British Labour politician, prime minister 1997–2007. He was leader of the Labour Party 1994–2007. On standing down as prime minister in 2007, he became a Middle East special envoy for the ‘Quartet’ – the USA, European Union, Russia, and the United Nations.
A centrist in the manner of his predecessor John Smith, he became Labour's youngest leader by a large majority in the first fully democratic elections to the post in July 1994. He moved the party away from its traditional socialist base towards the ‘social democratic’ political centre, under the slogan ‘New Labour’, securing approval in 1995 of a new Labour Party charter, which removed the commitment to public ownership. During the 2003 US-led Iraq War, he was a firm ally of US president George W Bush, despite strong opposition from within sections of the Labour Party and the public. This damaged his public standing, amid accusations that his government had overstated the military threat posed by Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. He led the Labour party to a historic third term in 2005, but with a substantially reduced majority, and was increasingly seen by critics in the party as an electoral liability. During the 2005 election campaign, Blair pledged that he would serve a third term as prime minister and then step down. However in 2007 he came under mounting pressure from supporters of the chancellor, Gordon Brown, to step down in midterm and this he did, in June 2007. He immediately resigned as an MP to become Middle East special envoy.
Blair and his party secured landslide victories in the 1997 and 2001 general elections, with 179-seat and 167-seat majorities respectively. During his first term as prime minister, Blair retained high public approval ratings and achieved a number of significant reforms, including Scottish and Welsh devolution, reform of the House of Lords, ceding control over interest rates to the Bank of England, a national minimum wage, the creation of an elected mayor for London, and a peace agreement in Northern Ireland. His government pursued a cautious economic programme, similar to that of the preceding Conservative administrations, involving tight control over public expenditure and the promotion, in the Private Finance Initiative, of ‘public–private partnerships’ and a ‘welfare to work’ programme to encourage and assist the long term unemployed find employment. This achieved steady economic growth and higher levels of employment, providing funds for greater investment in public services during Blair's second term, from 2001. In 2003, public support for Blair fell, both because of concerns that investment in public services had not delivered clear improvements, and because of criticism of his stance on the Iraq War. This was reflected in the 2005 elections, which the Labour Party won but with a much-reduced 67-seat majority that many ascribed to Blair's leadership style and unapologetic support for the Iraq War.
Blair's presidential style of governing involves delegating much to individual ministers, but intervening in key areas in an effort to build up public support. He was supported by a large team of political advisers and media ‘spin doctors’, who emphasized the importance of image and presentation. In his second and third terms, Blair spent more time on international diplomacy, trying to act as a bridge between the USA and European Union countries in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War and seeking to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Blair spent most of his childhood in Durham, England. He returned, aged 14, to Edinburgh to finish his education at Fettes College, and later studied law at Oxford University. Called to the Bar in 1976, he practised as a lawyer before entering the House of Commons in 1983 as member for the Durham constituency of Sedgefield. He was elected to Labour's shadow cabinet in 1988 and given the energy portfolio; he shadowed employment from 1989 and home affairs from 1992. Like John Smith, he did not ally himself with any particular faction and, in drawing a distinction between ‘academic and ethical socialism’, succeeded in winning over most sections of his party, apart from the extreme left.
His publications include New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country (1996).
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