CERIUM - Centre d'études et de recherches internationales
  5 mai 2005
Texte de conférence

La Place de Tony Blair dans l’Histoire (version bilingue)

Anthony Seldon, « Que reste-t-il de Cool Britannia ? »

Anthony Seldon, auteur de "The Blair Effect", Discours d’ouverture de la conférence Que reste-t-il de Cool Britannia ? Le Royaume-Uni après huit ans de Blair., Montréal, 5 mai 2005.

Pour visionner la conférence en ligne.


Mes dames et messieurs. Je vous remercie énormément de m’avoir invité pour donner la présentation d’ouverture à cette importante et fascinante conférence.

Tony Blair est en passe de mener les Travaillistes à une troisième victoire historique. Son esprit ainsi que celui des commentateurs est résolument concentré sur son rôle dans l’Histoire. En 1997 il fit la promesse qu’il conduirait « l’un des plus grands gouvernements radicaux réformateurs de notre Histoire ». En mars 2002, avec un peu de recul, il essaya de donner à sa fonction la cohérence historique qui lui manquait jusqu’alors. La première étape, affirma t il, dura de 94-97 et avait pour objectif de transformer le Parti Travailliste en un parti social démocrate moderne capable d’être porté au pouvoir. La deuxième étape, de 97-2001 devait prouver que les Travaillistes pouvaient gérer le pays et son économie avec compétence tout en jetant les bases d’une transformation radicale. La troisième étape depuis 2001, devrait voir les promesses de ce changement radical se concrétiser. En 2003, il formula ses idées pour son deuxième mandat avec plus de précision : il “transformerait” le consensus d’Attlee des années post 1945 qui était basé sur la notion du tout-Etat avec des citoyens passifs en une vision Blairienne enracinée dans une prospérité économique et des services publiques reformé qui offre des choix réels a des consommateurs dynamiques.

Qu’a prétendu Tony Blair au sujet de sa contribution à l’Histoire ? On l’a vu le faire de 5 manières. D’abord il a donné a la Grande-Bretagne une nouvelle relation ouverte sur l’avenir avec l’Union Européenne, une relation que le pays n’avait pas connue depuis qu’il avait rejoint l’Union en 1973, notamment le sujet de l’entrée dans le système de la monnaie unique (« une question de destin pour nous » selon sa formule). En suite, il a promis la reforme et la modernisation des services publics dans les domaines de la santé, de l’éducation, des transports, de la sécurité et des services sociaux.

Il a parlé d’une “nouvelle Grande-Bretagne” et a pensé a une constitution modernisée et a la mise en place d’infrastructures gouvernementales a travers le pays adaptées au nouveau millénaire. Il prédit de nouvelles relations de la Grande-Bretagne avec le monde, guidant le pays seul ou en partenariat avec les Etats Unis dans la lutte anti-terroriste, apportant la paix au Moyen Orient, combattant la pauvreté dans le tiers monde et les changements climatiques.

Enfin, il a promis que la transformation du Parti Travailliste en un parti social démocrate moderne sera complétée et qu’il donnerait un autre visage a la politique britannique, faisant du 21e siècle "un siècle de progrès” tout comme le précèdent siècle fut celui du “conservatisme”. La liste est plutôt imposante. S’il arrive à réaliser tous ces objectifs, il aura réussi à guider l’un des plus grands gouvernements réformateurs de notre Histoire. Il deviendrait alors l’équivalent, sur le plan intérieur, de H.H Asquith, D.L George, C. Attlee ou Mme. Thatcher et même égalisait les réalisations du chef de guerre W. Churchill. Attendez vous a entendre d’autres réalisations pendant les 2 ou 3 mois a venir pendant qu’il savoure l’été de sa 3e réélection, avant le froid de l’automne quand la dure réalité commencera a prendre le dessus.

Déjà, plusieurs observateurs le décrivent comme un grand Premier Ministre. Dans une nouvelle édition de leur livre paru en 2001- La Situation s’est elle améliorée ? P. Toynbee et D. Walker argumentent le fait que Blair a effectivement amélioré de manière substantielle la vie de beaucoup de Britanniques. Un autre journaliste sérieux, D. Aaronovitch, dans un article très remarqué en Avril 2005 s’en est pris férocement a la gauche qui a ignoreé les remarquables succès de Blair dans la réduction des inégalités et la pauvreté chez les enfants, dans sa lutte contre l’insécurité en Grande-Bretagne et dans ses efforts pour le retour de la démocratie en Irak. G. Mulgan, tout en partageant certaines vues de son collègue P. Hyman, un observateur de la politique du 10 Downing St, dans son livre Un sur Dix paru en 2005, néanmoins reconnaît dans l’édition de Mai 2005 du magazine Prospect, que Blair sera reconnu comme le leader d’un des gouvernements qui a réussi le mieux ces dernières années.

Les intellectuels également ne sont pas en reste pour reconnaître ces mérites. Ludlam et Smith dans leur livre paru en 2005 La Gouvernance selon les Nouveaux Travaillistes qui est la nouvelle version du précèdent livre paru en 2001 sous le titre Les Nouveaux Travaillistes dans le Gouvernement, écrivent que Blair a effectivement marqué son temps. En fin, D.Coates dans son livre publie’ en 2005, Accouchement long, La Naissance Laborieuse de la Grande Bretagne sous Les Nouveaux Travaillistes, loin de paraître complaisant, observe que ce progrès qui dure a été réalisé en s’attaquant aux problèmes socio- économiques de la Grande-Bretagne.

Les travaux de ces 2 derniers auteurs résument a mon sens un défaut des sciences politiques en Grande-Bretagne, plus précisément l’absence de débats motivants et intéressants, d’arguments soulevés par les intellectuels au détriment d’une interaction réelle avec l’histoire qui se fait et les acteurs qui la font. C’est le problème constant des sciences politiques en comparaison avec l’histoire contemporaine ce qui explique pourquoi cette dernière est de valeur durable.

Je ne partage pas le point de vue optimiste des pro- Blair. Ni ne m’associe à ses détracteurs comme J.Gray qui, arrivait à la conclusion dans le Times Higher Educational Supplement selon laquelle “le testament de Blair se résume a une liste de casinos géants et la légalisation de la torture d’état.”

Je pense que son règne de Premier Ministre sera jugé, considérant les avantages intrinsèques dont il a bénéficié, comme une période de réalisations modestes plutôt que radicales. La question essentielle sera non pas pourquoi il réalisa tant de choses mais pourquoi il n’a pas réalisé plus.

But first let me mention some problems in assessing Blair’s place in history. First, this is transparently not government by the Prime Minister, in the way that the government of Disraeli, Thatcher or even Attlee’s was. This is a duarchy with two principals, Blair and Gordon Brown, which promised to be the most creative relationship in British politics since that between Neville Chamberlain and Stanley Baldwin in the inter-war years. It is akin to the relationship between Asquith and Lloyd George when the former was Prime Minister between 1908 and 1916. As in that earlier relationship, much the more creative force was not the Prime Minister. Many of this government’s most enduring achievements, above all in the management of the economy and in welfare reform, are not Blair’s but Brown’s. Even the creation and consolidation of the New Labour vision owes more to Brown’s thinking than to Blair’s.

Second, and very obviously, the Blair premiership is not yet over. We do not yet know when it will end, how it will end or how much more Blair will achieve. He certainly pins great hope on his remaining time in Number Ten, as providing the opportunity for him to consolidate his reforms at home and be vindicated by history abroad. That is why he did not quit in 2004.

Third, it will take many years before the full impact of his reforms will be known. It may be another 25 years before we can judge the wisdom of his decisions over Iraq and his choice and diversity in public services. The official documents are not yet available. One of his supporters, Martin Gilbert, has argued that when they are released, Blair’s and Bush’s relationship may emerge as of similar import to the partnership between Churchill and Roosevelt during the Second World War.

Yet I doubt whether the documents will tell us much that we don’t already know about Blair’s premiership, any more than they are likely to disclose major new insights about Thatcher’s, or Major’s, premierships. Of course Blair’s premiership will look different in 2015 and again in 2025, and one will be able to judge his record with more perspective. But that in no sense invalidates the importance of making judgements now in 2005. Every new age will have its own preoccupations and its own perspective. Any verdict will always reflect the predominant concerns of the age in which they are made. In that sense, all history is contemporary history.

Neither do I believe that Blair will achieve much more as Prime Minister. In 2001, I concluded my volume The Blair Effect with the words “The edifice may prove more difficult to erect than the foundations have been to lay. Blair has ... yet to reform his country.” By 2005, he has still to reform his country. The experience of premiership in Britain, and indeed democratic leadership abroad, has often shown that great achievements come early on in a leader’s period of office, while political capital is at its highest.

And what political capital Blair had ! Blair enjoyed circumstances more favourable than any previous Labour Prime Minister in history. After so long in the wilderness up to 1997, the party was only too eager to unite itself behind a leader who would win and retain power, even if it did not much like or identify with him. Blair’s internal reforms were able to neuter criticism from within the Labour Party and the trade union movement for much of his office. As Kenneth O Morgan, the doyen of Labour historians, wrote, Blair had been ‘the first Labour premier not to be harassed by union pressure or the unreconstructed left’. John Gray describes Blair’s Labour party as ‘Leninism plus public relations’.

The Tory party was divided and in deep trouble throughout Blair’s leadership, and had been performing badly in the polls ever since Black Wednesday in September 1992. William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith had proved as ineffectual as Michael Foot had been as Labour leader in 1980-83, when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, and Michael Howard, despite early promise after his succession in November 2003, has proved little better. Like his two predecessors, he failed to organise his party as a credible government in waiting, or give the electorate any clear reason to vote Tory. The economic inheritance in 1997 was the most favourable any Labour government had enjoyed (1924, 1929, 1945, 1964 and 1974 were all problematic to different degrees) : Brown’s stewardship of the Treasury gave eight years of sustained growth, stability and money in the coffers for government to spend.

The election landslides in 1997 and 2001 (albeit thin in terms of the national vote), gave Labour opportunities to enact policy with popular mandates, untroubled by dissent in Parliament, which it had never enjoyed before. It may well be many years before the party again enjoys such advantages : Blair’s immediate successor will not be so fortunate. Blair’s powerbase depended critically upon electoral success. As long as he looked the most likely figure to achieve victories, he was secure, despite the growing forces ranged against him. If he ever looked an electoral liability, as he did for a time in the summer of 2004 when some opinion polls put the Tories ahead and suggested Labour would fare better under Brown, then he looked vulnerable, as he will no doubt again in the future.

‘Interests’ were initially very much behind Blair. No Labour Prime Minister on coming to power had so enjoyed the affirmation collectively of the senior Civil Service, business, the media, academia and the professions (far more so indeed than the Blairites understood at the time, as they always felt themselves to some extent to be ‘intruders’ in the Establishment). Abroad, he was admired - deferred to, even - by many leaders in the EU and beyond.

Qu’a donc en fait réalise Blair ? Considérons les 5 domaines dans lesquels il pense qu’il aura apporté le plus de changements comme je l’ai souligne plus haut. Ce sujet a déjà été traité dans mon livre de 600 pages intitulé L’effet Blair, comme il le sera également dans l’édition révisé consacrée au second gouvernement Blair a paraître en Septembre prochain chez Cambridge University Press, de même qu’il le sera dans plusieurs autres titres. Il n’y a pas d’autre gouvernement dans l’Histoire de la Grande-Bretagne qui a fait l’objet d’autant d’écrits pendant son mandat que le gouvernement Blair.

Est ce que Blair a réussi à transformer les relations avec l’Union Européenne ? La réponse à cette question est simple. Non, les relations avec l’UE ne sont pas meilleures qu’elles ne l’étaient en 1977, et l’entrée de la Grande-Bretagne dans le système monétaire unique n’aura pas lieu sous son mandat comme l’admet Blair lui même.

Les défenseurs de Blair affirment que son rôle dans le rapprochement de la Turquie avec l’UE mérite d’être largement reconnu. Peut être. Mais avec le referendum sur la Constitution de l’UE prévu en 2006 qui devient une question embarrassante pour lui, il espère s’en tirer si les Français votent non a la Constitution en Mai prochain, lui permettant ainsi de se dégager d’une mauvaise posture. Voila don pour ce qui est de sa brave et nouvelle politique européenne.

Est ce que Blair a amélioré les services publics ? Si on considère le secteur des transports, sa politique a échoué lamentablement. L’un des rares succès dans ce domaine, le problème de la circulation a Londres, sa solution est a porter au crédit de son ancien rival, Ken Livingston, Maire de Londres. Quand on considère les autres services publics, dans lesquels des succès relatifs ont été réalisés on est frappé par l’aspect continu des précédents dans les autres gouvernements Thatcher et Major, au moins dans l’éducation, la santé’ et la sécurité. Les services sociaux ont connu une évolution différente et ont connu de réels succès. Mais ceci n’est pas l’apanage de Blair mais de Brown. Les “experts” comme les partis ont des vues différentes sur le succès des reformes des services publics. Personne ne conteste le fait que les dépenses ont augmenté considérablement mais est ce que le système est devenu plus performant proportionnellement ? La réduction de la pauvreté et de la délinquance et l’amélioration des systèmes de santé et d’éducation ont été l’objet de vives contestations, avec différentes études aboutissant à des conclusions contradictoires. D’une manière générale il n’y a pas eu d’amélioration des services publics, mais Blair, le Premier Ministre Pollyanna croit que cela viendra au courant de son 3e mandat et au delà.

Est ce que Blair a doté la Grande-Bretagne d’une constitution moderne du 21e siècle ? Il y a eu quelques reformes remarquables pendant le premier mandat en autres la décentralisation en Ecosse et au Pays de Galles, des reformes limites dans la Chambre des Lords et l’adoption de la Convention Européenne des Droits de l’Homme dans la législation britannique. Ceux la étaient considères de vrais succès. Mais des distinctions doivent être faites quand il s’agit de déterminer la part de responsabilité directe de Blair. L’ordre du jour était incomplet (notamment concernant la Chambre des Lords) et l’ensemble manquait de cohérence. Blair pour a sa part montre peu d’intérêt dans la reforme constitutionnelle lors de son premier mandat. Qui devait énormément a l’héritage laissé par son prédécesseur J.Smith et qui fut consolidé une fois élu, par son mentor d ‘alors, D.Irvine.

Blair avait repris le dossier des reformes lors de son second mandat et avait initié d’importantes reformes juridiques a mi-mandat, particulièrement celles relatives a la Cour Suprême. Mais l’ordre du jour des reformes était mal préparé et reflétait l’intense débat qui avait lieu au 10 Downing Street sur le degré d’engagement de Blair dans les changements constitutionnels à venir. Le groupe des Traditionalistes a Downing St était très influent et dissuada Blair de faire le moindre discours sur les reformes constitutionnelles.

Brown sensed the vacuum, and made the promise of further and coherent constitutional reform a major personal platform as articulated in his manifesto by proxy in Robert Peston’s 2005 book, Brown’s Britain. Low turnout in the 2001 general election and a decline in trust in politicians, and in Blair personally, do not suggest that Blair succeeded in re-energising Britain’s democratic framework. Meanwhile his promise in 1997 to lead a government that would be “whiter than white” evaporated in a series of episodes that revealed that New Labour was not morally superior to the “sleazy” Tories, who Blair had personally so mocked when opposition leader from 1994-97. The allegations of sleaze were, indeed, far closer to Blair personally than they ever were with Major, with his very close aide Mandelson and his wife Cherie in the firing line. Throughout, Blair has found it difficult to conceive that he should be seen as anything other than a thoroughly honest, moral and indeed religious figure.

Has Blair transformed Britain’s position in the world ? Blair would admit that the process is still in train, and pins particular hope on Britain’s presidency of the EU and leadership of the G8 this year. Certainly, if peace comes to the Middle East, with a lasting settlement to the Arab Israeli conflict, if a stable democratic government emerges in Iraq capable of holding the country together, if democracy then spreads through neighbouring states as he believes it will, if the scars of Africa can be healed and a new determination be found to tackle climate change, then Blair will indeed have achieved much. But the jury is still out on all these areas. His “doctrine of the international community” developed, literally, “on the wing” en route to Chicago in April 1999, postulated intervention in the affairs of sovereign nations for humanitarian reasons, amongst others. This doctrine foreshadowed a new era in international relations. Blair felt vindicated with his determined stance on this policy in Kosovo in 1999, although the jury is still out on the wisdom of his actions there, and the extent to which he himself, rather than the Americans and Russians, brought the situation under control. Even if his decision to back America so wholeheartedly over Iraq in 2002-03 is vindicated by events, the fact remains that he took Britain to war on a false prospectus. There were no weapons of mass destruction, and, in basing his case to the nation on that fact, he was either incompetent or a liar (I believe the former). It may yet be shown that the one major role he had to play as Prime Minister was the one President Eisenhower played with Anthony Eden over Suez in 1956, of trying to dissuade him from precipitous action. But Blair did not try to make Bush think again over Iraq in 2002-03. Blair alone among world leaders could have made the President re-think. It was the biggest choice he had to make as Prime Minister. I believe that history will judge him no more kindly than it did Eden over Suez. The world had such high hopes of Blair in 1997. What he has not done is to achieve the new relationship for Britain in the world that he promised.

One area where he made an undoubted positive impact was in Northern Ireland where he worked tenaciously and hard throughout both his terms to bring about and then maintain the peace. Admittedly, violence and lawlessness continue, and he was building on the work of his predecessor as Prime Minister, John Major ; but history will still judge Blair’s personal record in Northern Ireland, above all the Good Friday Agreement, as one of his major personal achievements Finally, has Blair re-modelled the Labour Party and ushered in the progressive century ? He has certainly made Labour more electorably viable than at any other point in its 105 year history. No other Labour leader, neither Attlee nor Harold Wilson, won two, let alone three landslides. In electoral terms, Blair has been, by a distance, the most successful Labour leader in history. It is yet to be seen whether Labour will revert to being the disputatious and doctrinally-driven force that it was for much of its history until Blair succeeded as Leader in 1994. It is at best unlikely that, under Brown, his key co-architect of New Labour, the party will revert to type. But Blair’s great hope of changing the mould of British politics has not transpired. He was given this vision by another mentor, Roy Jenkins, (who, like Irvine, was also to become disillusioned with him). Electoral reform was to be the key to the transformation of British politics. Yet, as with British entry to the single currency, Blair decided to pull back when he sensed the divisions it might create and the damage it might do to his own leadership position. Blair was never decisive enough domestically to be the great domestic Prime Minister he wanted to be, and when he was decisive, as over university fees and foundation hospitals in 2004, his new-found resolution came too late.

Innate caution is thus the first explanation of why he had not achieved more as Prime Minister up to 2005. His entire cast of mind was directed towards winning elections. Initially, he was scarred by the experience of four successive defeats in general elections from 1979-1992, but, later, the caution was dictated by his wish to avoid jeopardising what he increasingly saw as perhaps his major claim to immortality, his ability to win general elections. Blair was always driven much more by the desire to win power than to use power. Mulgan puts Blair’s limited achievement in government down to his reluctance to take on powerful interests such as ‘the London media, the super rich, big business and the City’ as well as ‘the major public professions [doctors, teachers and police]’.

A second explanation then for the modest achievement is that Blair failed to work out until too late exactly what he wanted to do with power. His own personal credo, developed in the 1970s and 1980s, was constructed around the ideas of community, personal responsibility and democracy. But it was embarrassingly thin and inconsistent. The theorist who influenced him most was not a socialist but a religious visionary, John MacMurray. Works of history that most inspired him were not those of Labour’s great leaders of the past but biographies of Liberal leaders. The political leader who influenced him the most was not Labour but Conservative, Mrs Thatcher.

During the 1994 elections for the Labour Party leadership, when asked what his personal manifesto was, he said that it would become clear once he was elected leader. Indeed, his first act as leader showed great courage in ridding the party of Clause IV of its constitution, an act of great symbolic (if little policy) significance. But then he went coy and said that the electorate would see his radicalism once he was elected as Prime Minister. His whole energy up until the 1997 general election was to “neutralise the negatives”, i.e. remove the reasons the electorate might have for voting Labour, such as the party being weak on defence, or unable to run a modern capitalist economy. Once in power from May 1997, however, he again showed little sense of having any clear idea about what he wanted to do. His story increasingly became, ‘let’s prove to the electorate that we deserve their trust by giving competent government : the radicalism will come in a second term’.

Yet he fought the 2001 general election with a very incomplete programme of what he wanted to do with power. Then came 9/11 and he travelled the world for a year, which further delayed his serious thinking. Only in 2002-03 did his thoughts begin to crystallise firmly. At last he had found what he wanted to do with power. It was not to take Britain into the Euro, nor to introduce proportional representation. It was to have a ‘choice and diversity’ agenda in the public services. Once elucidated, he drove this neo-Thatcherite policy forward with a vengeance. But it was arguably discovered too late to make a significant impression on policy, at least before the 2005 general election. The future, as they say, is history.

Not only did Blair not know what he wanted to do with power ; he also did not know how to use it. He had never worked in a commercial organisation nor had he run anything until he became leader of the Labour Party in 1994. His preference had always been for working in small groups, whether as a student with his discussion group at Oxford, his enclave of fellow barristers in Derry Irvine’s Chambers, or the close-knit caucus that formed around the room he shared with Gordon Brown after he entered the House of Commons in 1983. It was a tight-knit clique that developed New Labour, including Brown, Mandelson, Alastair Campbell, Philip Gould and Anji Hunter. This same clique, minus Gordon Brown but joined by Jonathan Powell and Sally Morgan, formed his praetorian guard during his three years as opposition leader after 1994.

The formula worked as opposition Labour leader, but it transferred less happily when shifted wholesale into Number Ten. Blair spent most of his first term believing he could run the country and manipulate the media as he and his team had done in opposition. Gradually, he developed an approach to government that relied heavily on central diktat, side-lining the views of most of the Civil Service, the Labour party, the Cabinet and Parliament. Policy was run from his own office in Downing Street, which he called ‘the den’, hence the term ‘democracy’ which I give to his style of governing. The Delivery Unit, from 2001, was to provide the storm troopers for his crusade to transform the public services, and targets and monitoring were to be the strategy.

While this approach had more success in the second term than in the first, Blair’s style of government came under increasing attack for ignoring the conventions of British government as well as for its inefficiency. It was Blair’s conduct of the Iraq war that brought the ‘democracy’ under a piercing spotlight, notably in the Hutton and Butler Inquiries. While absolving Blair of the charges of lying, they were sharply critical of his style of governing. Over Iraq, it is possible that if he had listened more widely, not the least to the Foreign Office, he would not have acted as he did : more generally, if he had used the institutions at his disposal better, he might have achieved much more as Prime Minister.

Blair’s modest success can also be put down to the lack of a coherent ideology available to give traction to his policies. While Attlee and Thatcher both came to power on the crest of ideological waves, Blair had no such fortune. For all the store set by the “third way”, and its internationalisation under Blair and Clinton into a platform for centre-left governments worldwide, the reality was that it spawned a disappointingly small number of policies. Agenda-changing governments need to have an intellectual and an ideological coherence which was not there for Blair.

On pouvait noter une dissonance perpétuelle entre lui et son allié principal et collaborateur, G. Brown. Alors qu’ils ont fait preuve d’unité dans leur effort de créer le Nouveau Parti Travailliste et gagner ensuite autant d’élections que possible ils avaient des différents sur plusieurs sujets notamment sur la politique sociale. Il n’est pas surprenant alors de voir que les positions les plus audacieuses de Blair en tant que Premier Ministre le soient dans le domaine international la ou Brown ne pouvait pas le contredire. Apres 1994, leur partenariat ne fut efficace que quand ils étaient lié par un objectif commun, mettant ainsi provisoirement leur mésentente de coté. Blair aurait pu être un Premier Ministre beaucoup plus clair avec son propre programme s’il n’y avait pas eu derrière lui Brown pour l’entraver, mais également son gouvernement n’aurait pas été aussi performant. En fait, il n’aurait pas accédé au poste de Premier Ministre sans l’aide de Brown en premier lieu. C’est l’aspect original du mandat de Blair.

Pour pouvoir devenir le Premier Ministre radical, maître de son programme comme il l’avait souhaité il aurait fallu que Blair laissât derrière lui un solide état de services que les gouvernements futurs accepteraient sans amendements. Comme ce fut le cas pour Asquith, Attlee ou Thatcher. Mais Blair n’aura pas laissé de telles oeuvres derrière lui. Le Blairisme n’existe pas. C’est la un autre fait notable au sujet de sa place dans l’Histoire.

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