"We don't do God," his spokesman, Alastair Campbell, insisted while he was Prime Minister. But since leaving office, Tony Blair has converted to Roman Catholicism, launched a faith foundation and yesterday gave his strongest endorsement of the church yet.
Speaking at a conference in London organised by the Holy Trinity Brompton Church, Mr Blair warned that a world without faith would be on a path towards "tragedy and disaster". He explained how his "journey of faith" began in choir school in County Durham at the age of 10 after his father Leo, a "convinced atheist", had suffered a serious stroke.
"The headmaster of the school called me into his study and he said 'I think we should kneel and say a prayer for your father'," said Mr Blair. "I said to him, 'I should tell you my father does not really believe in God'. I will never forget what he said to me – he just said to me 'but God believes in him, so let us kneel and pray'. That made a big impact on me."
Mr Blair has repeatedly come under criticism for his personal beliefs which were a continual source of anguish during his time in office. Reflecting on it last year, he said he was "too sensitive or too cautious", arriving at the conclusion that "if I started talking about religion, it was going to be difficult".
That self-doubt appeared to have vanished yesterday when, addressing the audience of 4,000, he said he believed that the sense of something "bigger and more important" was crucial for the health of society. "For a long period of time, what people thought was that as society became more developed and as we became more prosperous, that faith would be relegated, that it would become a kind of relic of the past," he said. "I think that essential obligation of humility for humanity is deeply important. It is what allows us to make progress, it is what keeps us from ideology or thought processes that then treat human beings as if they were secondary to some political purpose."
In his address, Mr Blair repeated a story of how, during his time in power, he had frequently thought of signing off his speech with "God bless Britain" but was talked out of the idea. "We had this debate on and off but finally one of the civil servants said in a very po-faced way 'I just remind you Prime Minister, this is not America' in this very disapproving tone, so I gave up."
Reflecting on the backlash he endured in the aftermath of sanctioning the Iraq war, he said there were some days he had not wanted to read the newspapers. He added that having teenage children had helped protect him from growing "hard" and "too tough" in the face of criticism. "I remember when I appeared on The Simpsons – this was when I thought I had done quite a lot as prime minister – one of my kids said to me 'you know, that is the first thing I have really been proud of'."
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