Tony Blair came to talk to students at King’s College London last week and delivered a forceful defence of his record in government. He accepted that his vision for the Labour Party and the country was under attack, but he argued that Labour would gain power for long enough to achieve change only if it were a centrist social democratic party, and that the country would lose power and influence if it thought it could “hunker down” in a changing world.
The students are in an MA class, “The Blair Years”, that I co-teach with Jon Davis and Michelle Clement, and they were joined by a parallel class studying “The History of No 10”. We were grateful to the British Academy, whose chief executive Alun Evans was a senior civil servant in the Blair government, for providing the venue.
The former prime minister opened with a warning against populism of both left and right: “For the first time in my life I am anxious about the future of liberal democracy. The West underestimates the degree to which its value system is going to be contested for the first time in centuries.”
Then he took questions on his time as Prime Minister. The first was: “Aside from your own government, which Labour government was most successful and why?” Unsurprisingly, he chose the post-war Attlee government, not least for the creation of the health service, although he also mentioned the social reforms of the Sixties Labour government.
But he used the short life of Attlee’s administration to make his argument: “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.”
He revealed: “My 17-year-old son is doing his A-levels at the moment and his coursework is on Attlee, so I’m reading all about this.” And he came back to it when he was asked about his relationship with Gordon Brown, his chancellor and successor.
What was “fascinating” about his son Leo’s essay on Attlee was: “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.” That conflict ended up being between leading figures in and out of government, whereas in the New Labour era, “by Gordon remaining in government, those battles took place within the government”. It meant, he said, that “there were compromises struck and we survived”.
He was asked if the Government was responsible for Brexit, which he took to be a suggestion that he had failed to argue strongly enough for the European cause. “I don’t really think so to be honest, because we made the case for Europe as much as we could,” he said. “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.”
He then turned a question about devolution into a defence of an outward-looking engagement with the rest of Europe: “The one thing that is really missing today is to give people big arguments about the way the world’s changing. China is the biggest change. The power of China is going to dominate everything. This is why it’s so crazy to have these secessionist movements in countries like Britain or Spain. What are they going to do in Catalonia – or Scotland, a country of five million? You’re going to need to form a larger collective.”
By 2050, he said, “the Chinese economy, which was smaller than ours when I came to power, is going to be several 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’re going to hunker down, we go down to our little nation, our little tribe, we’ll be all right’ – we will not; we’re going to get flattened.
“The way 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 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 it was better then.”
When he was asked about the qualities needed to be prime minister, “strategic vision” was one of those he listed: “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 – a debate that we’re going to have to have, there’s no other way of doing it – but 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.”
Previous articles about “The Blair Years” course are collected here.
There was much more of interest in Blair’s seminar, so I will write up another instalment soon (now here), and hope to publish a transcript of the whole session after that.
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