LONDON, United Kingdom, Jul 6 – Tony Blair rode a wave of “Cool Britannia” optimism in his first heady years in office but is now reviled by many Britons who accuse him of leading the country into an unnecessary war in Iraq that shattered his legacy.
Published 13 years after the 2003 US-led invasion, Wednesday’s Iraq War Inquiry report pointed the finger squarely at the former prime minister for catastrophic planning failures.
“I will be with you, whatever,” Blair wrote in a note to then US president George W. Bush in July 2002, eight months before the invasion was launched.
Hundreds of people wearing Blair masks and carrying placards reading “Bliar” gathered outside the London conference centre where the report was unveiled, highlighting how divisive a figure Blair remains.
The contrast could not be greater with 1997 the year the youthful centre-left reformer Blair was elected in a surge of enthusiasm comparable to the historic 2009 election of US President Barack Obama.
Blair’s achievements in office from securing peace in Northern Ireland to economic prosperity, devolving power to home nations and winning a record three general elections are now often overlooked.
Since leaving office, many in Britain have also viewed his moneymaking activities including advising countries with questionable human rights records such as Kazakhstan with distaste.
“The pity of Blair’s position is that if it weren’t for Iraq, more of the astonishing social transformation of Britain and the change in its structures of government would be recognised,” commentator Bronwen Maddox wrote in Prospect magazine last month.
“As it is, he is all but disqualified from British and European politics.”
The leadership of the Labour party which Blair led from 1994 until his resignation as premier in 2007 has now totally rejected his centrist policies, embracing a left-wing programme.
Its current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, a leading opponent of the Iraq war, is hoping to use the report to bolster his own position in the face of a massive rebellion by MPs against his leadership.
Three straight election wins
As Labour leader from 1994, Blair rebranded the historically socialist party as “New Labour” and hauled it to the centre ground to try and end a long spell in opposition.
In 1997 he was elected prime minister, at 43 becoming Britain’s youngest premier since 1812, and ushering in a new era of hope and confidence for many after 18 years of Conservative governments.
The following year brought a peace deal in Northern Ireland, the British province devastated by three decades of violence between Protestant and Catholic communities.
With the economy booming, increases in spending on health and education helped secure another election win in 2001.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks, Blair was quick to ally Britain closely with Bush.
London sent troops to Afghanistan and agreed to join the US-led mission to remove Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003.
But one million people protested on the streets of London against the Iraq invasion, and when the evidence for the war proved flawed, wider dissatisfaction set in.
Blair won the election in 2005, a record third term for a Labour premier, but with a reduced majority.
On July 7, 2005, the day after London won the right to host the 2012 Olympic Games, four British suicide bombers attacked the capital’s public transport system, killing 52 people.
Two years later Blair stood down after a long and increasingly bitter power play with finance minister Gordon Brown, who replaced him.
‘Hard to apologise’
Blair has spent much of the last decade abroad, including eight years as the unpaid envoy for the diplomatic Middle East Quartet but he stepped down last year after failing to produce a meaningful breakthrough.
He made a rare foray back into British politics to warn of the dangers of leaving the European Union in the June 23 referendum an intervention that fell on deaf ears.
A committed Christian who converted to Roman Catholicism after leaving office, Blair set up a foundation to support inter-faith dialogue and counter extremism, and has also worked with governments in developing nations in Africa.