Compared to the fanfare, Tony Blair’s ten years as prime minister failed to produce many of the promised improvements for Britain. Should anything more be expected from Blair as a European President? In a two-part Richter Scale, I argue that Europe would be better off avoiding the hype and placing a strong and steady hand at the helm.
Europe does not need a Dorian Gray to lead it into the future. The intense campaign to put Tony Blair at the head of the European enterprise is a complete misconception of what Europe needs and stands for — and of Mr. Blair’s record in office.
Tony Blair, in other words, has always been a breathlessly and breathtakingly aspirational politician. With abandon, he has used his office and media machine to climb further and further, while seeking to ingratiate himself more and more with the people who matter.
The most potent argument in favor of the former British prime minister is that, in order to have weight on the global scale, Europe needs to be represented by somebody who has star quality.
Otherwise, it is said, phone calls might not be returned. And powerful heads of European governments might not be sufficiently supportive of a future, dynamic agenda for Europe. And the people might be uninspired unless they are led by a Bono-type politician.
Oh, please. In the arms race for personal-political sex appeal, compared to Barack Obama, even Tony Blair comes up woefully short. But should that really be the measure of who represents Europe at the top?
Isn’t Europe better off picking somebody whose character, temperament and personality is more reflective of Europe’s admittedly more staid, perhaps even dull, nature? The question is simply this: Under which kind of leadership have Europeans fared well?
Has Europe been better off with headline-grabbing, outsized personalities like Silvio Berlusconi — for whom all of Italy is simply a stage on which to aggrandize his own vanity? Or with Tony Blair, a gifted PR front man for what has turned into a failed modernization process?
While it is not worth dwelling on Berlusconi, Tony Blair warrants closer examination. Yes, he has star power — and he has wined and dined and vacationed with the “it” people on yachts around the world.
But he is, and has always been, a man of straw. He is the true heir of Harold Wilson, an earlier “New Labor” prime minister of 1960s Britain who also talked inspiringly about restructuring British industry and technology — but didn’t have a clue how to actually do it.
The measure of an experienced leader is not his entourage’s sense of self-perception or self-projection, but what he has done for his country. And it is on that front that Mr. Blair comes up woefully short — short enough not to deserve a second chance.
Serving ten years in office and equipped with the financial means of a true revenue boom in public coffers, Mr. Blair had the chance of a lifetime in remaking Britain, away from a heavily class-based society where economic rights and benefits were essentially distributed at the moment of birth.
His Labor government, equipped with solid majorities to this day, could have used the rich endowment of increasing tax revenues from a booming financial sector and housing market to remake Britain.
But that would have probably meant biting off the hand that fed the British government. And so Mr. Blair did the very thing any meek, go-along-to-get-along politician always does: He shied away from real reform.
Not that you would have noticed it from a distance. Mr. Blair always knew (and knows) how to give a good speech to cover up significant shortcomings in policy-making.
Whatever else one says about Margaret Thatcher, no one can deny that she dramatically restructured Britain’s economy and society during her record 11 years as prime minister. Blair, Britain’s second-longest-serving prime minister, however, neither turned back the clock on Thatcher’s reforms nor advanced beyond them.
He poured ample funds into Britain’s National Health Service, even though the improvement was only marginal. British public education remains the worst of any major nation in Western Europe. And the property/housing bubble that gave the illusion of growth during the Blair years has finally gone bust.
Blair’s failure to achieve anything significant at home is especially revealing because a British prime minister can be much more powerful in his country than a U.S. President or a German Chancellor.
A British Prime Minister, if equipped with the majorities granted to Mr. Blair, has quasi-dictatorial powers to remake his country.
How so? In Britain, in stark contrast to Mr. Obama’s United States, party discipline counts as much — and is as tough — as in the former Eastern Europe.
If, in light of all the evidence presented above, there are indeed severe doubts about the suitability of picking Mr. Blair — whether for his “star power” or his political track record — can Europe really afford to pick a more conventional politician, such as the Netherlands’ Mr. Balkenende? (Though, the ultimate choice should by no means be limited to him.)
Certainly, picking a politician/technocrat would be in keeping with Europe’s recent past. Europeans, by and large, aren’t into star power — other than on the soccer field or the concert stage. Call it a healthy Europe-wide doubt of “leaders” — with their outsized personalities and their mellifluous, but ultimately empty, rhetoric.
Europeans are ultimately great realists. They know the process of political and economic reform is a tough business. They understand that it’s a matter of steady incrementalism, not sudden, dramatic change.
In that sense, a European President in the Balkenende mold more truly reflects and represents what Europe stands for. Europe has had many weak-looking, non-thrilling leaders — and still progressed over the decades.
And when it comes to the other leg of the three-legged ”G3” stool, certainly nobody would claim that either Wen Jiabao or Hu Jintao, China’s Prime Minister and President, respectively, are great personal charmers projecting a mega-image around the globe. But they don’t have to be.
Their economic, diplomatic and strategic achievements over the past years speak for themselves.
The Chinese people know that that is not what’s needed for success and progress in the modern era. A track record of success, personal modesty, trust and, above all, the personal integrity to stay away from hype, are what is needed.
Europe, like China, wants no more — and needs no less. Relegate Mr. Blair’s superficial star power to the lucrative lecture circuit.
Instead, if Europeans want to learn from an American mentor, they should heed the advice of President Theodore Roosevelt: “Talk softly and carry a big stick, and you will go far.” Blair is used to talking loudly and commandingly while carrying no stick at all. Europe won’t get anywhere with him.
As Middle East envoy, he has been trying to keep his foot in the door for future callings. As a recent convert to Catholicism, his appeal in the south of Europe may also have risen somewhat.
But his candidacy also takes shape at a time when much of what he — and his long-time sidekick, Gordon Brown — stood for politically is rapidly falling apart.
Instead of inventing a glorious new economic reality for Britain in the 12 years since Labor took power in 1997, public finances are in shambles.
In addition, the country’s current economic recovery strategy (“let’s quickly head back to manufacturing”) essentially reverses everything that was considered the right strategy before — when finance and other services were viewed as the key to the future.