Before being named director of the McGill University School of Social Work in 2005, Wendy Thomson had spent four years working at Number 10 Downing Street for British Prime Minister Tony Blair as head of the Labour government’s Office of Public Services Reform. She was also Blair’s senior advisor on social policy.
Q: In his farewell speech, Tony Blair underscored the changes Britain has undergone during the past decade, invoking a Reagan-esque, “Are you better off now?” comparison between life in 1997 and in 2007, particularly on the social values front. Did that desire to transform Britain register as a daily policy priority when you were in those rooms?
A: Yes. There was an enormous sense of social purpose. There was a huge amount of activity on a whole range of social policy fronts, and the prosperity experienced by people over that decade is clearly visible. The Blair government introduced minimum wage policy, which had never been there before. Because there was economic growth in literally every single quarter, he was able to generate massive investment in social services, including doubling expenditures in the National Health Service, which brought Britain from the bottom of the table on health spending among EU countries up to the average which, when you factor in the Scandinavian countries, is pretty amazing. He made a commitment to abolish child poverty over 20 years and reduced it by one million fewer children living in poverty. For the first time, education and health were the absolute top priorities which, in a post-Thatcherite context, was as energizing as it was radical.
Q: Do you think his legacy on socioeconomic issues will forever be eclipsed by his support of the war in Iraq?
A: I hope not. In the short run, that seems inevitable. In the medium run, there will be evidence of the impact of his government that will be undeniable. The slogan of the Blair government moved from the Old Labour “tax and spend” line to the New Labour “investment and reform.” In a very important way, he has shifted the political middle to the left and now (Tory leader) David Cameron is tripping all over himself to talk about what he’ll do on education and health. Part of Blair’s legacy is that minimum public expectation of caring. That wasn’t there.
Q: What was he like to work with – what was his leadership style? As casual as reported? As wonk-ish as Bill Clinton?
A: He was criticized for the informality of his style but I think he felt that, if you want to kill an idea, put it before a cabinet committee. So, he wouldn’t have accomplished as much if he’d been more formal. Yes, he knew his files. Bureaucrats would come from Canada during the Chretien years and walk away from a meeting and say, “My God, it must be a dream to work with him,” he was so smart and so engaged. He was also charming and sexy, like Clinton.
Q: Can we quote that?
A: What the heck…I’m clearly a fan. Look, when I adopted my daughter, I had to go in and tell him I was going off to pick her up in China. It was the same morning the Americans were going into Iraq and he spent 40 minutes talking to me about my daughter and my trip. He is a man who acts on conviction both personally and politically. He might have been safer if he’d stuck to the more formal decision-making process, maybe even on Iraq, but he felt intuitively that terrorism was the biggest threat we were facing and he was going to take it on. That’s the kind of leader he was.