LONDON — You could almost hear a sigh of relief at the eagerly awaited departure of Tony Blair.
The man who took Britain into more wars than any other prime minister, who worshiped at the altar of business and who treated the labor movement which founded his party with absolute contempt, has finally exited stage right.
For his embarrassing devotion to George Dubbya, Blair has been crowned Middle East peace envoy — a bizarre decision given his track record in the region, although it will allow Blair to keep playing make-believe global leader with his old buddy.
The mess in the Middle East may be a welcome diversion to the ex-PM, who is still haunted by a continuing corruption investigation into the alleged sale of seats in Britain’s upper chamber to businessmen who funded flagship schools. Mind you, should the slippery former lawyer sidestep this potential pitfall, the doors to a range of corporate paymasters are always likely to remain open.
Meanwhile, his replacement, former Chancellor Gordon Brown, looks set to do his utmost to continue Blair’s work, at least when it comes to the domestic agenda.
Brown makes his entrance firmly stage right, with the only left-wing, staunchly pro-union challenger to the Labor Party leadership blocked by the party’s unspectacular collection of MPs.
John McDonnell, a London Labor MP backed by a range of union and grassroots supporters — although not Britain’s biggest trade unions — needed 44 nominations from among 354 MPs in order to trigger a democratic contest among party members and affiliates.
In the final tally, his support stuck stubbornly at just 29, leading to a Brown coronation and proving just why the center-right set the nomination threshold so high in the first place.
Brown, whose personal relationship with Blair has been followed by the media as if it were the uppermost issue in British politics, actually has a lot in common with his predecessor.
Activist Brian Haw, whose six-year-long antiwar protest on the green opposite Parliament has infuriated pro-war MPs, probably spoke for many this week, saying dismissively: “Different asshole, same old shit.”
They do, though, have different personal stories: Brown is the state-educated son of a Church of Scotland minister with an early interest in social justice and Labor Party history, while Blair’s background was noticeably light on politics.
However, both men ended up self-styled “modernizers,” a term which has become synonymous with glossy image presentation, media management and the repeated use of meaningless buzzwords such as “change,” “reform” and “value.”
Prime Minister Blair and then-Chancellor Brown, the man in charge of the budget, collaborated on a range of policies that have angered traditional Labor supporters.
Both played starring roles in a government obsessed with market solutions and which has pursuing discredited free trade and privatization policies at home and abroad with messianic zeal. Last year, Brown even went so far as to tell a business audience that Britain must become an “evangelist” for globalization.
But he could be in for a rough ride. Britain’s big public-sector unions are threatening a wave of industrial action amid a pay freeze and job cuts, there is chaos in the health service as the government plows ahead with a market model that will allow foreign firms to leech the budget, and there is widespread discontent over housing shortages, pensions and education policy.
Abroad, Britain is heavily involved in the neoliberal European Union project, which is forcing members states to cut welfare provision and to hand over large areas of state responsibility to private companies.
Then there’s the rising price tag for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which are draining billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money alongside the human cost.
The failed bomb attacks in London and at Glasgow Airport last weekend again put the domestic price of Blair’s foreign policies into stark focus.
Most pundits would agree that the wheels came off for Blair not long after he became Bush’s partner in crime in the “war on terror.” If Brown can’t find a way out of his predecessor’s foreign adventures, then he may be in for trouble in the run-up to elections rumored for next spring.
Richard Bagley is a journalist with the British newspaper Morning Star (www.morningstaronline.co.uk).