In yesterday’s New York Times, second-rate biographer AN Wilson pontificated on the premiership of Tony Blair. I know there is always a mystery about the Times’s choices for its once-prestigious op-ed pages, but I would have thought that someone with a bit of a record on political observation would be the natural choice. Instead, Wilson was able to vent without any apparent need to check facts on the Blair legacy.
Here is a paragraph that particularly got my goat:
Then there was Blair the Efficient, who told us he would improve the educational system, transportation, hospitals: in all these areas, Britain is in a parlous state, with railway accident rates reminding us of the 19th century and true literacy levels much lower than those of the Victorians. As many as one-quarter of British parents now pay for ruinously expensive private education for the children. That is the measure of Mr. Blair’s success with the schools.
Maybe I’m missing an attempt at satire, but there is hardly a true word in the paragraph. Wilson states that one-quarter of parents go private. Where does that figure come from? The true figure is 6.3% of students in England and Wales attend private schools. According to the CIA World Factbook, 99% of the population of the UK is literate. I’m not sure what Wilson means by “true literacy”, but I’m sure it was lower by any measure in Victorian times. I haven’t sourced statistics on railway accidents per mile, but most people reckon the problems with trains in Britain can be traced to the misguided privatization scheme of the former Conservative government. Health? There are certainly tons of problems in the National Health Service, but the health outcomes for the population are better on average than in the US, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
If you want to read thoughtful, well-argued, well-supported analyses of the Blair decade, turn to Philip Stephens in the Financial Times, David Marquand in The Guardian or even the epistolary responses of David Aaronovitch and Matthew Parris in The Times (of London).
My take? I think Stephens gets it pretty much right. Blair led a much-needed transformation domestically and achieved more than he is given credit for and less than many hoped. His social democratic stance has become the political norm in the country, which is wholly to the good. Outside Britain, he did a lot for Africa, the Balkans and the drive to combat climate change. But he will forever be correctly tarred for his terrible misjudgment on Iraq.