LONDON – There are “millions of voters who have been left politically homeless” in Britain today, according to Tony Blair, as they face the choice of “a hard Brexit Tory party and a hard-left Labour Party.” In an exclusive interview with Kathimerini at the offices of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change in Grosvenor Square, the former British prime minister insists that “if the Labour Party wants to be a party of governments, it starts from the center ground” – an approach that is strongly rejected by its current leadership.
About Brexit, Blair points out that “we’ve still not seen the terms of exit. What I find baffling about the whole debate is this insistence that we must leave no matter what, irrespective of what this deal looks like. The Conservative position now is ‘Brexit at any cost.’ But it’s highly questionable that this is what people voted for last year.”
Does that mean he is in favor of a second referendum, once the terms of exit have become clear?
Blair, arguably Britain’s most pro-European prime minister since it joined the European community in the 1970s, says this will depend on the evolution of public opinion. “At the moment, people are saying, ‘We voted to leave, so it’s the government’s job to make it happen.’ I think that over the next year – and that’s one of the reasons the election is being held now, by the way – people will begin to understand things like the difference between membership of the single market and the customs unions and a free trade agreement as a third country. The single market is the Champions League, whereas a free trade agreement is League One [the third division in English soccer]. There is a world of difference between them, with massive implications for jobs, businesses and prosperity.”
On immigration, the issue that was so central to the Brexit campaign, he notes: “The more we investigate the European migrants who come here, the more it appears that the majority of them are people we want at any event. They are among the most open-minded, creative and innovative people from all over the world, and we cannot afford to lose them. However much Theresa May denies this today, the fact is that a lot of the Brexit campaign was mean-spirited.”
Why, though, has fearmongering about immigrants become such a potent weapon in Western politics?
“Because globalization, and the pace of change, are causing real stresses – economic and cultural. Two things are happening, in every Western country: Automation and technology are changing the way we work and live, and migration is changing the culture around us. Some people think this is great, but others think it’s a threat.” In Britain, in particular, he notes, this is mostly the older generation (64 percent of voters over 65 voted to leave in last year’s referendum, while 71 percent of voters under 25 voted to remain). “We are letting down the youth of this country, who see the EU as an opportunity, not a threat,” he laments.
Voters’ anger, of course, has also been fueled by the economic pain brought on by the financial crisis. How does he account for the intensity of this rage directed against the mainstream center-left? Is it not the case that New Labour, in his time in office, was too relaxed about inequality and financial deregulation?
“There is an enormous mythology that’s grown up around this,” he replies. “We made the biggest investment in poorer communities in Britain of any government since the [Second World] War. We introduced Britain’s first national minimum wage, we dramatically reduced pensioner poverty and child poverty, we increased benefits and rights across a range of issues related to the family.” “My type of Labour politics has not been fighting the last three elections,” he adds. “I find it really weird that those who lose elections keep blaming us, who won them.”
He does admit that “we failed to spot” the financial crisis, but he qualifies it by saying that New Labour had that in common with “all the other governments” of that period. The crisis, he argues, “confused the left,” which, “instead of blaming it on mistakes made in the financial sector, turned against the free market wholesale, forgetting the lessons of the previous century.”
But was the crisis not the product of an excessive faith in markets – in their wisdom and their capacity for self-regulation? “Yes, absolutely. But it was not a problem of regulation – it was a problem of understanding. We didn’t understand the way these globalized markets were interacting with new financial instruments, and yes, there was a strong measure of irresponsibility from parts of the banking sector.”
Was this lack of understanding, however, not a symptom of the complacent belief that unfettered markets would lead to better outcomes than any kind of government intervention? “To a degree,” he responds, admitting that the failure to take preventive action “was a failure of politicians, monetary authorities and regulators more generally.”
France, the eurozone and Greece
Not surprisingly, the prime minister of the Third Way is positively inclined toward the new president of France – “the French Tony Blair,” as some people refer to Emmanuel Macron. “Macron’s victory is really important. It is a big signal that the political center is alive and kicking,” and it is an opportunity “to do the big reforms that are needed” in France and in Europe.
He cautions, however, that Marine Le Pen got “twice as many votes as her father.” “The fact that a third of the electorate voted for the National Front shows that there is still a huge amount of disaffection in Europe, and this is not surprising. Europe’s been through a traumatic time in the last decade.”
Blair expresses the hope that Germany “will work with the new presidency in France to produce the right way forward for Europe,” a common path that will involve “a combination of policies for growth and jobs with policies of structural reform.” That is the “grand bargain” that is required, including “greater coordination of fiscal policy” and “some mutualization of debt,” if the eurozone “is to resemble a true single currency zone” and “to survive.”
Yet in recent years, wide-ranging and deep structural reforms have been implemented in the European South, without Berlin softening its stance on fiscal matters or on debt mutualization. Hasn’t that intransigence meant that the debtor countries have wrongly borne the overwhelming burden of the necessary adjustment in the eurozone?
“The pain that Greece has had to go through is extraordinary. What the Greek people have put up with is incredible. It is unprecedented in modern European history. The German feeling is that if they don’t take that hardline position, the structural reforms are never going to happen, and I understand that. But two things are really important: First of all, the eurozone crisis is in many ways a balance of payments crisis [i.e. not just a fiscal one]. Second, I think it’s possible to structure an agreement that includes the two component elements, growth and structural reform. Greece shows that people are willing to go through massive economic changes, but we must make sure that the next decade is different from the last – that the reforms will bear fruit. I made major reforms in the UK, but we had strong economic growth. If we had tried to do that in a time of recession, it would have been very hard.”
Audio extracts from the interview
- On Greece, Germany and austerity
- On British elections and Brexit
- On Emmanuel Macron and the eurozone
- On the financial crisis
- On migration and globalization
- On the center-left
- On Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton