Tony Blair came to talk to students at King’s College London on 14 March. In an hour-long session he covered a huge amount of ground. The Independent carried two reports of it (here and here). We didn’t have space there to cover his comments on things such as the threat to liberal democracy from the “strong-man concept of government”; the monarchy; the euro (“in the long term, by the way, the euro will work”); Gordon Brown; academy schools; and the prime minister’s Delivery Unit.
Here, then, is your chance to study his words in full and unedited. First he spoke briefly to outline his defence of his record, and then he took questions from each of the 18 students.
Tony Blair: On the plus side I like think we delivered significant social change, but on the minus side we were heavily contested, as we still are today, as a different form of progressive politics. Contested both because in the domestic policy sphere, although we spent significant sums of public money, we were nonetheless very much on the reforming side of things in relation to public services. We pitched ourselves very much in the centre ground of British politics. We did that unashamedly. That is obviously something many people in today’s Labour Party and its leadership disagree with.
We were unashamed globalisers and post-9/11, as you know, that was also a very difficult set of positions to adopt. So our form of progressive politics is deeply contested today and there is going to be a continuing debate about whether it is only from a progressive centrist position that you can achieve power and achieve change; or whether progressive centrism has had its day, and there are more radical forms, more radical and traditional in the left sense, of Labour Party that will succeed.
Right now I think we are at a really crucial point in western politics. For the first time in my life I am anxious about the future of liberal democracy. The populism of both left and right is derived from very powerful factors that are not going to diminish soon, but I think that neither of them offers a way through to the future. And I think the West underestimates the degree to which its value system is going to be contested for the first time in centuries, because power will shift at least in part to the East. It is all the more important that we revive liberal democracy as a way of getting things done and advancing the wellbeing of the people, and I don’t personally think the populism of left or right offers that.
If I were saying this 10 years ago, the response would be, “Yeah, yeah we know that,” but today I would say it is very much contested. So this is a whole set of battles that have got to be re-fought all over again – which I’m very happy to do and participate in. I’m surprised that I’m having to do it, but I acknowledge we are having to do it.
One thing about government and how prime ministers operate: in today’s world the capacity of governments to govern effectively is also something that is also much more contested today. If you look round the world today at the countries that succeed or fail, the difference is in the quality of their governance. Because everything else is mobile. Capital is mobile; technology is mobile – what isn’t is the state of the government. And yet in western democracies governments are ending up in a situation where they find themselves increasingly paralysed between competing forces and unable to get things done. What that is also doing is building support for a “strongman” concept of government where you dispense with all these norms of liberal democracy in the interests of getting someone who is going to break through all that and do what they think.
So it is not just that the form of politics that we represent in those years is under dispute, it is that the concept of governance that underlies liberal democracy is heavily contested in a way that it hasn’t been certainly in my lifetime.
So that’s by way of introduction. Right. Fire away. Who wants to go first?
Q. Aside from your own government, which Labour government was most successful and why?
The Attlee government would be the most successful, probably. Certainly in the creation of the health service. My 17-year-old son, incidentally, is doing his A-levels at the moment and his coursework is on Attlee, so I’m reading all about this. In social terms, the Sixties government was also a successful Labour government.
I think the question for all the Labour governments is: “What is the residue that’s left after you move on?” There is also a question why over the past 100 years Labour governments did come in and then go out of power pretty fast. Even Attlee lasted just six years. The Labour Party has got to reflect on, “Why did that happen?” That’s why we tried to create something that was rooted in a more recognisable European social democratic tradition. We thought it could stay in power for longer, which it did. But when you govern for longer you also create more distemper around the feeling about a government.
Q. What did Alastair Campbell bring to New Labour that no one else could? That a media manager was so close to you – does that tell us something about your government?
I’m really sorry you’re asking about Alastair because he said to me, “You’ll go there and they’ll just ask about me,” and I said, “No, they won’t Alastair.”
What he brought was two things. Very high intelligence and, not to use a sexist metaphor but I did use it in the book, big clanking balls, basically. And those are two extremely rare qualities in politics. You quite often get the first but you rarely get the second. He was unafraid to go into battle. He also did it from an authentic Labour position, which was important.
Not to have a good media operation in today’s politics, and even more so in the era of social media, is just like running a football team and not having a training ground. You’ve just got to do it. But it’s never a substitute for the substance. And Alastair built a very good team. Part of the resentment against him was that he was good at his job. We had always been the – it may not be so easy to see this now, but when I was growing up Labour was put in to give the Tories a breather. That was more or less the rhythm of it. You know, every so often they would get tired of governing. But they never quite stopped being hegemonic in their grip on British politics. Even in for example the Wilson years. It was only really in that post-’97 period they got hugely confused, and for at least that decade they didn’t have any real ability to fight back so they would turn very personal on the people like Alastair who they obviously recognised were influential around me.
Q. Having described yourself as an anti-establishment figure when you were younger, what is your relationship like with the Palace; and did your relationship with the Queen change?
My views have never really changed. The monarchy is part of the British way of life. I mean, I’m not a big monarchist but I think it’s better than an elected presidency. It is what it is. That’s really my thoughts on it.
There are two views about what is the way forward for Britain. You can see this even now. The spirit I like about this country is that spirit of creativity, innovation, forward-minded, curious; it’s not the stuffy old Britain. It’s a strange thing: countries can carry their history in different ways. Their history can be a spur, because they look back on their history and think, “We never really made it as a country; now we’re going to make it as a country.” History can be an easy companion; in countries that are very familiar with their history, they’re always reasonably comfortable with themselves. Or you can carry your history like a burden. There is a risk always with Britain that it carries its history like a burden. It has got to understand that the best years can lie ahead.
Someone, one of the MPs, was telling me when they were out on the doorstep canvassing a short time ago and this guy was going on – they didn’t like this, they didn’t like that, they didn’t like the next thing. So he finally says, “So what do you like about Britain?” And the guy says: “The past.”
Q. To what degree do you think your government’s actions contributed to Brexit?
I don’t really think so to be honest, because we made the case for Europe as much as we could. When we were in power we were basically in the mainstream in the European Union. I’m afraid I’m inclined to say the responsibility for Brexit lies with those who put the referendum in place and those who voted for it. I don’t think I should take responsibility for something I never thought was a good idea. I think you’re saying we didn’t make the argument for it.
And maybe you blamed Europe as a convenient scapegoat for domestic problems?
In my 10 years I defended it as much as I possibly could. But there is a serious point here. For many politicians there are things about Europe you don’t want to defend, because they’re not very defensible. One of the things I did argue for very strongly, particularly when I had the presidency of the EU in 2005, was that Europe had to reform. I think today Europe has to reform. It’s a problem for all of us who are making the pro-European case, when that means you have to defend everything Europe does and you don’t necessarily want to do that. Believe me, compared with my predecessors and my successors I was defending it pretty hard.
Q. The euro: when the studies of the five economic tests landed on your desk, what was your reaction? [Devised by Gordon Brown in 1997, the government revisited them in 2003 before deciding not to join the eurozone.] In any case, would you really have had a referendum and taken on parliament, the public and the press?
It would have been very difficult, there’s no doubt about that. It’s a good question. The five tests were really one test, which was: are our economies aligned? Look, the problem with the euro was, and is, by the way, that it was a political project expressed in economics. That is still its problem.
I remember there was a dinner that we had with Helmut Kohl, in 1998 I think, and the euro was going to be formed the next year, and the Swedish prime minister and I were thinking that our countries might want to join at a certain stage. We were trying to shift Europe and say, “Why don’t you start with a core group of countries that are economically aligned and then build out from that afterwards?” Which frankly would have been a more sensible way of doing it.
I remember the Swedish prime minister gave a very prescient analysis of what would be a problem with the euro, if you got the Italian economy, with a massive drop in interest rates, joining essentially a deutschmark monetary policy when it hadn’t really earned that with reforms and changes in the economy. Over time, when you hit an economic difficulty: what you created in the eurozone – when you created that jamming together of countries not in the same economic position – was an incipient balance of payments crisis that after the financial crisis then exploded.
In the end I thought the case for joining the euro in political terms was always overwhelming and I still think the case for Britain being at the heart of Europe is absolutely overwhelming. The problem was that people used to think of these five economic tests as a piece of politics, and in one sense they were but in another sense they were an expression of what was a genuine problem.
There were sensible people who were pro-Europe, who knew what they were talking about on the economy, saying to me, “You’ve got to be careful on this.” There were some people saying it because of the politics but there were others saying it in genuine economic terms. So that was why I was always reluctant to go all the way on the euro.
Now, had we got an economic assessment that said this was in the country’s interest, I would have given it a go. We had said we would. Would we have won it? Probably not. But you can’t tell. Because it’s completely different if you’re saying that the case for doing it economically was very powerful.
In the long term, by the way, the euro will work. Europe will work. Because what people forget about Europe is that the forces that are pushing Europe together are so powerful today that Europe will inevitably survive and deepen and integrate over time. It’s just going to be the way the world is, precisely because we’re going to have China in the East. You just look at what is happening with the Chinese car company, Geely, and Daimler in Germany. This is a massive thing. In time to come China is going to be so powerful that all of these European countries will want to band together. It’s just going to happen. Over time a single market with a single currency makes sense, but you’ve got to make sure your economies are aligned together. So this is the problem.
So yes I would have tried to do it but it would have been extremely difficult, particularly after Iraq, but I think quite apart from that it would have been difficult but I would have tried to do it. You could have done it, and if you won it you won it and if you lost it you lost it. We never got to that point, not because of the politics but because I was always dubious about whether the economics could be made to work. One thing you were not going to be forgiven for would be if you did it and ended up with a recession as a result.
Q. Could you comment on your relationship with Gordon Brown?
We were incredibly close together on the way up. There are lots of things I could never have done in politics without him, and I still owe a great intellectual and political debt of gratitude to him, which I’m always very happy to acknowledge.
But – this is not going to give away any great state secret – he wanted to be prime minister. This is fine. But it’s a problem if they want it at a time you don’t want to give it up. And it’s a problem if they don’t really in the end know exactly what it is they are going to do that is so important.
I still think it would have been better if he had won and continued with New Labour because I think we could still have won the 2010 election. So the disagreement between us became a professional disagreement over New Labour and over reform. And then because these things can become personal, it was personal to a degree, but don’t misunderstand me, he is someone I retain an enormous respect for as a person and as an intellect. It’s just the way it is.
I know one or two people have come here and the question is, “Should you have got rid of him?” Just to give you the contrary point of view, the honest answer is I don’t know. These things are very difficult to look at even in hindsight, but partly as a result of having him at the centre of government our longevity was greater, because the opposition was contained within the government.
This is what was fascinating to me with my 17-year-old’s essay on Attlee: you completely forget that his government was ripped apart in the late Forties by disputes over public spending, the resignation of Harold Wilson and Nye Bevan. And the fight ended up being centred around those in the government and those out of the government. In one curious way, by Gordon remaining in government, those battles sort of took place within the government. I’m not saying it was easy, and over public service reform particularly towards the end, and on things like crime and immigration it became very difficult – not, actually, over foreign policy. At least that meant there were compromises struck and we survived.
I learned a lot from him. When I first came into parliament I didn’t know a lot about politics. He taught me things like how to make my first conference speech. I was a lawyer, so I thought okay, so you just make your case. Like an opinion. My first conference speech [was when] I was employment spokesman of the Labour Party, and I worked on this for two weeks. I showed it to Gordon and said, “What do you think?”
“Oh my God,” he said, “it’s terrible. It’s like a legal opinion. You can’t get up and say these things, starting with a history lesson, academic this and intellectual that.” He said: “Right. I’ll tell you the first line: ‘For one hundred years the Labour Party has tried to achieve a minimum wage. On day one of the next Labour government we will introduce legislation...’. They’re all going to go nuts and applaud.”
Anyway, he writes out this speech for me. It worked so well it literally threw me in my speech. I start off, giving it the “day one of a Labour government”, and they’re going nuts for it. I thought, this is unbelievable. After about five minutes they’re applauding so much I lose my way in the speech.
He taught me to do lots of things and gave us great credibility and people should not forget that. And by the way those who came after him should never have allowed this ridiculous idea that he was responsible for the global financial crisis. The fact is it was a global financial crisis and the actions he took in 2008, 2009 were extremely important in stabilising the world economy.
Q. Which previous Labour prime minister do you think you are most similar to?
None of them really. Ramsay MacDonald, Clem Attlee, Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan – he was a good guy actually. He was interesting. He was a good prime minister but it all came too late for him. There’s no one I’m particularly like.
Q. In the light of the Social Mobility Commission’s report last year, where it described a growing attainment gap between schools and a postcode lottery, do you think academy schools were the best way to tackle the problems of education?
The answer is definitely yes. If you take London schools for example, when we came to power – and I remember this when we were looking for state schools, because I was the first prime minister to send my children to state schools – you were talking about a very small number of well-functioning schools in London. By the time we left office, and there are independent reports to this effect, the results improved dramatically.
I don’t agree with what the Conservatives have done with the academy programme, by the way, but as it was done with us, the whole point was to give schools greater freedoms, and to give them a strong ethos. By and large, if you go to a place like Hackney and see what the schools were like and what they’re like now, there’s a big change.
We would do a lot more on education today. I would probably be a lot more radical on education today than I was then. In the changes we introduced, combined with things like Sure Start, we put a big focus on education.
Today the principal challenge is how do you use technology in education. If local authorities are running schools in the traditional way, schools don’t adapt in the way they need to.
They were an important part of providing increased opportunities for people, but education reform takes a generation to do, 20, 25 years and we only just made a start on it.
Q. Did you consider your relationship with the Murdoch press a necessary evil?
Yes. We basically looked at the history of the Labour Party over the past 18 years and at the savaging that we got in the right-wing media, and we decided that we had to at least diminish the hostility, even if it wasn’t possible always to get them onside. It was always one of the things I was most uncomfortable about. On the other hand I have to say that in its early days it worked.
And the papers themselves were different then. The Sun and the Mail were much more in tune, they had their finger on the pulse of a certain section of the population. Whereas the things that were in place when we were in power have become accentuated today. Now they are very much playthings of the people who control them. You know, the Daily Mail when I came to power was pro-Europe. I don’t think the editor-in-chief of the time, who tragically died a year into the Labour government [Sir David English], would ever have allowed it to go into this bellicose anti-Europe position.
The Sun certainly wasn’t balanced about the old Labour Party but could at least see the way the world was changing and was open to taking opposing arguments. But it was always something I was uncomfortable with. I feel nowadays that the absence of an objective media, and fragmentation of media into very polarised positions, is a bad thing for the way democracy functions. You have to say that we did empower them to a degree, obviously.
You had a go at them in that [‘feral media’] speech just before you stepped down in 2007, attacking The Independent ...
The Independent is different today, it’s coming back to being independent – but, and you guys wouldn’t even have been born, but The Independent came into being precisely because at the time politics was completely divided between right and left and The Independent was called The Independent because it was going to be objective news, and the separation of news and commentary. But then it became, in the words of a later editor, “a viewspaper, not a newspaper”, and I think the single greatest failing of the media today is the failure to separate news and commentary.
The weird thing about the media – I get most of my news from my mobile phone – is that the broadcasters [such as] the BBC are subject to strict rules which separate news and commentary. The newspapers aren’t.
This whole question of how the media operates is going to become a major, major issue in politics over the next few years. The interaction of conventional media and social media is one of the main factors driving the fragmentation of politics and the populism that’s undermining liberal democracy.
What we tried to do in our political attitude was we tried to build bridges. We tried to reach out to the people who disagreed. We thought, “Why are they disagreeing, and is there a way forward?” So if it was on an issue like immigration, we would say, “What is it people are worrying about on which we can see a reasonable position where you can strike a compromise that takes account of your anxieties but is still true to your basic values?”
That idea of building bridges is what’s gone out of fashion. If you look here or in the US or elsewhere in Europe, not many people are building bridges. There aren’t many people who are anti-Trump saying, “Why do these people vote for Trump?¨ Or people who are pro-Trump saying, “Let me try and think about how I can reach across to the more liberal parts.” No, people are just trying to stack up their votes and beat the other side.
Part of the reason that “building bridges” idea has gone is because it hasn’t really an echo in the media now. Social media creates the era of the loudmouth. Everyone has an opinion. One of the most important things you learn in politics is that those that shout loudest don’t deserve to be heard most. Social media is precisely the opposite.
Q. What was your proudest moment as Prime Minister?
The two things that happened where you could say there was a moment – so I would be proud of the way the health service was when I left office, but it wasn’t a moment – the two moments would be the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, and the winning of the Olympics in 2005. That was also the occasion of the most insincere response I ever gave, which was when I was asked the day after we won the Olympics, did beating the French make victory any sweeter? To which I said no.
Q. Why by 1994 did you believe you and your vision was the right way to get back into power as opposed to Gordon Brown’s?
Because I thought the Labour Party had to break fundamentally with its past, and become a modern European-style social democratic party. I think Gordon was much more attached to the traditions of the Labour Party, whereas I felt it was those traditions that inhibited us, not from winning an election but from winning successive elections. So I became an out-and-out moderniser on the union relationship and on things like law and order. I felt that we had to reach the aspirant lower middle class that wanted to do better.
Sometimes some of these differences might seem quite trivial. I felt after the ’92 election that Gordon should have stepped forward and led the Labour Party at that point, because we needed not another step forward but a move to a different level, but he was more cautious than I was on those things.
I still didn’t think it was going to happen. I never thought that I was going to lead the Labour Party. Until it became apparent after John Smith became ill. I remember John Smith saying to me, “If you carry on like this you are never going to lead the Labour Party because you are making too many enemies, getting too far out in front.” But by then I thought, “I’m not going to spend literally the best years of my life in opposition again because we hadn’t told the Labour Party the truth about its situation and what it needs to do to change.”
Q. As someone who has won three elections, what do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of our system compared to the US two-term system?
I think our system is better. I got a lot done in my last two years, so I have a slightly biased perspective. I always say to people the irony of the journey of government is you start at your most popular and least capable and you end at your most capable and least popular. By the time I got into year nine I really got the hang of the thing.
Nowadays it’s very hard to do more than eight to 10 years. Ten years is the maximum nowadays, because people just get fed up even if you’re doing a good job.
Q. Do you wish you had done more on English devolution?
I would have done more on the mayors. I think that’s a better way of doing English devolution. We did try on the regional assemblies but no one was interested. I had this conversation with John Prescott the whole time. He would say, “We’ve got to do this,” and I would say, “John, I promise you no one’s interested.” He would say, “No, no they are,” but they weren’t.
I would say this to people about Scottish devolution when they would bang on about the Scots having this, that and the next thing: yes but we have 85 per cent of the population and we determine the budget. So, come on. It’s a price worth paying to keep everyone together. I think English nationalism is not a good thing. I know there are Labour people today who say you’ve got to be nationalistic from an English perspective. I don’t think that’s true. We’ve just got to be blunt with what reality is.
The one thing that I think is really missing today is to give people big arguments about the way the world’s changing. I find this missing from politics today. I know it seems very remote from where people are, but China is the biggest change. In the 21st century you are going to end up in a situation where the power of China is going to dominate everything. You’re going to have the United States in the west, but this Chinese power in the east is going to be just massive. And it’s going to mean that countries have got to come together.
This is why it’s so crazy to have these secessionist movements within a country like Britain or Spain. It’s nuts. What are they going to do in Catalonia or Scotland – in the Scottish case a country of five, six million? You’re going to need to form a larger collective.
I got some of the people in my institute to look out the figures of the comparative sizes of economies from 2000 to the year 2050. In the year 2000 the European economies are still dominating, along with America and Japan. But as this century goes on, India, which was a much smaller economy than the UK’s or Germany’s, is going to be several times the size of Germany. The Chinese economy, that was smaller than ours when I came to power, is going to be multiple times the size of the UK economy.
That’s why people have got to understand this nationalist sentiment – if it’s about pride in your country it’s a good thing, but if it’s a way of shutting down in the face of the way the world is changing it’s a real negative, because it puts a wrong-headed attitude into the bloodstream of a country. You end up thinking, “If we just hunker down, or we go down to our little nation, our little tribe, we’re going to be fine” – and we’re not; we’re going to be flattened.
The way you are going to create power and influence for yourself is to have partnerships. This is why it’s so important for a country like this to keep its relationship with Europe strong and our relationship with America strong. For our own self-interest. It’s got nothing to do with being an internationalist – I mean, I happen to be one – but it’s to do with just the reality of power.
It’s a worrying thing for me that you’ve got the forces on the right and the left that are very isolationist today. They are basically different forms of nostalgia. That’s why I say it is important for a country like ours not to carry its history like a burden, constantly looking back and saying, “Yeah, but it was so much better then.” You can’t do that. Then was then. Now is now. And the future is going to be completely different. If you don’t wake up to that you’re going to get left behind.
Q. One official told our class: “Power not only corrupts, it disappoints.” I wonder if you found that?
You mean it disappoints me or disappoints people? You always disappoint people, when you are in power, because expectations run ahead of anything you can possibly do. Judgements of history get made in different ways. My wife always used to say to me, whenever I used to complain, stop whingeing because it’s voluntary.
If you look at the broad arc of human progress, it’s been positive not negative. I don’t subscribe completely to the [Steven] Pinker thesis about the world getting better – but basically I think there’s something in that.
I got some polling yesterday from the UK, US, India and Nigeria. In the UK and the US this generation thinks the next generation won’t do better. So the generational promise has been broken. They are more on the pessimistic side. In India and Nigeria – and Nigeria has got some big problems – they are basically optimistic about the future. In the poorer parts of the world their lives are getting better. My institute has got teams in about 14 different countries in Africa. And in each of those countries I would say things are, slowly, getting better.
This is where the West is going to have to find a way of recovering its mojo. We are going to have to find a different way to forge a path forward because otherwise we’re going to end up disappointed when we shouldn’t be, because in fact our lives have got better too.
Q. Were there examples of what previous prime ministers did you saw as good, and things to steer clear of?
All of that was around the civil service. I thought it had enormous strengths, when it came to managing the system and bringing the system powerfully together at points of crisis. And I thought it was really poor at changing the system or introducing new ideas.
So I created in my second term a Delivery Unit, a Strategy Unit. If I was back in government today I’d be bringing a whole lot of people in from the outside. I’d probably have an entire part of government staffed by outsiders looking at technology, and how it’s going to change the world and how you access its opportunities and mitigate its risks. I think this is the biggest challenge of politics today, and it’s not really part of the public discourse at the moment, but it is the thing that is going to change the world in the next decade. Whichever group of politicians masters that will own the future of politics. I found that bit of the civil service, and the reliance by previous prime ministers on working on this in the old way, didn’t really work.
On the other hand, there are bits of the civil service, certainly in my time the diplomatic corps were extremely good, very capable. In Europe I would say our system was the best, the most qualified, the most able system; with the French there or thereabouts, occasionally better than us, occasionally not. Lots of bits of the system worked really well.
The one thing that is weird about government is this extraordinary ability – I work with many governments around the world today – the ability of that bureaucracy just to stay in place. It’s a form of genius. If Attlee came back to Britain today he would think everything had changed until he got into Whitehall and then he’d feel completely at home.
Q. When you came to King’s in 2015 you said the Delivery Unit was more revolutionary than you realised at the time. Could you expand on that?
Yes, because it brought in outsiders and it got government working in a more private-sector and enterprising way. One of the big issues for prime ministers is: you’ve got to be a CEO. You’re not just a political leader. That transition from being a great communicator to being a great executive is the real challenge of government. And a lot of politicians don’t even see it like that, let alone do it like that.
You’ve got Alun [Evans, chief executive of the British Academy, former senior civil servant including in No 10 in Blair’s time] here who was a very important and good part of the civil service. There are really able people in the civil service who, if you give them others from outside to work alongside, could get the right combination of those two bits of culture. With the Delivery Unit we did that. Around the world different governments are doing this.
Take two countries, side by side, same resources, same potential, roughly the same size: one succeeds, one fails. Colombia and Venezuela (not sure Jeremy would agree with those). Rwanda and Burundi. Poland and Ukraine: one of the great things about the enlargement of the EU is that all those countries from eastern Europe, they made radical changes and improvements because they have the membership of the EU to aim for; but governing decisions are the reason why Poland is pretty much a first-world country today and Ukraine is still languishing. And then you’ve got the biggest experiment in governance that human history has seen, which is the Korean peninsula: South Korea and North Korea.
Q. Was your government too associated with celebrities? Does that have a legacy in politics now?
It can help at the margins, but it can also irritate people. One of the great myths of the government was that I was heavily into all this celebrity endorsement. I really wasn’t, actually. I always tried to look at politics from the point of view of a normal person. So if my favourite pop star endorses someone what does that make me feel? “That’s interesting,” but it doesn’t make me think, “I wasn’t going to vote for them but I am now, because some bloke who plays the guitar well tells me this person is going to run the country well.”
It was all part of a process of change. It’s impossible to think of this now but you’ve got to understand that politics was very, very stuffy at that point. We’d had 18 years of Conservative government. The Labour Party was still regarded by some people as a very, very strange thing – “would you really want it running the country?” – and we felt all of that helped. I wouldn’t put it high up the list of things we cared about.
Why does it come across like that, then?
A very similar thing happened with Bill Clinton. Our opponents found it hard to attack our basic policy agenda, so they attacked us as unprincipled people who were spinning their way to power. This celebrity stuff: they spent more time talking about how we were doing it than we actually spent doing it. The thing about celebrities, and this is why you have to be careful with them, is that they will get more publicity than any politician because frankly they’re more interesting. It has in retrospect become a much bigger thing about how it defined the government than it ever felt for me. I remember bumping into Noel Gallagher at that party in 1997 and I hadn’t the faintest idea he’d been invited.
Q. What qualities are important for being UK prime minister?
Very thick skin. Roy Jenkins once said to me it’s better to have a first-class temperament and second-class mind than a first-class mind and a second-class temperament. And what he meant by that was a lot of being a leader is being able to cope with pressure; to think strategically, even when crises are abounding around you; to keep your head, because it’s very easy to get pushed this way and that way; and to build a great team around you.
When people come to power in circumstances which are surprising, or where they’ve won a great victory, you go through three phases as a political leader. The first phase is when you first come in you think you know nothing; the second phase is when you think you know everything; and the third phase is when you reach wisdom, when you know what you know and you know what you don’t know. And many people get stuck on the second. What is important for a British prime minister or any other prime minister is to get to phase three.
You need to keep that inner humility as well, and realise you can never be as good as either you think you are or other people think you are. You’ve got to keep grounded. Temperament, certainly in our system, is incredibly important.
And to keep a sense of strategic vision as well. There’s a danger that everything becomes the day-to-day. The tragedy for this country at the moment in my view is that we’ve lost the sense of where we need to be as a country for the future. The political debate is utterly dominated by Brexit. The world is changing around us and we’re having this extraordinary introspective debate – that we’re going to have to have, there’s no other way of doing it. But you know, a country fails when that happens.
The prime minister has got to retain this ability to lift the eyes of the country to the horizon. Otherwise you’re fighting trench warfare against your opponents day to day but the country itself is not really moving and taking advantage of the opportunities of the future.
Q. Would you change anything from your time as prime minister?
Yeah, lots. Of course. Because you learn. Post-9/11 we underestimated the deep-seated forces that were fuelling the extremism, and that led us to believe that if we got rid of the regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq the countries would stabilise automatically, and that was not going to happen.
In domestic policy it took me a term to realise that we had to drive reform structurally and not just beat the system over the head with a big stick and hope that it reacted better. If you beat the system over the head with a big stick it does react better until you stop beating it and then it goes back to where it was. So yeah, I’d do that.
I would pay more attention – but this is easy to say with hindsight – to making absolutely sure that, after I left, the politics of the Labour Party were more likely to stay in the position in which I put it, because I honestly do believe that the Labour Party will only govern again for a substantial period of time if it’s back as a modern social-democratic party.
Further reports of the Blair Years course, taught by Jon Davis, Michelle Clement and John Rentoul at King’s College, London, are here.
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