This is the next piece in our Most Liberal Prime Minister series, celebrating those PM’s with a particularly liberal streak.
In 1997 Blair promised that things could only get better. And they certainly did.
The election itself was transformative, with the number of female and LGBT MPs doubling. Last time the number of female MPs doubled took over four decades time. Seemingly overnight, women gained access to the legislature in a real and meaningful way.
Blair put access to opportunity for all at the front and centre of his vision. Everyone, regardless of sex, sexuality, colour and income began to enjoy the prosperity that had been built, and instead of taking an ideological attitude to the state, Blair took a pragmatic one and used it carefully to enable freedom for all.
It is under Blair that the most significant expansion in equalities legislation since the civilised society of Roy Jenkins were passed. LGBT people benefitted from the right to change their gender legally, protection for discrimination at work or in shops, the right to serve in the army, an equal age of consent, the repeal of Section 28 and the creation of civil partnerships. Whilst these may not seem revolutionary or radical today, it must be remembered at the time that just 23% of Brits thought there was nothing wrong with same-sex relations. For LGBT people, Blair was on the right side of history. He was radically tolerant, radically progressive and radically liberal.
Blair unleashed the most significant war on poverty, and the largest expansion of the ability of working-class kids to aspire, since the Beveridge Report. The share of people in absolute poverty halved thanks to Blair, with our neediest groups – the elderly, infirm and young – seeing the largest rise in living standards. It is under Blair that pensioners finally got a decent deal with the number of them living in absolute poverty falling by 75% thanks to the Winter Fuel Payment, the alleviation of some taxes and the institution of a real minimum pension.
The minimum wage, child tax credit and working tax credits would expand opportunity for everyone without significantly expanding the state. It was under Blair that parental leave would be significantly expanded, and protections from unfair treatment upon return, alongside funded childcare places.
Blair’s tough on crime (and above all tough on the causes of crime) attitude proved successful with crime falling by a third. Likewise, the investment in healthcare which had been sorely lacking over the past decades materialised and without fear of market-based reforms. Taking an anti-ideological approach to public services allowed for both increased spending and greater efficiency. Rather than abolishing Thatcherism, he reformed it to make it socially just.
The global impact of Blair was positively liberal, too. Undertaking humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Iraq. Whilst the previous Conservative government had stood idly by as one million Tutsis were brutally murdered in the worst genocide since the Holocaust, and had objectively failed in dealing with the Bosnian War and Europe’s first post-war genocide, Blair stood up for oppressed people globally and prevented further genocide in the Balkans.
He would set up the Department for International Development too, a department which would be regarded as the world’s most effective foreign aid department, furthering aid to the global south. Putting alleviating global poverty on the agenda was central, unlike the previous Tory governments which had seen the aid budget halve as a percentage of GNI.
Whilst greenhouse gas emissions remained level during the Blair premiership, it is projects that started under him such as the European Emissions Trading Scheme which would enable emissions to fall as rapidly as they did in the 2010s. His brave support for the Kyoto Accord would also pave the way for modern deals such as the Paris Agreement.
The most significant constitutional reforms since the great liberal prime ministers of the start of the 20th century would take place with the creation of an independent Supreme Court, the abolition of thousands of anti-meritocratic hereditary peers, and a programme of devolution that would put local people (more) in charge of their communities.
It has become trendy for both the populists of the left and right to attack Blair, but the reality is that this country would be lucky to have a real heir to Blair. The opportunities he created for all of us make him Britain’s greatest liberal post-war Prime Minister.