Friday, May 18, 2007

Three Passings

This last week has seen the end of three eras - all of significance.

Last Thursday Tony Blair finally announced his timetable to leave office as the British Prime Minister, after one of the longest and most poorly concealed resignation processes in British political history. Earlier this week, the Revd. Jerry Falwell, doyen of the US Evangelical Right passed on to be with his Lord unexpectedly. And today, Paul Wolfowitz quit as head of the World Bank, after another long-drawn out process in which the outcome was inevitable, only the timetable was uncertain, thus fueling much media speculation.

And each does represent the end of an era, and the legacies of each will continue to be contested. Only Wolfowitz, in his World Bank role, had barely had time to establish reputation and a true legacy, and who knows what good or ill (or probably both) he would have wrought over the next decade if he had not been caught with his hand in the till. But from his White House days, we can see one part of his legacy every time we turn on the news - Iraq.

Sadly, for Blair this is the one part of his legacy that will overshadow his achievements (and failures) in other areas. I wonder how many outside of Ireland will recall the pivotal role he played in bringing about the Good Friday agreement and the final power sharing agreement at Stormont (also agreed in the last week), thus bringing to a final conclusion one long and bloody period of Irish history and offering hope of a more peaceful, less divided future?

Falwell (of whom I know comparatively little from this side of The Pond) has been a divisive figure in the Christian Community in the States for decades, and a hate figure for secular liberals. But he did drag the evangelical community out to address wider issues, making sure that faith could no longer be seen as private. How he did this, and the issues he got stuck on will always be contentious, but that he did it at all has meant that others (Rick Warren and Bill Hybles for two) have taken the mantle on and begun to focus on far wider issues - the environment, global poverty and AIDS for three.

Enoch Powell once famously said that all political careers end in failure. But Blair quit while his party still held on to power in Westminster (if nowhere else in the UK), and at a time and a manner of his choosing. Falwell was taken unexpectedly - collapsing in his office. No slow decline for him. Only Wolfowitz was driven from office for his misdemeanors. Of the three, his departure could be the only one described as failure, and of the most fundamental kind - if not actually being corrupt, then showing a degree of nepotism that robbed him and the institution for which he worked of any credibility in tackling corruption in other nations, and thus letting down the billions living in poverty that the Bank could still help.

Blair has done more than any other British leader to bring the cause of fighting global poverty to the top of the national and global political agenda. And even Falwell, for all the hurt and division he brought, did get the church in the USA thinking and acting in a way that made for the new initiatives that are likely to save many millions more lives in years to come. Wolfowitz's passing meanwhile, has almost certainly damaged attempts to fight global poverty.

Whatever legacies these men may have left in other areas, the way they affected the global poor (for good and ill) may be the most lasting.

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