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by Michael Winship

Blair Leaves With Legacy Tied to History's View of Bush

LONDON -- It's Iraq wot done him in. Tony Blair, that is.

What began with such promise when he became the British prime minister in 1997 is over, as dead as mutton. Blair can thank his pal the American president for that, as well as his own hubris.

When Sir Christopher Meyer became British ambassador to the United States he was instructed by Blair's chief of staff to get up the backside of the White House as far he could and stay there. Only Blair's aide didn't say backside.

(As the New York Times once euphemistically quoted Mayor Ed Koch when he was especially vexed by then City Council President Carol Bellamy, "He told her to kiss him and then said where.")

At the time, what probably was meant was that on Blair's behalf Ambassador Meyer needed to firmly align (or insert) himself with Washington primarily as a safeguard for British interests but also as an intermediary if it seemed the White House was about to do something truly nuts globally. Blair seems to have attached himself to the first part of that notion and either ignored the latter or thought that his voice of reason would prevail over his cowboy American cousin. As we say here in the United Kingdom, fat chance.

So now Blair is out, sooner than he would have liked. This has led to a situation unique in British political history. While we Americans are accustomed to a two and a half month interlude between the time a new president is elected in November and their inauguration the following January, the British are nonplussed that there now will be a five-week wait until June 27th, when current Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown becomes the next prime minister.

In the past, the new P.M. has taken office immediately after an election -- as Blair succeeded John Major -- or the incumbent has stepped down as leader of the majority party -- as Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher. It's in one day, out the next, here's your hat, what's your hurry? But Blair's ruling Labor Party determined that for the first time ever there would be a transition period before Brown takes over.

There's no law that says there can't be an interval -- just a tradition that goes back to 1721 and Robert Walpole, Great Britain's first prime minister. So while he still holds his nation's highest office, Blair has set off on a series of worldwide long goodbyes, trips that have taken him to Washington and Iraq with upcoming curtsies next month at summits of the European Union and G-8 nations. Given the situation in the Middle East, none dare call it a victory loop.

This all has many gnashing their incisors, especially in the British media and the rival Conservative Party, the leader of which, David Cameron, denounced the transition as a farce.

Blair is "indulging his vanity," Cameron said. "We need an end to this ludicrous situation of having a caretaker government. We are going to have weeks of a prime minister on a farewell tour when the government should be getting on with the business of governing the country."

"Britain's Two Prime Ministers" was the headline in Friday's edition of The Guardian newspaper. And the first night I got here a weekly political chat show on the BBC opened with a very buxom opera singer warming up, trilling musical scales. In other words, the fat lady's about to sing -- but not just yet.

Brown's campaign manager, former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the five weeks will be "a heaven-sent opportunity for Mr. Brown to think and prepare for government." Compared to the American experience it seems rather the proverbial tempest in a Wedgwood teacup. The important thing is to see whether once in charge Brown can accomplish any of the changes Blair once promised but failed to deliver.

The issues are virtually identical to those we face back in the States: education, health care, housing, global warming and energy policy, government reform, immigration, the disintegration of the family, drug and alcohol abuse, civil liberties and privacy, among others. As in the United States, while there has been substantial economic growth during the Blair years, the gulf between rich and poor grows vaster with each day.

Columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown claimed in Monday's edition of The Independent that, despite progress, "The UK, fourth largest world economy, is today more belligerent, coarse, unwelcome to incomers [immigrants], suffused with alienation, anti-equality, devastating for children, mean, socially immobile, bleak, resentful, cynical and overwhelmingly pessimistic."

Yet give Tony Blair credit where it's due: for the new peace in Northern Ireland, a minimum wage, working family tax credits, some improvements in schools and hospitals, his embrace of worldwide environmental and poverty issues. But like Lyndon Johnson torn between his Great Society and the Vietnam War, Blair couldn't deliver both guns and butter. His was a mandate squandered in a dither of spin and lost in the streets and sands of Iraq.

At last week's Rose Garden press conference, the president characterized Tony Blair as "dogged," doing no favors for the man savaged among his own people as "Bush's poodle." In fact, many here cite as a final nail in Blair's coffin the moment at the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg last year when Bush was overheard calling to the prime minister with a belittling "Yo, Blair!"

It was the senior class bully ordering the class nerd to hand over his lunch money, intolerable to the citizens of a former empire on which the sun never set.

In the end, the eminent journalist Robert Fisk was reminded of words Oliver Cromwell declared as he dissolved Britain's Rump Parliament in 1653, words that were repeated nearly three centuries later by British politician Leo Amery to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in the wake of Munich and appeasement: "You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go."

© 2007 Messenger Post Newspapers

Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York

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Albion Monitor   May 30, 2007   (

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