(Warning: nothing that follows is promised to be original, clever, based on deep knowledge of the political scene, or plausible to someone who doesn’t share a certain view of recent intellectual history.)
Blair’s genius was to realized that the left wing needed to adapt to the ideas of the Thatcherite New Right, and develop new means to achieve its traditional goals. Now there is nothing special about that: by the end of the 80s, everybody knew that the ideas of the old Left were out of date; even Marxists like Stuart Hall et al. realised that Thatcherism posed a novel challenge which required new analysis and new political responses. Blair’s genius was how he took up this challenge politically: he would simply apply Thatcherite ideas about the reform of public services with more dedication and plausibility than the Right could.
That doesn’t sound particularly clever, but at the time it was. The rest of the Left thought their response must consist of their own Big New Ideas to match those of the New Right. They were waiting for a bus that never came. (As Jerry Cohen puts it somewhere, new political ideas are not arrived at just by fishing in the intellectual sea.) Blair saw the important thing and did it. Most importantly, he persuaded the rest of Labour to do it too. Although you could fault the execution, the principles have become completely dominant. We are all Blairites now. Choice and competition in public services is the widely accepted agenda.
So what went wrong? Blair’s political genius was to read the winds and build a consensus round new ideas. But as I said, this was not an act of original thought and in fact Blair is not at all a thinker. After 9/11, he again sensed the way the wind was blowing. He understood that “everything changed” and that a new set of ideas would come to prominence – neoconservatism. And again he tried and to a large degree succeeded in building a consensus around them. The problem is that the ideas of the New Right were basically good ones – at least in terms of the reform of public services (I appreciate you may be choking on your sandwich). But neoconservatism contains mostly bad ideas, partly because it lacks a sound intellectual foundation and is instead an ideology which serves the interests of military and security bureaucrats. In particular, it contained the idea that Western democracies could and should wage preemptive wars and spread democracy by force. (Which doesn’t even have the excuse of novelty; it is the domino theory that got America into Vietnam, writ larger, stupider and more aggressive.) So Blair, who is not smart enough to distinguish good from bad ideas, and who built his political career as an evangelist, evangelized us into Iraq.
Apart from that one cock up - which admittedly spoils everything - Blair makes me think Britain has been fortunate in its leaders during my lifetime. The scene now looks much less promising, but that is a story for a different day.