In an interview with Kathimerini, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair talks about the rise of authoritarian populism, UK-Greece relations, Turkish aggression, the western world versus China and how Brexit can be salvaged, if at all.
Having been in Britain when you were elected in 1997, and having watched you closely over the years, I have come to think that Blairism is the political art of the reconciliation of the opposites in a forward looking, transformative ways from Labour party electability to Good Friday Agreement (April 1998) or NHS modernization. Am I right?
I think you are right. For me it is about certain values of fairness, social justice and the belief in equality. These values are applied to the modern world based on reasonable evidence. This way of doing politics avoids the ideology of the left that sees collectivism and state power as an end of itself or the right that sees people not as part of society but individuals that struggle on their own. It believes in supporting and helping people but it does so in a way that is attuned to the modern world. Today for example the single biggest challenge of western politics is the technology revolution. It is more important than who owns what industry and old-fashioned tax and spend. Modern politics should be first about ensuring that the fruits of this technology revolution are spread equally so people get opportunities and you don’t get this big digital divide. Secondly, you should make sure that you are using the technology to improve the quality of the services and what governments as well as the private sector could do. So, this politics has got strong values that are timeless but the policies have got to adjust to modern times.
However, we now see the gradual disintegration of the West. We see division and discord in the US. We see the decoupling of UK-EU with Brexit, the decoupling of US-EU and a growing division inside the EU. Can we reverse this process?
This is the huge question for the pre-Covid world but I think that all the issues that were there pre-Covid are going to be back after-Covid but more intense and more vivid. Unfortunately, the center ground became the place where it looks like the continuation of status quo but for me the attempt to bring people together, to reconcile people, was always to make the change. Not to stop it or having the lowest common denominator of change. And the question really is whether the sort of populism both of left and right that has disfigured western politics in the last few years can now be replaced by politics that is based on effective government, evidence-based policy. How to make sure that society is staying together and see not only that we have common challenges but to meet them in the way that is fair and just for the people. How the people feel part of the same struggle for the future. This is the big challenge. You know, I am an eternal optimist but my optimism has been challenged in recent times. So, on the question of how to reverse the process, I hope we can and we desperately need to but you know … Let’s look at Greece. You always had competing ideas of center-right and center left but if you end up in a situation that there are fundamental divisions and people see the political road to power as exploiting those divisions, then it is really dangerous. I think that when people experience the populism of left and right, they realize what they have lost but recovery is hard…
Recovery is hard, but it seems that in Greece we have recovered from populism.
Yes, you did and I also think Greece did a great job in dealing with the crisis. I think your prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, is focused on sensible reforms for the future which is good.
There’s the question of Turkey to be answered by the EU and the West in general. Is the West losing Turkey? And also, what about a Turkey that is escalating conflict in Eastern Mediterranean? Something that certainly goes against Greece as Turkey has recently announced research for oil and gas on the continental shelf of Greece. There’s a debate on how we handle an assertive Turkey.
This is a big challenge for Europe. I recall the times early in the Erdogan leadership when there were early succession negotiations with Turkey. People were optimistic about it. But things have changed dramatically in the past decade or so. We have to recognize that. And right now, I am very worried about what Turkey is doing in Libya, in the near region and also about the relationship between Turkey and Greece. And Europe’s got to make it quite clear that it stands with Greece in this. The development of the gas fields, that is a matter between Greece, Egypt and Israel is extremely important and you can’t have unilateral abrogation of that at the declaration of the different maritime corridors. This is very important. And I think that one of the risks of covid is that people are so absorbed by it that they are not looking at other problems. We should not lose our focus on it. This is a big challenge and this is a challenge that Europe would have to respond in a united way.
Some people have suggested that during your premiership you came close to an agreement with the then Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis over the Parthenon Sculptures. Is it true?
No, we didn’t, this is one of the issues… Hopefully we will resolve it one day, let’s put it like that. We had a very good relationship with Costas Simitis and I liked him enormously. I always got on well with the Greek prime ministers. But the Parthenon Sculptures was always in a box marked “too hot to handle”, during my time at least.
The pandemic has almost upended the world system. You have long argued about a new global architecture. Do we need a new international body that would combine UN, IMF and G20 to tackle all big challenges – from global debt to climate change?
It is quite clear that the global architecture is not fit for the era that we are living. So, if you take the UN security council it is obviously outdated in its composition and in the way it operates. On the other hand, it is incredibly difficult to change it. Because change needs consensus and the consensus isn’t there. So, I think we’ve got to see this in a more practical way right now. The first challenge is to revisit the global health architecture. And that means recasting and renewing the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO was not created to deal with pandemics. It’s not a criticism of WHO. I think it is important to support it at the moment. But we should be far better than that for the next pandemic. We need to revisit the whole way the institutional set-up, its funding, its power, its ability to operate effectively. I think we need enormous amount of global cooperation around sharing data and how we accelerate the development of vaccines and treatments for such diseases. We should not regard it as part of nationalist struggle. This is one of the global challenges that we have to meet them together. I think the G20 is effectively the only body at the present time that is really capable of bringing the leading powers of the world together and making sure that they act in concert for the common global good. It’s something that’s still a work in progress.
Democracy cannot be taken for granted. Democracy was frequently retreating even in ancient Athens. It was never unchallenged. It was always unstable. Now, once again more and more people – from former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Nobel winner for Economics Joseph Stiglitz – talk about the threat of fascism. We saw Trump threatening to deploy military into the US. Is fascism resurfacing in the world from Brazil and the Philippines to even the US? Or is fascism a rather strong word to describe this phenomenon?
We’ve got to be careful here. I say to people: 'You’ve got to understand why Donald Trump is elected, why Brexit happened. If you want to pull politics back from that type of politics you've got to understand its appeal.' You should not be in the mindset of denouncing the people that disagree with you. To call all them fascists is unwise. The challenge of democracy is efficacy. That’s the challenge today. It’s to show that you could have reasonable, sensible people in power rooted in the center of politics but nonetheless make big change. Because society needs change. And if you go through this technology revolution you need more change. And if you see what’s happening in the US and you are exposing a long-standing US problem over the treatment of the black community, you need sensible policies that would pull people out of this situation and change it. So, that’s the challenge. The challenge for democracy is to bring people together and show nonetheless you can make change. In an era when people want change, if those who believe in the essential values of democracy don’t make the change others come and promise it. They promise it in an irresponsible way and then they exploit the divisions.
Harold Mac Millan [UK Prime Minister, 1957-1963] famously said that when you reach power you realize there’s nothing there. How about you? What did you find when you reached power?
What I learned in government is that the power to make a decision is only one part and a relatively small part of governing. The real power that is required is the power of implementation. And the hardest thing about government is getting things done. And implementation. Because every time you decide to get by and overcoming those divisions to make changes, these times are when politics gets most tough and difficult. That’s why with my Institute today [The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change] we advise governments around the world on how to make the implementation of change happen. What I would say is the most important thing in government is to remain absolutely open to new ideas and new thinking and to understand there is a massive amount of things that you think that you may know but actually you don’t. Also, always to keep within yourself a sense of humility because if you don’t have humility by nature you get to be taught about it by experience.
Next year will be 200 years since Greek revolution and Independence. Are you proud of your country’s role in Greece achieving independence?
Absolutely. The relationship of Britain and Greece is very strong. It is not just relied on large number of British going to Greece for holidays. It is also based on culture. There is a very strong Greek population here in the UK. As you probably know, my daughter in law is a Greek Cypriot. I‘ve just been on a breakfast table with a conversation in Greek. Not that I understood anything. There are two little children are taught to be bilingual. Yes, we have strong ties between our countries – there are ties not only of interests but of values.
We don’t forget that Winston Churchill came to Greece in December 1944 to ensure that Greece remained part of the free world.
About Britain: is there a path for a successful Brexit?
Frankly, no. Of course, you have to make the best of the situation. I think that Brexit is a terrible mistake and there’s no point in arguing it again and again. At present I am pessimistic on whether we have a deal. I fear that the government here has decided that getting a deal is too difficult and the no deal Brexit is the safest option for them politically. Economics could be bad - but I might be wrong. The only way we could be making a successful Brexit is – I don’t think that Brexit could be a success but the only way to maximize our opportunities outside Europe – is to do two things: First of all, to be absolutely clear of what type of country we would like to be. It’s got to be one country based on creativity, innovation, science, technology. We should use all the attributes Britain has – position and language and also our position in technology and science – in order to make sure we are a successful modern economy for the future. We have to invest massively in education in order to achieve this and we should have a relationship with Europe that is practical – so for example we might be out of the single market but we should be cooperating. We have huge interest in doing so in areas like defense and security. It is absolutely clear that Europe’s big challenge is how does it deal with the instability that is coming out from the northern part of Africa. How can it deal with instability unless there is a common defense and security mechanism? Britain has an interest in aligning with Europe on that policies. And also, I think there are lots of things we can do around science and technology, energy, climate change. These are all things where we can work closely with Europe. We must forge an identity in a way that we keep most of our independence but we cooperate strongly with Europe where it is in our interest to do so. That’ s the way to make the best out of Brexit.
How should the West respond to the challenge of China? China seems more technologically advanced than the West right now – and we see it in the row over 5G. China is also the main lender of the West. What should we do to avoid a future of conflict?
The time has come for the West as a whole – America and Europe – to take what I call a strategic view of China. Up to now we’ve been reacting to China in a narrow way. The result is individual policies that cannot be brought together in what I call ‘strategic framework’. And here again pre-Covid there was an issue but post Covid is going to be even a bigger issue. There’s no doubt that America has moved to a severely hostile position right now. In my view this strategic framework should be done by what I call three pillars - which are: confrontation when necessary, competition where is inevitable and cooperation where it is possible. There will be areas when we should stand up to China and make very clear that we would defend our position, our interests and our values.
Is Hong Kong such an example?
Yes. Hong Kong will be an example of that, if China applies this security law in a way that it is suggesting. Secondly, there will be areas of competition. Technology is going to be one. It is inevitable. And the third is making sure that we should leave some space for cooperation. We need to do that for example on the pandemic. The fact is that these global challenges cannot be resolved without China. Climate change cannot be dealt with without China. And we should understand another thing. China is a great power today and it is absolutely right that it is. It has a population of over a billion people, it is a huge economic power. It’s bound to be a political and military power. That’s not the question for me. The question is what do we do in circumstances where the leadership of that power is the Chinese Communist party that has moved recently in a direction of much greater control and repression than before while it was anticipated that as China would develop its political system would evolve most western friendly way. But we should never confuse the Chinese communist party with the Chinese civilization, the Chinese people or China itself. So, that’s why it is so important to reserve some areas of cultural exchange and cooperation. So, what I am saying is that we should have a strategic position in respect to China in which the West as a whole – Europe and America – will stick together.