Blair's Retirement (Whither the British Lion?)

Today’s announcement that British Prime Minister Tony Blair will retire from office in late June is neither unexpected nor welcome here. It ends a decade of closer alliance with Britain than America has enjoyed since World War Two. Blair isn’t Winston Churchill and neither Clinton nor Bush is Franklin Roosevelt. But Blair’s leadership has given us much, and his leaving may well take it all away.

In the second Clinton term, I mistakenly equated Blair with our priapic president. It was easy to do that, because liberal Blair seemed to sound most of the same themes (other than, “I did not have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky”) that his American counterpart did. The mistake came in not judging how hard Blair worked to hold back the tide of multicultural liberalism that is sinking England rapidly. When George Bush was elected, Blair seemed to fit in the Bush White House as well as he had in Clinton’s. Then came 9-11.

When George Bush gave his dramatic speech before a joint session of Congress on the night of September 20, 2001, Tony Blair was there. His presence made clear, instantly, that just as America came to England’s aid in both World Wars of the Twentieth Century, Britain would come to ours in the first major war of the Twenty-First. It’s not clear to me just when or how, but Blair — far better than many of our other allies (and faux allies) — decided that a war had begun as threatening to civilization as World War Two had been. Ever since, in Afghanistan, Iraq and other places where only special operations troops, spies and remotely-piloted aircraft go, the Brits have stood by us.

It has not been easy for Blair. The anti-war sentiment that has overcome reason among Congressional Democrats is mild in comparison to what a great many Britons believe. Blair has been called Bush’s lap dog and blamed for the rise in radical Islam in England. None of his critics saw the danger of Britain’s decades-long provision of sanctuary for radical Islamists fleeing nations such as Iran, Iraq, and too many others. Blair’s joining Britain in the Iraq invasion is regularly blamed for the terrorist attacks Britain endured on July 7, 2005. The fact that MI5, England’s domestic intelligence service, has identified thousands of terrorist suspects living in Britain has given Blair’s critics pause, but not enough to act decisively to throw many of these people out of England. Anti-Bush and anti-American sentiment in Britain are a tremendous political force that will probably push Britain out of the war before our next presidential election. The disarming of substantial portions of the British Army and Royal Navy under Blair may decide that even if Blair’s successor — his Labour Party partner and rival, Chancellor Gordon Brown — doesn’t decide to on his own.

Gordon Brown is not well-known in America. As the Brit chancellor — the rough equivalent of our Secretary of the Treasury — he is known in financial circles, but not elsewhere. From his public record, it’s not clear how or whether Brown will continue Blair’s close relationship with President Bush. To understand Brown, we have to understand David Cameron first.

Cameron, the young leader of the British Conservative Party, is anything but a conservative. Since John Major’s Prime Ministership, there has been a role reversal in British politics. As hard as it is to understand from here, the Conservatives are more liberal than the liberal Labourites. Cameron’s policies range from an Al Gorian devotion to global warming to a dogmatic opposition to Thatcherite conservatism that leave him somewhere on the political scale between Joe Lieberman and Hillary Clinton. On that same scale, Gordon Brown is probably somewhere between Lindsay (McCain lite) Graham and Arlen Specter. What to expect?

We can expect Brown to distance himself from President Bush. Brown is interested in nothing so much as lasting in the Prime Ministership as long as Blair did. He will have to distance himself from Bush — and the war — to do that.

Brown has indicated, fairly subtly, that he will do just that and do whatever it may take to avoid being called Mr. Bush’s lap dog. According to one two-year old Newsweek report, Brown spends summer vacations in Nantucket with his friend, Democratic political strategist Bob Shrum. That same report said that, when asked about President Bush, Brown said, ‘my contacts with the American administration have been mainly at a Finance-minister level.’ Pressed on the subject, he said only that he was now chancellor and couldn’t say what his relationship with Bush might be in the future. ‘I think speculation about who is going to be doing what is not something I want to get into,’ he said. And he managed to say all of this without once mentioning Bush by name.”

Brown will take his party farther left than Blair ever wanted to. Blair was no conservative, but Brown will have to appease the hard left in his own party by spending more on pet agendas. He will do what Clinton did, triangulating between a relatively conservative position on Iraq and a hard-left domestic policy agenda. Brown has labeled himself an “Atlanticist,” devoted to the Anglo-American “special relationship,” but that may be more style than substance. Blair had been a strong supporter of the European Union, but Brown may take advantage of Euroskepticism in Britain to position the Labour Party to defeat Cameron in the coming elections. Guarding his left against his own party’s radicals and running to the right of both the Liberal Democrat Party and the Conservatives, Brown will remake the Atlantic Alliance in his own image.

In the next two to four years, the image of Britain will change quickly. It will not be the image of Tony Blair or — likely — the image of Gordon Brown. It will be something we haven’t seen before. It may well be that when we look at Britain, we’ll see France. Tony, we shall miss you.