taking Britain to the brink and then partly capitulating. In the process he destroyed his one-time ambition to be "president" of Europe - which in itself must stand to his credit.

Blair's infatuation with America was more emphatic and devastating. His love for Bill Clinton was not just with a man whose rise he had studied and imitated, but also with a man who could command a room with the flash of a smile. Subsequent disillusionment over the (Monica) Lewinsky affair was assuaged by Blair finding a role for himself, under Thatcher's tutelage, as the "nonwobbly" element in the western alliance. He put himself ahead of Clinton in demanding intervention in Kosovo, hugging George W Bush close over Afghanistan and Iraq and accepting that, in return, he must abandon putting himself "at the heart of Europe".

He rightly sensed that Britain's position was at America's side, even if he chose rotten issues on which to do it.

As a result, for a brief period after 9/11 Blair could fantasise that he ruled the world. His hyperbolic oratory would vanish into the Cheshire cat's smile under the slightest analysis. It was never more hyperbolic than at his 2001 party conference when he promised "our victory, not theirs" and pledged America, "we will stay with you to the last".

Nor was ambition confined to fighting shoulder to shoulder with Washington. Africa, too, was "a blot on the conscience of the world". He, and thus the British people, were responsible for the remaking of the world "from the slums of Gaza to the mountains of Afghanistan. This is a moment to seize . . ."

Such grandiloquence was bound to end in tears. Obsequies enough have been recited over Blair's moral imperialism and it has met its nemesis in the impending retreat from Iraq and the murderous shambles in Afghanistan. But Blair never pretended that his wars were not his doing, not meant or not sincere.

If he deluded himself over Saddam Hussein's threat or what is feasible in Afghanistan, it was because he sought a role for Britain. Despite the millions who demonstrated against the war, Blair was responding to a desire for global involvement deep in the British political DNA. This undoubtedly helped the third election victory in 2005, even with Iraq a prominent campaign issue. In last week's Mori poll, Blair was still thought to have been a good thing for Britain by a majority of 48% over 39%, remarkable for an outgoing prime minister.

While Blair's greatest achievement was the reform of Labour, his greatest contribution to political history probably lies in the banality of what he did not do. He did not wind back the clock of history. He did not, like every previous Labour leader, wreck the economy. Lacking a personal ideology - young Blair on union reform, privatisation, CND and Europe is a hilarious insult to consistency - he adopted Thatcherism with the fanaticism of an uncritical convert. What he most admired in Thatcher, an admiration that was intense and personal, was what he sensed he most lacked: the capacity to make things happen.

In truth there was nothing particular that needed to happen. For all his adrenalin-pumped headline-induced hyperactivity, Blair let Britain live and breathe the new Thatcherism. The nation somehow cut through the red tape of targets and regulation in which he tried to smother it. If he went on meaning-less wars, Britain felt some ancient imperial honour was satisfied. Even in departing, his final bequest was the gloomy visage of Brown, cleverly maximising his greatest asset.

Britain under Blair was, above all, a smiling place. We shall miss that.

Originally published by the London Times.