10 May 2007

Hello I Must Be Going

The night Tony Blair became Prime Minister will have left a vivid impression on most people living in Britain at the time. For me, who had only recently moved to London, it was particularly exciting. During the late night election vigil you could hear successive rounds of cheers emanating from flats up and down the block in our largely Labour constituency as one after another of the hated Tories went down to defeat. The following morning dawned bright and spectacularly warm - this was before Mediterranean-style weather had become commonplace in the Southeast, and also before the global warming cloud had set out convincing us that it was a Bad Thing - so we marked it as delightful harbinger of what New Labour would do for the country.

Then we stood in the blazing sunlight for upwards of half an hour waiting for a bus that failed to materialize, and I groused that nothing seemed to have changed very much at all. Now ten years have passed, Tony Blair is about to leave and turn the country over to Gordon Brown in the short term and, if pundits are to be believed, to David Cameron's Conservatives in the long. Unsurprisingly, people - though not necessarily yours truly - are still grousing that nothing much has changed.

Perhaps there's some truth to that. Transport is still rubbish, with some marginal improvement in service canceled out by swingeing fare hikes that have made getting around London and the country at large more expensive than almost anywhere in the world. Crime, especially violent crime, is worse than ever, and what might be called the Africanization of Britain - the widespread failure of central and local government to create and maintain functional public spaces and institutions - has proceeded apace.

Yet despite those and numerous other criticisms that could be made, Britain today is a very different place than when Tony Blair took charge, and the change is not entirely for the worse. It's become by far the liveliest and most creative country in Europe, so much so that it barely feels like a part of Europe anymore; as both cause and and result, its population and culture have been transformed by massive immigration, legal and illegal. The sclerotic, shabbily genteel and declining country I first encountered in the 1970s is no more; Tony Blair's Britain has acquired a dynamism and excitement that could lead you to think it was just starting out, not steeped in a couple thousand years of history.

And although it puts me into a fairly small minority, I'll be sorry to see Tony go. He dealt more in grand gestures and symbols than in substantive action, and much of what he promised to accomplish has yet to arrive, but he was better than nearly anyone at articulating a vision, and that's perhaps the fundamental role of any leader. Even if - as most Britons did - you disagreed with him on Iraq, it's hard to argue that he didn't show conviction by going against the will of the majority for something he believed was right. Of course you could also argue that he squandered much of his political capital on what now looks to be a disastrously failed enterprise.

All in all, though, I'm glad to have been there and to have been a part of Britain for nearly all of Tony Blair's premiership, and wouldn't mind if he decided to stick around a while longer, not that his increasingly stroppy Labour colleagues would ever allow it. In fact, Tony's chances might be better if he switched to the Tories and waged a leadership battle against David Cameron. Barring that, and I think we safely can, let's just bid Tony a slightly wistful farewell and thank him for keeping things, well, at the very least, interesting.

1 comment:

Dave Hughes said...

I wrote a song a few weeks back (on the eve of the Scottish elections - thats where I live) about when Labour came to power in '97 and it was hailed as a dream came true. Then as years go on it's turning in to the same nightmare of the Tories, only the milk never came back to be taken again.

You can check out the song at www.myspace.com/davehughesmusic and its called On Our Own.

Hope you take time to listen to it, I'd love to hear your thoughts.