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The Britain that Tony Blair leaves behind

2007 May 11
by Paul Vallely

What a difference a decade makes. Ten years ago, the restaurant at 127 Upper Street in Islington was called Granita. The food was what chefs like to call modern British – a  sophisticated melange purloined from all around the Mediterranean: you know the kind of thing, char-grilled aubergine, shellfish with interesting vinaigrettes and a signature dish of Roquefort with toasted walnuts.

It was sophisticated and trendy, and it was where, modern political mythology has it, one night in May 1994, Tony Blair persuaded Gordon Brown not to stand for the leadership ofthe Labour Party but to support him instead. They tell a rather different story in Tony Blair’s constituency in Sedgefield, as we shall see. Such is the nature of mythology. Apparently Granita never served polenta either.

It certainly doesn’t today. The restaurant has changed hands. It is now a Tex-Mex cantina with thick steaks and chilli burgers of a kind more to the taste of Tony Blair’s political friend and military ally, George Bush. The place is called “Desperados”, a name which offers scopes for gags whatever your political perspective – as do the John Prescott-style cowboy boots hanging from the ceiling.

Table 13, in the far corner, where the Blair/Brown deal was purportedly hatched, was empty the day I began my tour of totemic milestones through the Blair decade. But in the window sat a young couple whose views on the outgoing prime minister set the tone for those I encountered on a week-long journey across Blair’s Britain. They were views shot through with paradox and contradiction, which was perhaps an apt verdict on a man who bowed out yesterday with his party at a record low in the polls and yet with his own personal popularity standing at more than 60 per cent.

Geraint Simpson was aged 12 when Tony Blair came to power. His girlfriend, Naomi Williams, was nine. The Blair years are their years.

“I’m pleased to see him go,” says Geraint, now 21 and a security officer. He is wearing an Arsenal shirt.

“I’m not,” says Naomi, lifting her head from her boyfriend’s shoulder. “I didn’t agree with Iraq but otherwise I think he’s done a good job.”

“I think Iraq is one of the better things he’s done,” says Geraint, raising interesting issues of compatibility. “It’s good to see Saddam out of power. But look at immigration. John Reid doesn’t even know how many illegal immigrants they’ve let in.”

“But you get seen a lot quicker in hospitals,” she counters, and schools have got a lot better.”

“Yes, the academies are good. There are lots of schools round here that needed fresh starts.”

“And he’s done a good job in Ireland,” says Naomi.

“OK, he’s done good things and bad things. But I wouldn’t vote Labour. We need a fresh one in.”

Having touched so succinctly on most of the key themes of the Blair decade, the couple then fall to musing on how hard it will be for them ever to get on the London property ladder.

Yet that too is a mixed indicator. For it reflects the strength of the economy over which New Labour has presided, with low-inflation, no boom-and-bust, unemployment slashed, robust growth, a strong pound and London challenging New York as the world’s financial centre.

But then the Blairs know there can be losers as well as winners in that. Just round the corner from the restaurant stands the elegant end-terrace Georgian house which Tony and Cherie sold when he became Prime Minister. Blair’s spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, was afraid that if they let it out they might end up with an unsuitable tenant, as had the Tory chancellor Norman Lamont who had rented out his flat to a “sex therapist” called Miss Whiplash. No 1 Richmond Terrace, with its red door and well-pollarded poplar tree, was sold by the Blairs for just £615,000. It is now worth almost £2m, which Cherie feels means they have unnecessarily lost ££1m.

Such amounts are beyond the present dreams of Geraint and Naomi. I left them pondering the menu with its enticing alternatives of tequila-flavoured beer or a cocktail of bourbon, amaretto, grenadine and orange juice which goes by the valedictory name of a Mexican Sunset.


From Islington, the Northern Line takes you south to Elephant and Castle and the Aylesbury Estate, whose squat grey concrete blocks are home to 7,500 council tenants of the London borough of Southwark. This was the place where Tony Blair gave his first big speech as Prime Minister.

It was a symbolic choice. He wanted his first statement on policy to be made to those he called the poorest people in our country who have been forgotten by government. “I want that to change,” the young Prime Minister told them. “There will be no forgotten people in the Britain I want to build.”

In the years that have intervened, Britain lost Hong Kong and then a princess, Scotland and Wales got their own parliaments, hereditary peers were ejected from the House of Lords, fox hunting was banned, civil partnerships were introduced for gay couples and peace came to Northern Ireland. But did anything change for the people of the Aylesbury estate?

Ten years on, the sun is shining and the lawns between the blocks of flats are verdant and yet the grey concrete of the flats and the elevated runways between them look as grim as ever. So too is the verdict of Margot Lindsay, a university librarian, who lived on the estate for 26 years, until last November.

“We had eight years of glossy leaflets, videos and so-called consultation meetings to try to persuade the residents to cease to be council tenants and move to housing associations,” she says. “Despite all that, 74 per cent of the tenants voted ‘no’ in 2004. Then finally, last September, the council lost patience and decided to demolish the whole place.”

Ms Lindsay is very angry. “I’m very disappointed in Tony Blair. I voted for the man and at first thought he was wonderful. I believed all the shit” – the word comes oddly from the lips of the curly-haired 65-year-old, sitting in her a knitted multicoloured tabard and long skirt as befits the stereotype of a lady librarian? “And now I feel betrayed.” After eight long years of ardent campaigning she gave up. “I was burnt out. I applied to move to council accommodation elsewhere. I have given up.”

Yet on the Aylesbury estate, too, opinion is divided. One of the activists who has not given up is Jean Bartlett, who started Tykes Corner, a mother and toddler nursery, for her own grandchildren but which now takes 500 children a month. “It is disappointing that Blair hasn’t allowed local authorities to build more council housing,” she says. “But Southwark council struggled to refurbish the properties under the government’s Decent Homes initiative. They found that renovation of the Sixties concrete blocks, which have structural defects as well as problems with heating and hot water, will be much more expensive than rebuilding. That’s been a difficult decision but the right one.”

In any case, she points out, Tony Blair was talking about far more than buildings in that 1997 speech. He spoke of jobs and opportunities for young people, getting single mothers into work, closing down failing schools, tackling crime and drugs, helping young people with nothing to do, providing nursery education, encouraging social entrepreneurs.

So what had been delivered on all that?

“He launched the New Deal for Communities and Sure Start which have been great successes,” she says. “Our youngsters are doing better at school now than they were 10 years ago because there are teaching assistants, homework support and breakfast and after-school clubs.” The failing school at the centre of the estate is being turned into an academy. There has been intensive help on job placements. Health and education statistics have improved. Crime and fear of crime is down 10 per cent and is now lower than in other parts of Southwark. The residents have gone from a depressed group of people with low self-confidence to a people with a sense that they can do and achieve things.

“A decade ago it was not a good place to live; it’s far from perfect now but it’s a huge improvement,” Jean Bartlett says. “Tony Blair has changed a lot of people’s lives for the better.”


Such are not the individuals on whom elections turn. Over the past three elections, Tony Blair’s fortunes has lain in the hands, the pollsters said, of someone called Worcester Woman.

The demographers offer various definitions. She is a middle-aged, middle-class, Middle England, non-traditional Labour voter. She is the “school-gate mum” who cares about politics only where it touches her quality of life – through jobs, schools and the NHS. She is, more pejoratively, a woman with consumerist views who is susceptible to political spin.

She was, above all, the woman without whose vote Tony Blair could never win.

Mike Foster is the only Labour MP ever to represent Worcester in Parliament. His voting record is model New Labour. He was for ID cards, foundation hospitals, student top-up fees, anti-terrorism laws and equal rights for gays. He was very strongly for the Iraq war and very strongly for the ban on fox hunting – which, indeed, he introduced via a private member’s Bill. He has won Worcester for each of the three Blair elections.

He is an amiable chap who cheerfully takes time off over a bank holiday to show me around his constituency. And an impressive tour it is. We see a brand new eco-sustainable primary school in Battenhall, the most prosperous part of the city, which is heated by tapping into deep subterranean natural heat sources. In the little dock basin where Birmingham and Worcester canal meets the river Severn, he shows me prestige apartments, shops and restaurants being built near site of old porcelain works that closed towards the end of the Thatcher era with the loss of 1,000 jobs.

“Unemployment in Worcester has halved under Blair,” he says. We see a massive new library site that will serve the public, Worcester’s large new college of technology and the second campus for Worcester’s new university which is about to be built on the city’s old hospital site. We see another new primary school in a poorer district, Warndon, along with one of three brand new mega-surgeries for GPs, an adult learning centre, a Sure Start nursery, a slew of social housing and an all-weather basketball court on which a group of young boys are playing.

The crowning glory is the £100m Worcestershire Royal Hospital “which the Conservatives promised for 40 years and never built and which we built within five years of our promise to do so,” says the MP. “It isn’t there by accident, it’s there because we put up national insurance in 2000 and raised the money to pay for it. All of this has been achieved on Blair’s watch.”

But I have bad news for Mike Foster. Worcester Woman may be on the turn.

The local paper, for reasons that are lost in the mists of electoral folklore, decided that the archetypal Worcester Woman was a lady called Fran Richman, a blonde, 51-year-old mother-of-two who works part-time as a welfare officer at Worcester University. Previously, she voted for Margaret Thatcher but when Tony Blair came along she liked the cut of his jib and switched.

She has just got home from work on the afternoon I call and had barely even kicked off her shoes. But she gallantly turned her mind from student welfare to the business of politics.

“To be fair to Tony Blair, he kept his promises on health and education. Worcester got its new hospital. On Ireland, something marvellous has been achieved. And Mike Foster has done an excellent job as local MP. But I won’t be voting for them next time. I’ve had enough of them now.”

Ask her what was the tipping point and she comes up with a collection of concerns so diverse that it is impossible to fit them into any coherent political philosophy: “They have abolished tax allowances for marriage and forced lone parents back to work – and then they wonder why there are all those children running wild, with no discipline anywhere at home or in school,” she begins. “And they have encouraged a climate in which teachers aren’t allowed to discipline pupils properly.

“And,” she continues, barely drawing breath, “there is no real plan on transport, no control of immigration, not enough emphasis on sport – look at all the unfit and obese children. They have marginalised religion in schools, no time for proper assemblies a lot of half-baked political correctness, vandalism, litter, it’s all so soul-destroying.”

So how, with that ragbag of views, did she vote in the local election last week? “I voted Green” And who got in? “I don’t know.”

Down the road at Droitwich Methodist Church, another Worcester Woman offers a different perspective.

Maureen Hartridge runs the fair trade stall at the back of this bustling little red-brick building. On a Sunday, it is full of young families. During the week, it has that odd mixture of activity which characterises the modern church -mothers and toddlers sessions, the Girls’ Brigade, the sewing circle and a rehab group for drug addicts. Last year Ms Hartridge sold £17,000 of goods for the fair trade organisation Traidcraft there last year.

Her concerns about Tony Blair are altogether more international. “We work our socks off to keep fair trade on the agenda,” she says, “but international barriers, trade tariffs and farm subsidies are the real problem”. She was disappointed that all Blair’s efforts for Africa at Gleneagles produced no real movement on trade.

But she was greatly cheered by what he had achieved in getting the G8 to write off African debts. “That’s been a great success,” she says. The $36bn write-off means that health care is now free in Zambia. Roads are being built for farmers in Ghana. Nigeria will get three million more children into school. And much more.

Now Blair needs, in his final weeks up to the G8 in Germany next month, to get them to deliver the hike in annual aid which Gleneagles promised. “We’ve led the way. The British aid budget went up 13 per cent last year. If only he could get Germany, Italy, Japan and the rest to pay up then he can go out on a bit of a high.”


In the hall, there are row upon row of sparkling diamante shoes, flowers floating in huge globes and edible decorations. There are displays of ice sculptures, gleaming Mercedes convertibles, and crystal thrones that the Beckhams would be proud of. This is the Manchester International Conference Centre, to which Tony Blair has switched recent Labour conferences. Blackpool is so old-fashioned these days.

But those filling the great curved-dome, which was once a great Victorian railway station, are not Labour activists. It is the Asian Wedding and Fashion Exhibition ‘07. Those crowding round the stalls are a diverse group of fashion retailers, beauty consultants, restaurants and caterers, henna artists, brides-to-be and their mothers. There are also local community leaders, bankers and money transfer specialists and immigration lawyers. They are Hindus and Muslims.

Ask here for a verdict on Tony Blair and the response is likely to be just one word: Iraq. Nowhere more than here is it clear that the fallout from 11 September 2001 is what has most sullied the Blair legacy. The Prime Minister’s response to the attacks was to stand by America at all costs – and one of the costs was that his response, necessarily, alienated him from Britain’s ethnic minority communities.

There are, of course, those who are more than alienated. “Blair’s a wanker; someone should kill him,” says an incandescent Muslim selling shalwar kameez, his chin framed by his soft downy young man’s beard. Others are less violent in their language but equally resolute. “Blair has been excellent on the economy and his support for the ethnic minority community,” says Azar Iqbal, an immigration barrister, “but his legacy is tarnished by his foreign policy.”

Yet what is striking is the extent to which that legacy is to the forefront of Asian minds, despite Iraq. “Blair has done a good job,” says Vishaal Anand, 24, a fashion retailer from Rusholme who describes himself as a Hindu Punjabi born and bred in Manchester. “We pay too much in council tax and business rates, and in import duty and VAT but he’s kept the economy strong. He’s made some bad choices – like the war – but he’s been good for schools and on crime with Asbos. I’ll be sad to see him go.”

It is not just Hindus who take that line. “The war was a blunder but the economy is tremendous,” says Afzal Khan, who was the first Asian Lord Mayor of Manchester. “The change and improvement in this city under Blair has been phenomenal.”

Another Muslim, Anasudhin Azeez, managing editor of Asian Lite magazine, adds: “Blair has done great work for the ethnic minority community in the health sector, in starting up nursing homes, in community support, in IT. And there was no backlash after the 7/7 bombings because Blair handled it so well. But Iraq has overshadowed all that.

“I feel sorry for him. He’s quite a good leader and quite a good person. But he is like a Shakespearean tragic hero whose many virtues are undone by, as the Bard would put it, the stamp of one great defect. I don’t dislike Blair but it will make people feel a lot better when he’s gone.”


You might imagine that trade unionists in Blackpool would be among those most pleased to see the back of Tony Blair. After all, it was there that he ditched Clause IV, the Labour Party’s historic commitment to nationalisation. And the seaside resort’s halls and hotels were the traditional venue of the Labour conference, until Blair switched it to Manchester. To add final indignity he then failed to deliver the supercasino that locals thought he had virtually promised.

Certainly the abolition of Clause IV still rankles. “It was awful,” says Ann Green, general secretary of the British Pensioners and Trade Union Action Association, which is in town for the Pensioners’ Parliament. “What it stood for was the need to change the balance of wealth from the minority to the majority. Scrapping it was Blair’s pointer. Since then, the rich have got richer and the poor poorer. New Labour is the party of business. Everything has been privatised.”

But the venue for the conference goes unmentioned and the verdict on the casino is surprising. Jane Rogers, who works in a Boots the Chemist shop in Blackpool is a big wheel in the shopworkers’ union, Usdaw, the biggest in the town. She was a canvasser for the Labour Party at last week’s local elections. “Lots of issues were mentioned, positively, by voters – high employment, workplace rights, the minimum wage, statutory holidays, the age of consent, civil partnerships, Africa, the human rights act, the first minister for women, getting lone mothers back to work, maternity pay being up, paternity leave as a right, lifelong learning, tax credits.

“And the negatives were Iraq, the National Health Service and pensions. But the casino issue wasn’t mentioned all day.

“The majority of ordinary people in Blackpool don’t want the casino. It won’t bring regeneration. Most of the jobs it brings will be unskilled and low-paid – cleaners, glass washers and so on, because most of the income will come from one-armed bandits – the kind where you can get through a £50 note in 8 minutes. We did a survey and 96 per cent of local people said they would rather have something else.”

That’s the trouble with talking to ordinary people. They so often tell you the opposite of what the politicians, and the media, say they’re going to say.


The beer in the Trimdon Labour Club is Newcastle Exhibition. Ale drinkers will know it is both bitter and sweet. If that is a contradiction then perhaps that is an appropriate way to end a tour of Blair’s Britain.

Trimdon, in the heart of Sedgefield constituency, is where the outgoing Prime Minister began his political career in 1983 and drew it to a close it yesterday. At the start, the locals were clear as to the virtues of the new man. “What struck us was his ability to connect with ordinary people,” says one of his earliest supporters, Phil Wilson, who once worked in Blair’s constituency office. Mr Wilson was the man who realised you had to give New Labour a northern accent not an Oxbridge one. Some now tip him to succeed Blair as MP.

“Every house in our road had been burgled and people couldn’t afford burglar alarms or insurance. That was how the ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ speech came about. Tony could articulate messages of what ordinary working class people wanted, and he could do it in a middle-class accent. He bridged the divide.”

It was that, not deals done in a fancy London restaurant, which was the key to Blair’s success, the locals say. “It was all sorted up here,” says Blair’s agent for the past 24 years, John Burton. “Just after John Smith died, he and Gordon Brown met in County Hall in Durham. Tony went in the front door. We took Gordon in the back. It was then that they reached an agreement that whoever was higher in the public opinion polls after two weeks would go forward unopposed by the other.”

The story of Brown’s self-sacrifice in Granita, he says, was a work of fiction to suit those trying to pressure Tony to stand down – “failed cabinet ministers and left-wing MPs” – who successfully orchestrated the backroom coup which did for Blair last September and forced him to say he would go within a year.

They will hang on to their separate mythologies in Sedgefield. “I used to laugh about the Bush’s poodle stuff because Bush used to phone him for advice,” says Burton. The trouble was there was precious little evidence that Bush took it – on sealing the Iraqi borders, on disbanding the Iraqi army, on Guantanamo Bay or on doing a dealing for the Palestinians.

In the background as John Burton speaks. Sky TV is on and Charlton are being relegated.

“At one time, everyone round here was a Sunderland or Newcastle supporter,” says Phil Wilson. “But these days you see a lot of Middlesbrough shirts.” Football is important in these parts. It points to wider changes. “The Northern Echo has a column in Polish. And a school in Newton Aycliffe has just appointed a teacher who can speak Polish.

“Something really shocked me at the local election. There were all these local lads in their early 20s supporting the BNP. And I thought we’re losing a generation. People are joining extreme parties looking for simple answers to complex questions, just as I did as a kid when I joined the Labour Party wanting to nationalise everything and ban the bomb and wanting socialism tomorrow.

“But Labour is about breaking with tradition. The Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chartists, the Suffragettes, the people who came up with the NHS, and now Tony Blair. They all broke with tradition. The world is changing. It’s not going to come to the Labour Party. The party has to go to it.”


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