Tony Blair launches pushback against 'frightening populism'
Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor
Exclusive: Former PM returns to political fray by creating Institute for Global Change, arguing centre ground needs re-energising
Tony Blair is launching a “new policy platform to refill the wide open space in the middle of politics” aimed at combating a “frightening authoritarian populism” that he says is undermining the west’s belief in democracy.
The former prime minister said his new Institute for Global Change was more than a thinktank since it would aim to arm front-rank politicians with strategies and policies to rebuild the centre, and combat populism caused by a cultural and economic revolt against the effects of globalisation.
In a Guardian interview, Blair stressed he was not forming the embryo of a new party in the UK or personally returning to frontline politics, but warned that unless the political centre regained traction an ugly politics would take root, corroding liberal democracy.
“An indifference to liberal democracy is starting to form in parts of Europe. There are very worrying trends including as many as a third of young people in France saying they doubt democracy is the best form of government.
“Even where populism does not win, as in Holland, it influences and distorts debate. Populism identifies an enemy as the answer to what are essentially the problems of accelerated change.”
The former prime minister – who remains controversial because of the legacy of the intervention in Iraq – said: “I am going to try to play a part in the political debate. I am aware of all the problems and baggage I bring with me. The moment I even start to engage with this, I will have a phalanx of rightwing papers that are going to go into kill mode.
“They are going to try to destroy any possibility of the type of centre ground politics rehabilitating itself because of course they know, if it does, the Tories will not stay in control. I have not done this lightly. I have done this because there is a sense of urgency.”
In the interview he also said:
Labour’s “essential duty” was that the party should be opposed to Brexit at any cost, keeping open an option that allows the British people to think again if they dislike the deal secured Theresa May.
Rightwing ideologues are now driving the Tory approach to Brexit, and actively working to leave the EU without any trade agreement.
It was not his intention to create a movement like the En Marche! vehicle created by Emmanuel Macron in France, but instead to help create a set of policies to address voters’ anxieties caused by globalisation, including stagnating incomes and migration.
Blair said May had not handled the SNP with the sensitivity required, adding it was undeniable that the hard form of Brexit she was pursuing constituted “the material change” the SNP had said would trigger its call for a second referendum. “If Britain stays in Europe you can carry on being Scottish, British and European, but if Britain leaves Europe you can be two of those things, but not all three. That is a material change,” he added. He said he did not want a referendum to happen.
He said: “The arguments for the union are very strong, but be in no doubt, I give this very strong warning, there are elements of the Conservative party and elements of the rightwing media that are perfectly happy with the break-up of the UK.”
As part of the initiative Blair is bringing his post-premiership empire, including 200 staff, largely under one roof, focusing on a not-for-profit basis on re-energising the centre ground, fighting religious extremism, African governance and Middle East policy. Around 25 staff will be deployed to the new Renewing the Centre policy work, headed by Yascha Mounk, a German-born Harvard academic. The platform will be open to western politicians and thinkers from different liberal democratic or progressive traditions. He has injected £10m into the enterprise.
It is unusual for a former British prime minister to become so active politically and his move is motivated by the state of Labour, Brexit, and his argument that the centre ground across the west has been unable to respond to the revolt against globalisation. He said he was aware that there would be people who would reject his initiative because of the Iraq war, but urged them to listen to the arguments.
He claimed the Brexiteers’ agenda was not really about immigration, but politics. “The game of these people is not ultimately about Brexit; it is about an economic experiment where they want to turn the UK, or more accurately England, into a sort of offshore, free-wheeling, free-market, free-trading hub. I think it is a rightwing fantasy, and I don’t think the British people would vote for it.”
He said: “Increasingly the hard right ideologues who are really driving this are going to push us towards the position of: ‘You know what? No deal is really fine.’”
Blair said Brexit meant “Labour simply has got to recover its strategic grip on affairs and be competitive.
“Labour has got to build out from the remain vote and reach out to those that are persuadable in the leave camp. It would be a fundamental strategic error to end up trying to go to the leave camp, and then trying to build out across the other way. Then you will end up not persuading the leave people, and alienating the remain people.
“At various points over the past 20-30 years sometimes it has seemed disloyal to talk about the Labour party being in bad shape but when it is in the situation it is today – seven years into a Tory government and losing safe Labour seats to the Conservatives – if you want your analysis of politics to retain any credibility, you have got to say the position is serious.”
Blair did not mention Jeremy Corbyn by name, but argued that the party needed to change. He said: “The position is retrievable, but only if we change. This is not about the personality of the leader. In my view, we are in fundamentally the wrong political position. If you stick to that position, even if you change the leader, you will not have a different result.” ■