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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 May 2007, 12:02 GMT 13:02 UK
Has a decade of Blair changed Britain?
Tony Blair greets well-wishers on the day of his election victory

As Tony Blair celebrates a decade in office, philosopher Julian Baggini looks at how the fabric of the UK has changed.

One thing that never wavers in our country is the belief in decline. Since "fings ain't ever what they used to be", no leader can expect to end their time in power with a majority of the population believing life is better.

We not only tend to assume things used to be better, we also exaggerate the extent to which they were different. While writing my recent book on the values and beliefs of the English, I came to the conclusion that a nation generally evolves more slowly than people believe, and that more tends to remain fundamentally the same than alters.

But whether life has got better or worse, there are some ways in which Britain has changed over the last 10 years, even if these do not add up to a radical transformation of a place and its people.

Julian Baggini
The increased difficulty of getting onto the housing ladder, for example, threatens to create a long-term gap between haves and have-nots

New Labour has changed the political landscape because it has divorced the traditional left-wing concern for the poorer members of society from the pursuit of equality.

Under Blair, we have seen both measures to lift people out of poverty and reforms which have allowed the wealth of the richest citizens to rise faster and higher than ever. For critics, this is a historic betrayal of socialism; for supporters, a sign that the left had rejected "the politics of envy".

However, this may yet turn out to be a temporary blip. Increased inequality is the main reason why people are not more satisfied with widespread rising incomes.

The pace of your own wealth growth can look pathetically slow if those just in front of you are racing away into the distance. The increased difficulty of getting onto the housing ladder, for example, threatens to create a long-term gap between haves and have-nots based not on income, but "property wealth", a term that is itself a legacy of the Blair years.

Tensions created

Under the Tories people often protested that the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. Now it seems more accurate to say that everyone's getting richer, but the rich are doing it quicker.

This is bound to create tensions, because, as psychologists have known for a long time, people are concerned about both relative and absolute wealth. In tests, people say they would rather have less than allow other people to have even more, which is why equality is coming back onto the political agenda.

A more permanent change of the last 10 years could be the way in which issues of global justice and environmentalism have become mainstream. In 1997, fairtrade coffee, campaigns such as Make Poverty History, and popular support for reducing our environmental impact were found only on the fringes of society.

Tony Blair in a recent photo
There is now much discussion of Tony Blair's legacy

For instance, in 1997 Sainsbury's didn't sell any fairtrade bananas. Soon all its bananas will be certified fairtrade. The change is largely down to customer demand, which is ironic, because early advocates of such issues were generally of the view that consumerism was synonymous with selfish greed.

However, it's not obvious that Blair can take the credit for this attitude shift. New Labour has been accused of being slow to take green issues seriously, although it has always been a promoter of overseas aid, doubling our spending on it since 1997.

Whether it is because or despite of his leadership, it seems indubitable that Britain has a greater sense of its global responsibility as Blair prepares to leave Downing Street than it did when he entered it.

Civil liberties

One change which surely was forged by government policy was not so much a step forward as a reversion. After years in which people questioned the viability of the welfare state in the contemporary world, its validity has been reaffirmed, to the extent that all the major parties now dare not appear to threaten it. Talk of reform is still in the air, but the question is no longer whether the welfare state will survive, but how it will do so.

But perhaps the biggest changes are a consequence of 9/11 and 7/7. It is still not clear how deep and lasting these will be. (Iraq is of course tied-up with this but it arguably has had little impact on daily life in Britain).

There has been much talk, and qualified popular support, for a "rebalancing of civil liberties and security", despite concerns about historic freedoms being eroded.

It used to be only the far-right which voiced discontent about the way in which the country deals with the variety of different cultures within its islands. Now that conversation is being had widely, even among minority groups themselves who feel that the status quo leaves them vulnerable and open to discrimination.

Perhaps then the biggest difference between now and 1997 is due to the one thing that happened on Blair's watch that he had the least control over. Whatever his responsibility, we are not, as John Major hoped we would be, a nation at ease with itself.

Julian Baggini is the author of Welcome to Everytown: A Journey into the English Mind.




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