The Magazine

Tony Blair's Third Way to Nowhere

He's a foreign policy star, but his domestic agenda's in shambles.

Dec 24, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 15 • By DANIEL CASSE
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SINCE SEPTEMBER 11, British prime minister Tony Blair has enjoyed, in the eyes of Americans, his finest hour. His appearance in the Capitol gallery during President Bush's war address to a joint session of Congress marked a spirit of U.S.-British cooperation and goodwill that recalled the final years of World War II. Since then, Blair's emotional speeches on the moral case for the war and his willingness to send British troops to combat have suggested the possibility of a new Atlantic alliance and a deeper Bush-Blair partnership. A recent Harris poll found that of the 75 percent of Americans who had seen or heard Blair, 89 percent had a positive impression.

Yet the statesmanship Americans have come to admire has found no parallel back in the U.K. Less than six months after Blair led his Labour party to a second massive victory over the deeply fractured Tories, his domestic agenda is in tatters. Tensions with his colleague and rival, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, make daily headlines. The public is firmly against his plan to have Britain join the European single currency. Rumors abound that before the next election the prime minister will step down to seek the presidency of the European Commission.

Blair's troubles ought to be instructive to the American political class so enamored of his style of politics. Before long President Bush may turn his attention to domestic issues to avoid the post-Gulf War omissions of his father. With a Democratic majority in the Senate eager for power-sharing and media limelight, Washington sages will point to the need to reach accommodation with Tom Daschle on a new set of policy goals that can win bipartisan support. It is only a matter of time before someone suggests that Blair's much-vaunted "Third Way" serves as a guide for a postwar agenda.

Yet after five years, it is clear that the "Blair project" is little more than a PR campaign. Despite speeches filled with rhetoric about change, modernization, and rejecting the extremes of right and left, the British prime minister has shown a persistent unwillingness to bring meaningful reform to Britain's failed social programs. Blair's is precisely the type of empty "middle path" that Bush needs to avoid.

Blair's most prominent failure is also the one causing the most controversy: the precarious state of the National Health Service. Although long considered a politically untouchable institution with which even Thatcher's Tories dared not meddle, the single-payer system established after World War II has become a public embarrassment.

For months, Britain's Daily Mail has published a string of health care horror stories about citizens who died from neglect in NHS hospitals or while waiting for much-needed surgery. What once was touted as the best health care system in the world is an increasingly creaky bureaucracy delivering Third World care.

After putting off the problem, the prime minister and his chancellor have announced they are now prepared to pour money into this failed system--and raise taxes to fund it.

The money may help pay off some hospital trust debt, but it won't provide better health care for the average citizen. For all his talk about "systemic reform" Blair remains rigidly opposed to opening the health service to some market forces and private provider competition that could improve service.

Indeed, Blair is so committed to preserving the NHS's socialist roots, he is unwilling to adopt even the relatively modest market mechanisms now found in the Swedish, German, or Dutch health care systems. Instead, the NHS continues to ration care indiscriminately and keeps proven drugs off the market that it simply doesn't want to pay for.

The result is a system that promises to continue providing Britons with substandard health care and indefensible waiting lists for the foreseeable future. It has enraged even those once prepared to give Blair the benefit of the doubt. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph earlier this month, Stephen Pollard, a Labour man and erstwhile Blair confidant, offered a stunning indictment of the prime minister's refusal to make needed changes to the National Health Service: "Not only has he wasted nearly five years in which he could have reformed health care," wrote Pollard, "it is obvious from every conversation that I have ever had with him that, even if he stays in office for another five years, nothing is going to change."

Ironically, it is what Blair has taken from British politics rather than his contributions to it that may prove to be his real legacy.