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Last Updated: 05/12/2003The Blair Bridge Project
Simon Stander, Editor
Tony Blair, whatever you may think of him or his policies, is in a unique position as a leading world politician. Among the glitter waiting for him before his career is over is a Nobel Peace Prize. What? A Nobel for the man who backed Bush to invade Iraq? For the man who backed Clinton to bomb Belgrade? For the man who is the top arms salesman for his country? Here's the argument.
First of all, there is Blair's youth, though that's running out as he will reach his fiftieth birthday next week, but, then, Bambi, as he is known, has already been in power for almost six years. What's more, he stands to stay in power for a lot longer if he plays his cards right, and so far he has been almost faultless. The state of the main opposition party, the Conservatives, is truly dreadful, a bit like the Labour party was in the early Eighties: it took them a good fifteen years to look as if they were serious contenders for power. Blair has to worry less about the opposition than his own party. On the other hand, despite what one might read in the newspapers, Labour politicians are relishing being power and will not dump Blair readily. The casual observer of British politics might have thought the twentieth century was a two party system in the UK with the Labour party sharing power with the Conservatives. Not so. Until Blair won in 1997, and apart from the Labour-Liberal government of 1929-32, the Labour Party only held office for seventeen years in the whole century: 1945-51, 1964-70, 1974-79, and much of that was with the tiniest of majorities in the House of Commons. For the first time in history, Blair is offering a real future, not only for himself, but also for his party and for the dominant figures within it. Nor has he real rival waiting in the wings. Keeping his main rival Gordon Brown as Chancellor of Exchequer is standard procedure for staying in power. It has been notoriously difficult for a British politician to go from Chancellor to PM. John Major has been the modern exception but he was in the job for only a year.
Second, there appears to be no sleaze to dig up. For a modern politician, he is remarkably clean despite the odd ugly rumour about his wife and some of his friends, but, then, as a former lead singer of the short lived Ugly Rumours pop group, he is a past master at being dismissive of sleaze about himself or his family, and will fare much better than Thatcher and the Conservatives did.
Third, underpinning Blair's position, enabling him to make a serious play as a world statesman, is the position of the UK. Blair has been acutely aware that his own image is dependent on that of the country he leads. Thus a Cool Britannia is required to forge a new image and new successes in the world. Generally speaking, his base is safe. Thatcher made the economy tougher and leaner for him. Public expenditure is under control. The pound sterling is stronger than the Euro. The UK still carries weight in many parts of the world and benefits in economic terms from this influence: Africa, Australasia, Caribbean, North America. At the same time, while it is in constant contention with Germany and France, the UK is important in the European Union with its economy in better shape and will stay that way for some years to come.
Fourth, Britain has always done well in the United Nations, partly because of its influence with the Commonwealth nations, partly because of its veto in the security council, and partly because of its skilled and experienced foreign office. Blair is sure to try and maximise this influence within the UN.
Finally, the US does need significant allies, and Blair has been there with both Clinton and Bush, "shoulder to shoulder", in their time of need. What's more the economic ties with the US are important as they involve intimate connections with the arms industries in the two countries. The UK has significant orders from such firms as Lockheed Martin while BAE systems, the UK's leading arms manufacturer, has 20, 000 employees working for its subsidiaries in the USA. There is a good deal of intelligence exchange with the US, for instance, still dependent on much Middle eastern signals intelligence collected at the UK Cyprus bases. These and other connections are ones that Blair is keen to enlarge.
Given all this, and knowing that when Blair came to power he was probably giving himself at least twenty five years, what is Blair's vision?
In the last few days and weeks, he has been doing his best to heal the rifts with Europe over Iraq and has been urging a big role for the UN. Moreover, he has been outspoken against the French vision of Europe as challenging US hegemony. Not for Blair a vision of a multipolar world. Blair does have a vision of peace and harmony. He does have a vision of the UK as the bridge between an enlarged Europe and the US hegemon. Whether Blair becomes the President of the European Union or not in 2006 or after, he sees himself as the bridge builder. He is close to delivering over the war in his own backyard, Northern Ireland. He was the first British PM to address the parliament of the Republic of Ireland during which he talked of his own Irish grandmother. It is surprising he hasn't yet dug up a US relative, or a German or a French one, but you can be sure he will continue to build bridges of whatever material comes to hand. Nobel Peace Prize? For sure, but this will be a mere bauble on the way to being the first world statesman of the twenty first century when George W and Chirac are dim memories.