After a decade in power, Blair is right to quit

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 May, 2007, 12:00am

From a British perspective, Tony Blair's prime ministership had an ominous start, with his first major duty being to hand his nation's last major colony, Hong Kong, back to Chinese rule and a month later dealing with the death of Princess Diana in a car crash in Paris. A decade of highs and lows later, we are looking confidently forward, while the outgoing leader is contemplating a clouded legacy.

Just hours before the British flag was lowered and the Chinese one raised, Mr Blair cut his diplomatic teeth at a summit with then president Jiang Zemin . Since then, the prime minister has ridden a wave of popularity and repeated election wins, but as is the nature of democratic politics, he eventually wore out his welcome. It is time for him to go.

His decision to step down as prime minister is based on conviction; that same strong belief is what took Britain to war against Iraq in 2003. As he explained to his constituents yesterday: 'I did what I thought was right.'

Without doubt, Mr Blair's taking of office at the age of 43 after 18 years of Conservative Party government was a breath of fresh air. He pledged to make Britain prosperous, improve government accountability and restore the nation's position on the world stage.

There is no argument about Britain's stronger economy, nor about the nation's monetary importance: it has moved up to fifth on the global economic league table. Britain now has a minimum wage. Scotland and Wales have their own elected parliaments. The prime minister brokered a landmark power-sharing deal for Northern Ireland, put global warming and African aid at the top of the global agenda and moved Britain closer to the European Union. Mr Blair also reshaped the national health-care and education systems, made conscious efforts to integrate immigrant communities into society and changed the political landscape by ridding his Labour Party of some of its hard left-wing elements, creating in the process the more centrist and electable New Labour.

Whether Labour will win the next election, likely to be held in 2009, is debatable; for all Mr Blair's achievements, there are as many, arguably more, question marks. Most irksome for Britons was his unpopular decision to partner the US in the war in Iraq, earning him the tag of US President George W. Bush's poodle. This was despite saying, shortly after taking office: 'Mine is the first generation able to contemplate the possibility that we may live our entire lives without going to war or sending our children to war.'

Mr Blair has repeatedly sent his nation's sons and daughters into combat: against the forces of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic in 1999 and as part of the subsequent peacekeeping force in Kosovo; to Sierra Leone the following year, Afghanistan in 2001 and then Iraq.

The July 2005 suicide bombing on London's transport network that killed 52 people was a direct consequence of the Iraq involvement and revealed that integration of ethnic groups was not working; the attackers were British-born Muslims. Labour's 'clean' government is also under scrutiny as an inquiry into whether honours and political favours were offered for loans.

Britons debate whether their health-care system is better, whether education standards have risen and the merits of having 20 per cent of the world's surveillance cameras trained upon them. Whatever Mr Blair's successes or failings, there can be no doubting his democratic principles; but when a leader has overstayed his or her time in office, it is time to step aside.