Tony Blair is right.
Not for the first time, and not for the last time, he has clearly analysed a situation and crisply set out the options, including his preferred course of action.
This time it is Brexit which has demanded his attention. In a media blitz, reminiscent of the old days when he had the whole No 10 machine behind him rather than one dedicated communications professional, Blair published an op-ed – really an essay – and did an interview on BBC’s flagship Today programme.
— BBC Radio 4 Today (@BBCr4today) October 28, 2016
Why did he do this? Simple, as he wrote:
“Britain’s political choice is at risk of becoming one between a Hard Brexit Tory Party and a Hard Left Labour Party, presenting two competing versions of the 1960s.”
He goes on to say: “This should not stand.” His argument is simple one, as the conclusion to his essay puts it:
“We’re a sovereign people. We can make up our mind; and we can change our mind. And whether we do, is up to us.”
Blair caused a stir earlier in the month when remarks in an interview with Esquire magazine, for which he was cover star for the 25th anniversary of its British edition.
— Male Fashion Trends (@MaleFashTrends) October 8, 2016
Asked about a return to politics he refused to rule it out, saying: “That’s an open question.” Cue the combination of spasm and speculation which is the specialty of the UK press pack. Of course, what he said was more nuanced – and much more interesting:
“I don’t know if there’s a role for me … There’s a limit to what I want to say about my own position at this moment.
“All I can say is that this is where politics is at. Do I feel strongly about it? Yes, I do. Am I very motivated by that? Yes. Where do I go from here? What exactly do I do? That’s an open question.”
Blair was looking for an issue, looking for a cause and now he has found one – Brexit, or more precisely standing up for the national interest while politicians choose to ignore it.
He tells the story of a Labour MP whose constituency votes to Leave but who not only supported Remain but believes this is the most important political decision of our time. Blair challenges him, asking him if he will just accept the result. “The answer was a very eloquent shrug of the shoulders.”
Well, Tony Blair isn’t shrugging his shoulders and moving on, he is shouldering the burden of leadership – speaking up not just for the 16 million who voted to stay in the European Union, but for the millions more who voted to Leave but do not endorse the political vision of the hard Brexiteers.
Unlike the Government, or the Leave campaigners, Blair gives a straightforward description of the choice for Britain. He spells out the real case for Brexit and acknowledges that “it’s not a stupid case”. He writes:
“It is that Britain should free itself from all the constraints which Europe imposes and from its essential social democratic model and go for a new type of economy altogether.
“This economy would be defined in a sense by its very opposition to that European model. It would be free market, free trading, light regulation, low tax, low social protection – a sort of attempt to replicate the city states of Hong Kong and Singapore.
“It’s not an impossible vision. We might – or at least some of us might – succeed in such a society.”
Then comes the kicker: “But let us be very clear. It is not what a lot of the Brexit people voted for.”
Much of the criticism of the government’s management of Brexit has been dragged into the weeds. It is about where the hundreds of millions promised for the NHS might have gone, when the issue is the big picture – the currency devaluation and the tens of billions of future wealth that is in jeopardy. As Blair puts it:
“The painful restructuring, supposed to be temporary, would turn into a permanent loss of income and a poorer country.”
Blair has said that he will never give up on the Labour Party. That shows admirable loyalty – and optimism. What is clear now that he has come out fighting on Brexit is that he will never give up on Britain either. He says:
“Sometimes the inevitable is called inevitable because it is. But sometimes the inevitable is in the mind of the beholder”.
“We have to provide answers: to the pressures and anxieties about immigration; to the feeling that many are left behind after the changes globalisation has wrought; to the worry over stagnant incomes, housing shortage, and over-burdened public services.
“But we should not concede to the anger. We should channel it and pacify it in the only way which truly works: by real solutions which provide real change, not fake fantasies which make enemies of neighbours.”
That sounds like a manifesto. The leadership difference is to provide a vision – not just a description of where we are, but a sketch of where we can be. And how we can get there.
Our politics has been missing Tony Blair since he left it. Turns out he has been missing British politics too. Blair is back – and not a moment too soon.