Good news for Tony Blair. The former prime minister recently learned that he’d won the 2010 National Constitution Center’s Liberty Medal (as well as a check for $100,0000), adding to a collection of U.S. gongs that includes the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. In the words of NCC president David Eisner, the award recognizes his “success in building understanding among nations and creating lasting solutions in areas of conflict.” At least in American eyes, Blair is still the deft statesman who can wow the world in the cause of peace and freedom.
That should be welcome reassurance. Back home the accolades no longer flow. These days the trademark Blair grin can irritate as much as it charms. Once a powerful electoral asset, Blair played only an occasional walk-on role in this spring’s election campaign, and there are question marks over his integrity. One poll earlier this year found that more than a third of the public believed he should face trial for taking Britain to war with Iraq. To Americans he may be the champion of liberty; to British voters he’s one more ex-leader with a dubious record.
The simple truth is that Blair has joined a long line of politicians whose international reputations stayed bright long after disillusion set in back home. The Western world loved Mikhail Gorbachev as the visionary who began the dismantling of communist rule; for many Russians he was the leader responsible for the collapse of Soviet prestige and empire. Margaret Thatcher, heaped with praise overseas as a stalwart defender of economic and political freedom, left Downing Street rejected even by the M.P.s of her own party. Flaws obvious to a domestic public go unnoticed abroad.
For Blair, it’s been the Iraq War that changed minds. OK, he’s also remembered for playing a key role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland, but to many this is still the prime minister who duped Parliament into voting for a mistaken invasion—and then slavishly followed U.S. policy. He won’t be easily forgiven or trusted. A survey by the pollster BPIX indicated that 80 percent of the public believed he lied in his evidence earlier this year to the tribunal that’s investigating the war.
His private dealings haven’t helped. By some reckonings, Blair has amassed more than $15 million since leaving office in 2007—not to mention a property portfolio worth at least another $15 million. He now ranks among the world’s highest-paid lecturers. In return for eye-popping fees, he advises bankers at JPMorgan Chase and the government of Kuwait. And the advance for his memoirs—due out later this year—topped $6 million.
Of course, he’s also busy building peace in the Middle East and promoting the good works of his own foundations. But at a time of national austerity, the parallel pursuit of serious money looks dangerously like greed. “It’s just slightly unsavory,” says Paul Whiteley, a professor at Essex University who specializes in tracking public attitudes. “The implicit message is that he will do anything for money.”
At the same time, the memoirs of former colleagues, newly released from office by the Labour Party’s election defeat, have done nothing to burnish the memory of Blair’s 10 years as prime minister—a period marked by petty squabbling between supporters of Blair and those of his future successor, Gordon Brown. In the words of Guardian columnist Gary Younge: “What emerges from these tomes is that those at the centre of the last government are not larger-than-life characters bending the world to their will, but smaller-than-life individuals for whom substantial matters play a secondary role to their obsessions with petty jealousies, pathetic vendettas and trifling grudges.” History may be a kinder judge, but for now, Blair must look outside Britain for a kinder assessment.