Tony Blair’s Legacy

James Forsyth offers an interesting appraisal of Tony Blair’s valedictory address to the the Labour Party Conference. He illustrates that great leaders can change a country’s political climate for years, if not decades.

Blair’s essential acceptance of the main tenets of Thatcherism will be a key part of his legacy. Yes, creeping taxes and regulation might have diluted some of the advantages that Thatcher’s structural reforms gave Britain. But it is a sea-change that after almost 10 years of Labour government, there has been no attempt to raise direct taxation.


Blair has done what all great political leaders do: Force his opponents to change. The Tories now feel obliged to put tax cuts on the back burner, praise the public sector, and “embrace an unambiguous commitment to the growth of public services.”

Blair has, though, only been able to do this because Thatcher forced Labour to reform itself.

Quite right. Thatcher and Reagan altered the political climate of their respective countries in ways still apparent a quarter century later, making them conservative in ways that took certain longstanding liberal policy options off the table. The result was the New Democrats of Clinton, et. al. and the New Labour of Blair and Company. Likewise, Clinton and Blair forced their conservative opposition to accept some progressive premises, changing the nature of the debate again.

The Welfare State and confiscatory taxation were beat back in both the UK and the US by Thatcher and Reagan. Yet, the Thatcher-Reagan vision that “Government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem” is likely permanently dead, owing to Clinton and Blair. Bush has to run as a “Compassionate Conservative” and forced to champion all manner of domestic spending initiatives Reagan would have considered anathema. Ditto the UK Tories.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I’m not so sure that the Reagan approach to smaller government is as dead as you think. A lot of the debate within the republican party is being papered over by national security concerns. But assuming success in the war, the coming crisis in medicare and social security are likely to revive the “if you want the job done right, do it yourself, don’t rely on government to be the solution”.

    I used to have a manager who taught me the way to deal with managers is to keep your requests of them simple. You can write down one thing on each hand that you really want. Whenever you have a chance to push for something, you either had to erase what you had on a hand and give up on it to put something new there or forgo the opportunity. Politicians of both stripes tend to have “get re-elected or elected to a ‘better office” on one hand. This really leaves them with only one other “top priority” for the other hand. For most republicans, this has tended to be “win the war”. But after the war, they are likely to start going back to their “conservative roots”. While some will always see the budget as a means to the end of “getting re-elected”, I think there is enough of a core in the GOP to make shrinking government a priority again.

  2. Tano says:

    In a larger context, these dynamics can be seen as simply part of the eternal tension between those who wish to take action to solve some of society’s problems, and those who resist those solutions, preferring the status quo, or to solve the problem in the private, voluntary sector (i.e. those who deny or minimize the significance of the problem).

    The dynamics of the past quarter century seem to have much deeper roots – going back to the Depression and WWII. Both events fed the activist government movements – given that active government was necessary to address the scale of the problems. The success of these approaches kept the activist government paradigm in place for more than a generation after the war – and the approach continued to garner successes in the post war environment.

    Reagan-Thatcher-ism was the long-delayed culling of the excesses of this approach. It is not surprising that Reagan used to claim Calvin Coolidge as his favorite president – Reagan basically tried to reconnect to the conservatism of the pre-Depression era, although what he actually accomplished was only a very small feint in that direction. Aside from quadrupuling the national debt, the legacy here will probably be only the accomplishment of a minor pruning of some of the less valuable government programs.

    After this minor adjustment, lasting only a decade or so, the Clinton-Blair paradigm was succesful, because they were willing to accept the R-T pruning of ineffective policies, and also willing to incorporate some of the spirit of that discipline in the new approaches that they put forth.

    Here in America, the Congress has been the last redoubt of the Reaganist movement. It seems quite likely that the final word in this movement will be written within the next six weeks.