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Young & Kent: International Relations since 1945 2e

Tony Blair

The son of a barrister and lecturer, Tony Blair was born in Edinburgh (6 May 1953), but spent most of his childhood in Durham. At the age of 14 he returned to Edinburgh to finish his education at Fettes College. He studied law at Oxford, and went on to become a barrister himself.

Mr Blair won the seat of Sedgefield in the 1983 General Election, aged 30. He made a speedy rise through the ranks, being promoted first to the shadow Treasury front bench in 1984. He subsequently served as a trade and industry spokesman, before being elected to the Shadow Cabinet in 1988 where he was made Shadow Secretary of State for Energy.

After the 1992 election Labour's new leader, John Smith, promoted Mr. Blair to Shadow Home Secretary. It was in this post that Mr Blair made famous his pledge that Labour would be tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. John Smith died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1994, and in the subsequent leadership contest Tony Blair won a large majority of his party's support.

Mr. Blair immediately launched his campaign for the modernisation of the Labour Party, determined to complete the shift further towards the political centre which he saw as essential for victory. The debate over Clause 4 of the party's constitution was considered the crucial test of whether its members would commit to Mr Blair's project. He removed the commitment to public ownership, and at this time coined the term New Labour.

The Labour Party won the 1997 General Election by a landslide, after 18 years in Opposition. At the age of 43 , Tony Blair became the youngest Prime Minister since Lord Liverpool in 1812.

The government began to implement a far-reaching programme of constitutional change, putting the question of devolution to referendums in Scotland and Wales.

An elected post of Mayor of London was established at the head of a new capital-wide authority, and all but 92 hereditary peers were removed from the House of Lords in the first stage of its reform. The government has also implemented an investment programme of £42 billion in its priority areas of health and education.

Tony Blair was re-elected with another landslide majority in the 2001 General Election.
His second term was dominated by foreign policy issues - notably the 'war on terror' which followed the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York, and the war in Iraq.

The Labour Party went on to win a third term for Mr Blair in May 2005, albeit with a reduced majority.

Mr Blair is married to the barrister Cherie Booth QC, and they have four children. Their youngest, Leo, was the first child born to a serving Prime Minister in over 150 years.

Blair’s Foreign Policy

Blair aimed to maintain the UK’s links with the United States and continental Europe. In office he continued to seek policy ideas in America and kept up good personal relations with both President Bill Clinton. His government also took pains to improve relations with its EU partners.
Blair also tried to lead a centre-left grouping of politicians internationally. In February 1998, in responding to the challenge of the global economy, he highlighted five principles for the centre-left: stable and prudent finance; ensuring government intervention in the economy was focused on education, training, and infrastructure, not industry; reforming but maintaining the welfare state; decentralizing and opening up government; and being internationalist, rather than isolationist.

From March 1999, Blair was one of the strongest proponents of the air offensive launched by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces against Yugoslavia, emphasizing what he regarded as the humanitarian necessity of intervention to stop Serbian persecution of the region’s ethnic Albanian population. The Yugoslav government agreed to withdraw its forces from the area in June. A year later, in May 2000 Britain sent troops to Sierra Leone, initially to assist the evacuation of British nationals as a rebel army advanced on Freetown, but later helping to stabilize the country and create the conditions in which a relatively peaceful election could be held a year later.

Following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington D.C. on September 11, 2001, resulting in the deaths of over a hundred British citizens among the thousands of casualties, Blair pledged that the United Kingdom would stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the United States. He threw himself into several rounds of shuttle diplomacy in building a broad based coalition against international terrorism. When the United States launched military strikes against Afghanistan in October, targeting the Taliban regime that it believed was providing a base for the extreme Islamist followers of Osama bin Laden, British forces supported American troops duly. In December a British contingent of some 1,500 troops was committed to lead the UN-peacekeeping force in the country. Blair continued to maintain his high-profile support for US military action, sending a further 1,700 combat troops to Afghanistan in March.

Mr. Blair was a strong advocate of military action against the Iraqi government to enforce disarmament, allying him closely with the Bush administration and distancing him from fellow European leaders, including Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder, and from many in the Labour Party. His arguments that it was an absolute priority that Hussein be prevented from developing weapons of mass destruction (including chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons) that could be used by terrorist groups failed to prevent the largest parliamentary revolt of his premiership in February 2003 and massive demonstrations around the United Kingdom protesting against the possible war. British forces joined the invasion of Iraq on March 20, despite the failure to secure a UN resolution explicitly sanctioning the action.

The failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the presumed existence of which had been the main justification for the war, sharpened the criticism that Blair had led Britain to war on the basis of unreliable intelligence. The government was particularly stung by accusations from a BBC journalist, Andrew Gilligan, in May, that the prime minister’s press office had intervened to influence the presentation of evidence that Saddam Hussein had possessed banned weapons. Gilligan’s source for this information was revealed to be David Kelly, an expert on Iraq’s armaments programme. Kelly’s suicide in July led Blair to announce that a public inquiry, led by a retired judge, Lord Hutton, would be held to unravel the affair. Blair himself appeared before the inquiry in August. Hutton delivered his conclusions in January 2004, and exonerated Downing Street while stating that the controversy had largely been created by slack BBC procedures. A further inquiry, chaired by Lord Butler, was set up in February to assess the quality of the intelligence that had informed the decision to support the invasion of Iraq, and the use to which it had been put. Its report, published in July, questioned the validity of the claims that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed illegal weapons, though did not support allegations that the intelligence had been deliberately presented in a misleading way. Blair was criticized for the informal manner in which Cabinet discussions of the issue had been handled. While the reports were broadly welcome for Blair’s government, they did not distract for long from the fact that progress towards creating a stable, democratic Iraq had been very slow. The defeat of the Popular Party in Spain in March 2004, in an election held directly after an Islamist terrorist attack had killed around 200 people in Madrid, left Blair as Western Europe's only supporter of US policy in Iraq. Some consolation came in the fact that in December 2003 Libya, held in the past to be a major sponsor of terrorism in the Middle East and elsewhere, renounced all programmes to develop banned weapons and all support for terrorist groups. Tony Blair visited the Libyan leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi, in Tripoli in March 2004 to seal the new-found amity between the UK and Libya.