‘We could have come through Brexit, but not that lurch to the far left’ – Tony Blair on how Labour can win from the centre

The former prime minister answered questions from John Rentoul’s students at King’s College London in an hour-long class last month, before the coronavirus lockdown

Monday 06 April 2020 23:00
Blair was also quizzed on coronavirus, Iraq and more
Blair was also quizzed on coronavirus, Iraq and more

I have written about Tony Blair’s class at King’s College London here and here. This is an edited transcript of the whole thing, in which he was asked, among other things, about the coronavirus outbreak, the Iraq War, Jeremy Corbyn, how Labour should elect its leader, what it’s like to do Prime Minister’s Questions, constitutional reform, Alastair Campbell and relations with the media.

Q. If Boris Johnson asked you to join an expert panel to assist in managing the crisis at the moment with the virus and the economy, what would your principal advice be?

Tony Blair: Move everything on to a war footing. Separate all the different elements that you need to get right, and reposition government to deliver them, because government works in traditional ways with traditional processes; businesses operate according to traditional regulations. You’ve just got to put all that to one side. So no matter what it is, whether it’s testing, levels of testing, equipment for testing…

You should probably underwrite corporate debt at the moment; you have to give support to businesses. You have to be able to build new facilities. You have to work out what scarcity of materials you’re going to have and how you deal with that – across the whole sweep of government. It’s just got to go on to dealing with one issue because this is an issue which will have the most profound economic consequences as well as health consequences.

There are three models for what happens with this. One is V, you go down, you come back up sharply. One is U, you go down and then you steadily go back up, and the other is L, you go down and you keep down, so that’s really what you’ve got to bear in mind.

Q. Would you change the process for electing the Labour leader?

TB: Well, you feel good about the process at the time! But I think the Labour Party could have avoided doing what it did. It took one fundamental decision – PhD theses will be written about it – which was the decision to elect Ed rather than David Miliband. When you look back, the implications of that were absolutely vast for the Labour Party. At the time, the Labour Party membership was still, essentially, centre left. And then after it, it went on a journey where it ended up in the far left, so I think my lesson of all of it is that you can try and create a system of electing leaders that makes you elect leaders that might win, let’s say, but the problem is whenever you move to a new system, because you think that gives you the best result, you then find a set of circumstances comes about and it actually turns out it’s the wrong system.

No one can become prime minister unless they’re able to handle themselves in debate and at the despatch box

The one thing I would say is that you must get back to one piece of reality, which is that the MPs are the best judge. No one wants to hear that, but they actually are, because they see the people, day in, day out. The truth of the matter is no one can become prime minister unless, for example, they’re able to handle themselves in debate and at the despatch box. You can dismiss that, but actually it’s absolutely true. And the public forms a view of someone around that, even if they’re not always switched on to politics.

In the old days, of course, the Parliamentary Labour Party elected the leader, until 1981.

Q. Do you think we should go back to that?

TB: Going back to the PLP? I don’t think it would be acceptable to do that today. But I do think you should go back to a high threshold of MPs. I think that was a bad mistake to shift that. Because we’ve done ourselves enormous damage with that. Certainly over time I think there’s a case for saying it’s the MPs and the members of the party. I mean, how you deal with this union thing is also difficult, because it can be subject to manipulation.

Q. How did you feel about Prime Minister’s Questions and do you think it’s a good use of a prime minister’s time?

TB: I did one really important reform when I came into office, and I always say to my successors: you should be really grateful to me for this. Because when I came to power, we had two sessions of PMQs. In the afternoon, 3.15 to 3.30PM, Tuesday and Thursday. And I shifted it to one session, on Wednesday, which finally ended up at midday. The truth of the matter is, on no day on which you’re doing Prime Minister’s Questions can you concentrate on anything until you’ve done them. And even after you’ve done them, you probably spend, on average, two hours thinking about all the mistakes you made in the time that you were doing them. So, that truncation literally freed up a day of the prime minister’s time in the week, which I think is valuable.

Despite the fact PMQs is primarily theatre, it does hold you to account

Prime Minister’s Questions is an essential part of holding people to account. Also, as Margaret Thatcher I think once said, it helped her to see what her government was doing because you have to read all the stuff about your government. I used to find I would read all the material to prepare me for Prime Minister’s Questions and there would be at least three or four things, every week, I would read the material and think: why are we doing that? Shouldn’t we be doing this? And occasionally, when other things were pressing and I’d had to do prime minister’s question time without the full preparation, I’d actually be reading out the official reply or be halfway through and thinking: this is real bull****.

The one thing it does is it allows you to really familiarise yourself with everything that’s going on in government. And despite the fact that it’s primarily theatre, it does hold you to account. It’s also the most difficult thing you do in terms of just the sheer personal pressure.

I mean, it’s horrible doing it, but people occasionally ask me when I go to different parts of the world, “Don’t you miss Prime Minister’s Questions?” And I look at them as if they are completely mad, because even when I’m anywhere in the world, on Wednesday at midday I get a sort of chill at the back of my neck, and I haven’t done it for 12 years or more. Even as the leader of the opposition, by the way, it’s a good discipline, because that’s also tough: to ask the right questions.

Q. How do you think communication between the public and prime minister has changed with the rise of social media?

Until social media came around, we never knew how many crazy people were out there

TB: I think it’s really transformed everything, and I think it’s made it very difficult.

Because I’ve done the job I am fiercely resistant to conspiracy theories that people are doing the job in bad faith, because I’ve seen so much myself and been accused of so much over time. I’m not a fan of Boris Johnson’s politics, and I disagree with him about a lot of different things, but I’m sure that even he is trying to do his best. Most people do. What social media does is it injects a very, very harsh climate of criticism into the debate. So all the things that I put up with are magnified today.

I always say that until social media came around, we never knew how many crazy people were out there.

The other thing is that it’s given rise to this paradox. It’s the paradox of leadership today that social media obviously gives people opinions, more “opinionising” than you ever had before. And politicians get buffeted by it, more than ever before, but the paradox is that at the same time people’s desire for leadership that stands out against it is also very significant. People are prepared to direct much more opinion at their leaders, but half of their mind is thinking: “Yeah, this is all a bit irrational.” And they actually do want leaders that are strong enough to stand up, and instead of the wave just pulling you towards whatever shore they want, they like the leaders who stand in the wave that just washes over them. And that is the appeal in my view of authoritarian leadership today. The appeal is of people who are prepared to just stand up and do it.

Secondly, the biggest challenge of liberal democracy today is the challenge of efficacy. People want politicians to punch a hole through the wall and not just sit there in helpless contemplation. It’s a big change and obviously if you’re back in office today, you’d have to think very carefully about how you communicate. And there will come a point in time when the public comes to its own kind of understanding of this thing and makes sense of it, but it’s not yet.

Q. Do you think that political science or history is better in terms of understanding government and its functioning?

TB: One interesting thing about politics today, which I guess would fall into political science, is: has the sociology of politics changed? In other words, is the coalition that brought me to power in 1997, is that a coalition that you can’t reimagine today or is it actually just the same coalition? I’m actually doing a lot of work in my institute on that. In other words, has a combination of Brexit and social change given rise to a new political coalition on the right, and the left has to find a completely different coalition than before, or is it possible to recreate the same coalition? I guess that would be a question of political science.

Q. What’s the answer?

TB: Well, I’m not 100 per cent sure.

Q. Because Brexit has gone now, you could reassemble that coalition.

TB: I think you could reassemble it. There are similarities between what happened to Jeremy Corbyn now and what happened in the Bennite surge in the late Seventies, early Eighties. I was reflecting with my successor, who was defeated at this election – Phil Wilson, MP for Sedgefield, a seat taken by the Tories – about the differences, and we basically had the same experience on the doorstep. In this sense, in 1983 and 2019, you’d knock on the door, and people would say, in a traditional Labour seat: “Your leader’s unacceptable; we don’t like your party; you’ve got to get it sorted out.” Exactly the same conversations in 1983 and 2019.

If the left goes down the identity politics route, it will have big problems

In 1983, when I said, “Well are you voting Labour?” they’d say, “We’ll always vote Labour, that’s not the question, just go back and sort all these things out.” Whereas this time round, they said: “Our parents always voted Labour, but we don’t feel the same allegiance.” Now I personally believe that a sensible Labour Party would get those people with us. Even despite Brexit.

People from the working class who voted Conservative – this is not a new thing. It’s a new thing to have this happen in such large numbers, but it’s not a new thing. You know, in 1997 we had what privately I used to call the “gay rights and strong on law and order” programme, which is a description of what I thought, culturally, could keep my liberal people and my traditional working-class people in the same room. The traditional working-class people would not be very interested in the issue of gay rights – I’m not saying that they’d necessarily be prejudiced, but if they heard me going on about it a lot, they’d probably prefer if I talked about the health service – while for the liberal side it mattered a lot as an important cause. But being tough on law and order and antisocial behaviour, and saying we understand what it’s like if you’ve got drug dealers in the street causing you trouble, that was something they understood. They liked that message – you know, I believe that message myself – but they liked it, and therefore they were prepared to be in the room with people who had different priorities. Now, could you deal with it again the same way today? I don’t know. The one thing I’m very sure of, as I said recently, is that if the left goes down the identity politics route, it will have big problems.

Q. During your time in office you oversaw a lot of constitutional reforms. What reforms do you foresee in the future, particularly for the House of Lords and the Supreme Court?

TB: This may just be the passage of time with me, because there would have been a point in time in my life when I’d have said it’s ridiculous to have an appointed House of Lords, we should have an elected one.

Q. You did say that.

Local networks, civic participation – they will matter as much as what government does. I think citizens today want to be networked, and they want to have agency

TB: Right. That’s the problem with having your biographer sitting there, reminding you of all the things that I wish I hadn’t said. The trouble is, if you end up with an elected House of Lords, you just end up with people who either were MPs or couldn’t be MPs, and you just load them all in the House of Lords; whereas if you could create a second chamber that was a purely revising chamber with genuine expertise from people who are drawn from different walks of life, it might be quite a good thing.

The Supreme Court I think was basically the right reform, and unless there’s some obvious reform, I would leave it as it is. I would pay a lot more attention to how you get more local democracy, more participatory democracy. I would have been very sceptical of this 20 years ago, but all this to do with citizens’ assemblies and trying to work out a more involving way of making policy, I would definitely go into all of that. And I think, local networks, civic participation – they will matter as much as what government does. I think citizens today want to be networked, and they want to have agency. So I would be looking more in that direction than the same type of constitutional reform we did before.

Q. Do you think the role of prime minister is too much for one person?

TB: I’ve often felt that there were a lot of other people who felt that in government, but there’s always going to be one leader in the end. The thing that’s most difficult about it is foreign policy and foreign engagement, where if you take for example the French system, the French president was able to spend a lot more time on foreign engagement, because you had a prime minister that handled domestic policy. It was also very useful if the domestic policy wasn’t going so well, you could blame the prime minister and remove them. And Germany being a federal system, so the chancellor there can spend more time on it. But if you’ve got a capable cabinet around you, you can share a lot of the responsibility, and despite the strained relations between myself and Gordon at points, particularly towards the end, it was actually helpful for me for a long period of time at least to have someone of high ability with whom you could share responsibility.

Q. Given your experience working with quite a lot of senior civil servants, do you think there is merit to Dominic Cummings’s wish to reform the civil service?

Dominic Cummings may have expressed himself a little too vigorously, let’s say, but you should be constantly looking at innovation

TB: Well, there’s merit in trying to bring in different skillsets. The civil service underwent a lot of change in my time, and I think it was much more fit for purpose at the end than at the beginning. In the civil service at its best, you have a lot of accumulated knowledge and historical experience that can be very useful in certain situations. They’re extremely good in a crisis. I dealt with foot and mouth disease, 9/11, military engagements in Afghanistan, Iraq and so on; the system worked very well in those times.

What they’re not so good at, where they don’t have the skillset, is where you need to make change. So I would reposition a lot of government today. Leave aside this crisis, if I was back in government today, the technology revolution would be number one, and I’d be changing the way that government itself works. You need a whole new skillset to do that, and different types of people; you need people who are prepared to innovate and have new ideas.

What Dominic Cummings is talking about is actually quite familiar to anyone who’s been in government; he may have expressed himself a little too vigorously, let’s say, but you should be constantly looking at innovation, because otherwise what happens is the whole world’s changing apart from government.

Q. What do you think went wrong for the Labour Party at the last election: was it antisemitism, Brexit or the manifesto?

TB: I mean, honestly the whole thing was just wrong. It was just in the wrong place. The whole of progressive politics faces a challenge today. You can see this globally, because if you take countries with a population of over 20 million, I can’t think of a single majority traditional left party in power anywhere in the western world. They’re either hanging on by their fingertips in coalition, as in Spain, or they’re not in power. Macron won by defeating the traditional Socialist Party. Trudeau is a liberal. So where does that leave you? I don’t think there’s one. Part of this has to do with the Labour Party, and part of it is to do with progressive politics more generally. The problem with the Labour Party at the last election is that it was further to the left than it’s ever been, in circumstances where there’s no evidence that British people are really going to support that programme.

There were always three strains in the Labour Party. One was what you might call the people who want to be in government and put a high priority on government. People like me, I guess. The second are people who are from the more traditional left of the party. They would say they do prioritise government, but maybe they put a somewhat higher value on keeping to more traditional left positions. That would be Nye Bevan, John Prescott, Jack Jones from the trade union movement. Then there’s a third strain, which until the advent of the Bennite surge in the late Seventies and early Eighties was a fringe; they came from the more Marxist tradition of the left, with a more Leninist concept of the party. But they were a fringe, a remote fringe.

I honestly believe we could have come through Brexit, but what we couldn’t come through was that lurch to the far left

Then the Bennite surge brought a lot of them into the Labour Party, like Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Tony Benn then challenged for the deputy leadership in 1981, narrowly lost by half a per cent, lost that struggle, and then it subsided. People forget that Michael Foot was from the traditional left of the party. I first came across Michael Foot when I was the lawyer for the Labour Party, the junior lawyer, and he was my client, and he was expelling Militant. So he was from the traditional left, but he had no time for that fringe left, he wanted them out.

When Jeremy Corbyn came to power, that was the first time these people had ever held power in the Labour Party. Their mentality – they have just got a different psychology, born out of protest movement politics. It’s essentially: “The people will see that it’s right to have a revolution. Unfortunately, they keep misunderstanding the situation, but at some point they will come to a realisation that that is actually what they want and they will vote for it.” And obviously it’s a pretty big bet.

Antisemitism, by the way, came out of a worldview. That worldview was so hostile to Israel it trended into antisemitism. It didn’t start as traditional antisemitism.

And Brexit: yes, Brexit was always going to be a problem, obviously. Which is why people like me said: do not have a Brexit general election. I honestly believe we could have come through Brexit, but what we couldn’t come through was that lurch to the far left.

Q. But why do you think Jeremy Corbyn did so well in 2017?

Theresa May and the Tories ran a disastrous campaign, and, to be fair to Jeremy Corbyn, he ran a pretty good campaign in terms of his personality

TB: Because I think that a whole set of circumstances came together. Most notably, the people thought he had no chance of winning. My successor Phil Wilson went around saying: “Don’t worry, he can’t win.” We all said: “Don’t give the Tories a blank cheque.” Then I think there were a whole lot of people who voted because they were passionate about Brexit, and thought that was the best way to stop Brexit. And then frankly, Theresa May and the Tories ran a disastrous campaign; and, to be fair to Jeremy Corbyn, he ran a pretty good campaign in terms of his personality.

But what happened between 2017 and 2019 is that each of these factors fell away, and people came to a very concluded view that they did not want him. I honestly think this is the challenge of the Labour Party: that at the last election, the door was shut in our face. I mean, they didn’t say, “No, no, I think no, not at this time.” If you talk to the candidates who were out on the doorstep, day in, day out, it was: “No. What are you doing?”

With the new leadership, the doors will be open. But then we have got to have the conversation. And if the conversation is wrong, they’ll still say no, it’s just that they won’t slam the door. You can’t do what we’ve done and recover without fundamentally recognising that the electorate were – I mean a section of them were – repelled by the Labour Party. That’s a horrible thing to say, but it’s true.

Brexit, of course it was a problem, and antisemitism was a problem. The whole thing was a problem.

Q. When you first became prime minister you invited Margaret Thatcher into No 10. What would you say is the greatest lesson you learned from her?

TB: You’re not allowed to say this in polite company, but she was actually very gracious when she came in.

People will keep with leaders if they have momentum and initiative. If you’ve got a clear vision, and you’re driving it forward, people will hold with you

I do remember one thing, one piece of advice that she gave me when we’d just been through a whole lot of internal cabinet manoeuvring and falling out about something, I can’t remember what it was. I said to her: “So what do you do when your cabinet ministers start falling out amongst themselves?”

And she said to me: “Look, my dear, falling out amongst themselves is not a problem. It’s when they’re all united and falling out with you.”

She also gave me a brilliant breakdown and a thorough assessment of each European country in turn, which I’m never going to repeat, for the sake of good diplomatic relations.

The thing I learned from her – you know, you can agree or disagree with Margaret Thatcher, that’s a completely different issue – but she had a clear vision of what she wanted to achieve. She understood that basically people will keep with leaders if they have momentum and initiative. If you’ve got a clear vision, and you’re driving it forward, people will hold with you. Your single biggest risk as a leader is when you become frozen by all the different elements that are conspiring against you.

She recognised that, and I learned more from her by watching her in opposition over the years, and how she had that ability to articulate a very clear vision and just to go for it. If the person driving the bus is driving it with reasonable speed in a clear direction, people can shout and bawl but they’ll stick on the bus and stick with you. But you start stopping the bus and getting out and discussing it with everybody, you know, then you never get back on again. So, I guess that was the lesson, too.

Q. Did you actually enjoy being prime minister?

TB: You know, occasionally I think I did. Until I remember what it was really like and then I realise, no, I didn’t enjoy it. I found it motivating and energising and all the rest of it. Enjoy? I don’t think I’d ever use the word enjoy. Some prime ministers would. I’ve spoken to prime ministers, not just of our country but others, who have said that they actually enjoyed it – but I always found the responsibility heavy.

Q. Do you think the ideal prime minister–chancellor relationship is being close to the point of agreeing on everything, like Cameron and Osborne, or where you don’t overly get along but potentially bring in checks and balances?

TB: You mean like…? The best thing is that the relationship is close enough to have disagreements and to resolve disagreement. Alignment is good in one sense because it means there’s not that disunity in government, but on the other hand it means you’re not generating any what I would call constructive disagreement or dissent.

When something is a full-on crisis, you’ve got to set all the normal processes aside. You have got to reposition the government so it is absolutely focused 

It’s harder when these are the two key positions in government. If the agendas really start to diverge, for political or personal or policy reasons, then it’s pretty tough. But I would say that for Gordon and me, even though you could write about it in destructive terms, for long periods of time it was actually constructive, because we were close enough to be able to have frank conversations. When there was divergence, it often allowed us to come back around to the common position that kept the Labour Party together. And I do think that one of the reasons why my government lasted twice as long as any previous Labour government was because he and I – what is always a problem within a progressive party is “the leadership’s not left enough” and so on – we actually had that disagreement happen a lot of the time within a framework of our relationship, which was helpful.

Q. Given that you had so many crises in your premiership – 9/11, foot and mouth, the fuel crisis – is there anything you wish you’d known at the start?

TB: You realise in a crisis, when something is a full-on crisis, you’ve got to set all the normal processes aside. You have got to reposition the government so it is absolutely focused on the crisis. Obviously at the moment, that’s what I would be doing if I was back in government. You need to immerse yourself in the detail. Not so that you can get the right answers necessarily, but so you can ask the right questions. You’ve got to reckon on the worst-case scenario. You’ve got to build enormous capacity at speed, and you have to be in a position where you can communicate to the public in a way that they understand and gives them confidence. The worst thing about a crisis is people feeling that the leadership is not really quite in control or knowing what it’s doing.

Q. Do you think that Alastair Campbell came to be treated as more of a machine than a man by his peers as well as by the press?

TB: He was a machine in terms of his ability to work, and to generate new ideas, and creatively. But he was definitely very much a man, a person, in terms of his character and how people felt about being in government. Alastair had a remarkable ability to get on with people and to inspire loyalty amongst the people who worked for him. And that was because of his personality, because in the end he was also very loyal to people.

In a globalised world, your national self-interest requires you to act on global problems

The reason why a lot of the media disliked him was partly because, as I said to Alastair, it’s unfortunate if you’re a press secretary and you have a deep, abiding dislike of the media, even though you come from it. So I think that was a struggle for him, but that was a struggle very much because of his own character and personality. But he was a communications genius, actually. And that only came about because he wasn’t really a machine, in the end – he was very much a person.

Q. Your doctrine of the international community – how would you describe the foundation underpinning it: is it moral, religious, ideological or pragmatic?

TB: I would say it’s pragmatic, but most people would say it’s too idealistic and some might even say naive. The basic principle was that in a globalised world, your national self-interest requires you to act on global problems in a coordinated way. Now, the truth is, post 9/11, and as a result of all the difficulties we’ve got into in Iraq and Afghanistan, people have tended to shy away from it as a doctrine, but I think as a basic concept, it remains correct. You can argue whether it was misapplied post 9/11, that’s certainly an argument you can have. But I still think that any of the problems you need to deal with in the world today, whether it’s terrorism, climate change, the global economy or indeed coronavirus, you require levels of global coordination and you require countries not to think that they can look at their own narrow self-interest in a way that, you know, means that you don’t take account of the broader interest.

This is the problem I think now. It was conceived of at the time of Kosovo, but I honestly believe, you know, if we hadn’t intervened in Kosovo we would have had a problem ourselves, so it wasn’t because I thought – I mean, I did think there was a moral case for helping the people in Kosovo, but that wasn’t the principal guide for me – it was that we would end up having a big problem in Europe if we didn’t deal with this problem on our doorstep.

And I still think we face the same challenges today. I can think of Syria, and now you’ve got what I think will be the coming crisis, which will be the Sahel group of countries in the northern part of sub-Saharan Africa, which will destabilise, in my view, over the next few years, unless there is massive international help given to them.

Q. How successful do you think the Good Friday Agreement has been, given the recent political gridlock in the assembly and the uptick in military activity, and what you think could be done by the present government to steer it back on track?

TB: Well, I think just focus on it. Which, to be fair, under the previous Northern Ireland secretary, Julian Smith, I think they did, and they got it back working again. Look, it’s going to be a continual work in progress, and now it’s going to be overlain by the question of a united Ireland or not, because Brexit gives a different context to the Good Friday Agreement. Virtually everyone here is too young to remember how when you used to wake up, literally every morning, Northern Ireland would be on the news, usually with some new death or terrorist attack, and including here on the mainland as well. So, it was a very difficult thing to do, but I’m proud of the fact we did it, and I think if it’s properly handled it will stay.

Q. You’ve talked about how the Labour Party, if it is to win again, needs to plant its flag in the centre of British politics, but a lot of people would say that moves a lot. Where do you think the centre of political gravity in Britain is now in 2020, and how far away do you think that is from where it was in 1997?

TB: I think the context for the centre is always different. So if I was back in government today the policy agenda of the government would be completely different. I’ve said and written recently about how the technology revolution will be at the centre of what we do as a government. It’s the single biggest thing that’s happening in the world. It’s the 21st-century equivalent of the 19th-century Industrial Revolution. I would be changing the whole way government worked in order to deal with it.

Every time the Labour Party’s experimented with going off to the left, it’s had pretty much the same result

So I think the policy agenda always changes, but I think the concept of the centre, which is that there is a way that you can bring people together, in particular the more traditional working-class support of Labour and the more liberal-minded support, I think that coalition hasn’t shifted a great deal in the last 100 years. There is the question of whether it’s shifted now, but I’m not sure it really has.

If you think back to the early part of the 20th century, Lloyd George and the Labour Party in that early part of his reforms, they had a lot in common, and Winston Churchill was part of it as well, because he was in the Liberal Party at the time.

The Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats today should be able to share many things in common. Now, they’re in different political parties, but there is probably a basis for collaboration or cooperation today. There always has been, one way or another, and usually Labour’s only come into government when that’s been present. So, I don’t think the centre as a concept has much changed. Obviously the context in which you operate has changed dramatically.

In 120 years of Labour history, we’ve had essentially three Labour governments. Which one didn’t win from the centre? And when people give the Attlee government as an example, I mean, Attlee had been deputy to Churchill throughout the war years. Virtually all the policies of that Labour government grew out of an intrawar consensus that then became a postwar consensus. Even the Conservative Party very nearly – and very easily could have – supported the National Health Service, and made a terrible political mistake in not doing so. But it’s not as if those ideas weren’t kicking around: the Education Act 1944 was Rab Butler.

And every time the Labour Party’s experimented with going off to the left, it’s had pretty much the same result.

Q. What in your opinion is distinct about the New Labour ideology, particularly on social policy, and do you think that it’s similar to the general Labour ideology of social equity, given that it was one of the most redistributive governments in recent history?

Progressive parties win when they appear to understand the future and have a plan for the future. They lose when people think they’re putting ideology first

TB: What I always used to say to people is, there are values and philosophy that the Labour Party has that don’t change: the belief in social justice, the belief that our job is essentially to help the people without the opportunity to get opportunity, to put it in very crude terms. That always was for me the difference with the Conservatives. They would think about pragmatically running the country, and there’s nothing wrong with that; that’s fine and it’s got its place, but we were always motivated by a desire to help the people without opportunity to get on the ladder of opportunity. And that never changes. To try and create healthcare systems and education systems that are free at the point of use, but of quality. The whole purpose of New Labour was just to say there are different ways today of meeting those aims and objectives. The objectives don’t change, they’re timeless, but the policies are time-bound.

So today I would be looking at how you change your healthcare system to utilise the technology that will allow you to diagnose differently, treat differently, have people with chronic conditions looking after themselves, making sure that you can do GP appointments virtually, and all of the changes which will help you drive some cost out of the system. Then you could build a better social care system, value the people that do it, but you’re going to have to squeeze the income out of the system in order to be able to do that.

That’s what New Labour was about, and I don’t think that concept ever really changes. The other thing about progressive parties is they win when they appear to understand the future and have a plan for the future. They lose when people think they’re putting ideology first. So social equity is what we did when we were in government, and it’s what we should always be about. It’s just how do you do it.

Q. You’ve said looking back that perhaps your government was too obsessed with spin and presentation at the expense of policy, particularly in the early years. How do you think the government could have established a different relationship with what you called the feral beast?

TB: I don’t know if that was ever possible. I really don’t. Even today I wonder whether with the right policies in terms of engagement with the hostile media… which we did do, which at the time, by the way, seemed pretty sensible, given that we’d been completely beaten up by it. You know those of us who lived through the Eighties… and the ’92 election left its scars pretty deep in the way the media treated us.

I think we were always going to face a time when the right-wing media realised that we actually weren’t a Tory government, a Red Tory government. That’s the irony of the criticism made from the left today, because when I was in power, I was very well aware that the attack was coming from the right the whole time. And it was coming precisely on policies of social change, redistribution.

On the right, when its leadership is under attack, they rally round. Whereas the left tend to go, ‘Yeah, you’re right’

To give you an example, there was no Department for International Development when we came in, but we created one; we eventually committed to 0.7 per cent of GDP. We were the only major developed nation of size that has done that. Which gave our Department for International Development, relative to GDP, the biggest budget in the world. And, you know, they hated all of those policies. I constantly reassess this one. Probably we had no option but to establish a relationship, and probably there was no outcome other than eventually there was a falling out.

Q. When you mentioned the feral beast, you were referring to The Independent.

TB: I exempted John. It was frustrating for me that you were always under attack from the right. The left is always less disciplined than the right. On the right, when its leadership is under attack, they rally round. Whereas the left tend to go, “Yeah, you’re right.”

Q. Have you ever regretted Scottish devolution, and do you think it led to the downfall of the Scottish Labour Party?

TB: No, I don’t really. I mean, I think we needed to do devolution. If we hadn’t, we would have had a huge problem on our hands. We had all those battles in the Seventies, and all these guys like John Smith, Donald Dewar, Robin Cook, Gordon Brown – all the big figures of the Labour Party in the Nineties, across the spectrum – were in favour of doing it, which led me to believe, “Look, if all of those guys are saying it really has to be done, it probably has to be done.”

Now, the Scottish Labour Party just did what the national Labour Party did except more so. Right? In other words, it gave up on New Labour completely, which left the field open then for Ruth Davidson to emerge, which she did. It got confused about whether it should run after the nationalists or take them on – when it should obviously have been taking them on. And then over the recent thing in Europe, it could have been the pro-union and pro-Europe political party in the centre-left position and it would have done fine.

The thing that always amazes me is that we kept those Labour seats with us all the way through; even in 2005 we had 41 seats. So we didn’t need to give it up; we gave it up because of our mistakes, and because we drew the wrong conclusions. You will know this better than me, coming from Scotland, but it just isn’t correct that the Scots are far left; they’re not really like that. If you look at the nationalist party for example, it’s made up of all sorts of different elements, some of which are ragingly pro-business and quite right-wing.

So, I think the Labour Party was the author, and is the author, of its own misfortunes in Scotland. But it’s rescuable, because the only politician in Scotland that broke that SNP grip at all was Ruth Davidson. How did she do it? By being a charismatic, smart, capable figure, standing in the centre.

Q. People on the left, especially on the far left, say that you are unequivocally a war criminal, despite the Chilcot Inquiry exonerating you of that. What is your personal view on this?

TB: What you realise is that on something like Iraq there is a reasonable argument to be had and a not so reasonable one. So if people ask me, I’m very happy to have a debate about it, but if you just want to shout something at me, well that’s fine. I mean, these are really difficult decisions you take in government. Even today, even though I can be, and have been, very critical of what was the single biggest mistake we made during that period, which is the failure to understand sufficiently the nature of the societies that we were getting into – which is why when the Arab Spring came about I was on the cautious side – when you look back on 9/11, you see the context and realise what we were trying to deal with.

You look at the Middle East today – and you know I spend a lot of time there – these decisions are difficult, and reasonable people can disagree about it. I think the judgement of history will be taken some time from now, not right now or back in 2003.

The time you should trust the politicians most is when they’re telling you what you least want to hear – it means they’re not putting their career first

In the end, when you’re doing the job of prime minister, you learn over time to divide the decisions into two categories. There’s decisions that you can work out the politic thing to do. And that’s not a disrespectful or wrong approach at all. You can think, if I’m going to do these healthcare reforms, maybe I bend this way or that way in order to get them through. Or you can play a certain amount of politics with those types of questions in a perfectly reasonable way. Then you come to the decisions which are literally binary, and of huge moment.

And then I think you’ve got to do what you think is right. Now, you may end up being proved wrong – that’s another matter. But your job is to do what you think is right. And what I always say to people about politics and politicians is, the time you should trust the politicians most is when they’re telling you what you least want to hear. Because unless they’re an idiot, they know what you want. And that’s the easiest thing to do. The time to trust a politician most is when they’re telling you, “Look, I know you don’t like this, and I know it’s not going to be popular; I really believe it’s the right thing to do.” That’s when you should trust them. Because what it means is they’re not putting their career first. The trouble is, and I often hear this about trust and politicians, the examples of trust are just people telling you, “Oh, it’s really easy.” That’s not when you trust someone; trust them when they’re doing things that are difficult.

Q. Why have successive governments failed to reduce regional inequalities and end the housing shortage?

TB: I would say we ameliorated the situation but didn’t fundamentally change it in the way that we would have. I think you need to take a completely different approach to the regional economies. I do think if I was back in government today, infrastructure would be a major part of what we would be doing. You will have the capacity through technology to link up not just different regions but different towns and cities within regions. And you’ve got to give them an economic purpose. I think that can be done, over time.

There are regional inequalities, but if you look at our major cities, they haven’t done so badly. Over the years, my government put a huge amount of investment into cities like Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow, Cardiff, Bristol, Manchester; these became engines of the local economy. It’s the outlying areas that haven’t. So I’ve come to the conclusion that, if I was back in government today, you need specific policies for each region. And it wouldn’t be enough, as we thought when we were in office, that if we regenerate the cities, it spilled out into the towns, and if you raise the economy as a whole, it came out into the regions. So I would take a more focused view today than we did back then.

Tony Blair was speaking to students on courses I teach with Michelle Clement, Jon Davis and Jack Brown at King’s College London on 16 March 2020. My thanks to all involved, including Martin Stolliday, manager of the Strand Group.

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