One nation undivided under God

Up until 2005, Indonesia seemed sure to succumb to a wave of Islamist terror. But, in the post-Suhar

On the morning of 17 July 2009, the Dutch businessman Max Boon arrived at the J W Marriott in Jakarta for a monthly breakfast meeting organised by his consulting firm, Castle Asia. At 7.50am, as Boon and 17 other executives were sitting around a long dining table at the eastern end of the hotel, a man walked in and detonated a bomb strapped to his chest. Five minutes later, a second bomb exploded at the nearby Ritz Carlton. Nine people died and 52 were injured, including the young Dutchman, who had to have both of his legs amputated and suffered burns to 60 per cent of his body.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is said to have wept when, a month after the bombings, he received a letter from Boon, now in a wheelchair, congratulating him on independence day - 17 August. "He may have lost his legs," declared SBY (as the president is universally known), "but not his heart, spirit or mind." Jakarta newspapers later ran photographs on their front pages of Boon being ­embraced by Yudhoyono. "Indonesia is not a dangerous place to live," said the Dutchman, who announced his intention to stay on in the country and to marry his long-term Indonesian girlfriend.

The July 2009 attacks were not the first on symbols of western corporate power and affluence. The Marriott had been hit before, in 2003, as was the Australian embassy the following year, while bombs were set off on the tourist island of Bali in 2002 and 2005. Over 250 people died as a result of these attacks, all believed to have been orchestrated by Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the south-east Asian terrorist group linked to al-Qaeda.

Despite being the fourth most populous country in the world, and the 16th-largest economy, Indonesia seldom features in the British media, except for the wrong reasons. Islamist terrorism. The massacre of Christians in East Timor. The western province of Aceh, on the island of Sumatra, making adultery punishable by stoning to death. Sharia courts handing down barbaric judgments, such as the one on a pregnant, married mother-of-two who was convicted of soliciting in 2006 - the evidence being that she had lipstick and face powder in her handbag as she waited for a bus home after work. The national parliament approving an anti-obscenity law that allows for sentences of up to ten years for "modelling" for pornography and four years for mere possession of pornographic material.

The impression is of a country teetering on the brink of extremism. The anxiety, expressed by the US senator Christopher Bond in his recent book The Next Front: South-East Asia and the Road to Global Peace With Islam, is this:

The region is home to one of the greatest concentrations of Muslims on earth . . . At 250 million, they outnumber the entire Muslim Middle East. The world's most populous Muslim-majority nation is Indonesia, 220 million [now 240 million], three times the largest Arab country, Egypt. But the Muslims of south-east Asia do not register in our mind's eye . . . Moderation is losing the high moral ground . . . Muslims we had considered moderate - or "mainstream" - began to take on the fundamentalist trappings of Arabs . . .

Bond concludes: "We can no longer afford this complacency and the ignorance it breeds." Yet, arriving at Soekarno-Hatta Airport, named after Indonesia's two greatest independence leaders (and retaining the old, Dutch spelling of Sukarno), visitors see little sign of religious affiliation of any kind. Far fewer women cover their head than in neighbouring Malaysia, where only 60 per cent of the population is Muslim, in contrast to Indonesia, with nearly 90 per cent. As you travel east into Jakarta, the city sprawls over a coastal plain of 255 square miles, from the docks in the north by the Java Sea down to the hills in the south. Mosques can be seen from the choked expressways, but the dominant architecture is of concrete, jostling for space with offices, malls and shiny new hotels.

Over coffee at the Pondok Indah Mall, Zuhairi Misrawi of Nahdlatul Ulama, the country's 30 million-strong Muslim organisation, advances a theory of startling moderation. "In NU we believe that the struggle for Indonesia is more meaningful than the struggle for Islam," he says, "because we love our country. It says in the Sunnah that to love your country is to believe in your God."

Zuhairi, who is 33 and trim in his crisp black and silver shirt, is not a member of the political party associated with NU, the National Awakening Party (PKB). Instead, in last year's elections, he stood for the secular, leftist Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), "to support the paradigm of nationalism through Islamic ideas".

It is hard to overstate the strength of nationalist feeling in Indonesia. This archipelago of 17,500 islands was united under the repressive rule of the Dutch, who established their first trading post on Java in 1603 but did not conquer the last parts of their East Indies colonies until the 20th century. While the British returned to Malaya and Borneo after the Second World War, the Dutch were not welcomed back in Indonesia. Two days after the Japanese surrender in 1945, Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta declared independence. The Netherlands' armies did not land until months later, and spent much of the following four years in a brutal attempt to reclaim their empire that outraged world opinion. During the chaos, various "independent" states were set up by the Dutch; both a Soviet republic and an Islamic state were briefly announced by other groups. Even after the Dutch finally departed and Sukarno declared a unitary state in 1950, the mainly Christian area of the South Moluccas proclaimed independence and rebellions broke out on the islands of Sumatra and Sulawesi.

Nationalism came to represent a "unity in diversity" - or bhinneka tunggal ika - that was as much an aspiration as an achievement for this multi-ethnic, multi-religious land. The words are the national motto, and are inscribed on the country's coat of arms. Two attempts to insert the Jakarta Charter - calling for sharia law to be made mandatory for all Muslims - into the constitution have failed, first in 1945, and again in 1998, during the transition to democracy after the fall of the Suharto dictatorship.

Faith has always been regarded differently here. "We are totally unlike Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa," Zuhairi tells me. "We even have to import our terrorists." He was referring to the JI leaders Azhari Husin and Noordin Top, both Malaysian, who were shot dead during police raids in 2005 and 2009.

Yet Middle Eastern fundamentalism has made inroads into Indonesian Islam, which is traditionally syncretic. "Before, many people were nominally Muslim, but really they were Hindu or animist," the PDI-P parliamentarian Budiman Sujatmiko says over dinner one evening at the Sultan Hotel, whose towers overlook the huge Gelora Bung Karno, the stadium in which President Obama was expected to have delivered a speech during a visit to Indonesia this year, twice postponed.

The language of fundamentalist Islam, whether being proposed by those who truly believe in it or by those merely using it for electoral advantage, is more widespread. "They are both the problem," Sujatmiko says. "Don't ask me which is better or worse."

The opportunists include the business-based Party of the Functional Groups - Golkar - which dominated the Suharto era. Elections were rigged in Golkar's favour, but the semblance of a vote allowed the dictatorship to claim the country was a democracy. Although its support has collapsed post-Suharto, it still won 14 per cent of the vote in the 2009 elections. Support for the key "fundamentalist" (that is to say, Islamist) Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) grew from 1.4 per cent in 1999 to 8 per cent last year.

For millennia, Hinduism, Buddhism and animism were the religions of the archipelago. Islam had arrived by the 13th century, but it never claimed all of the islands. Bali remains predominantly Hindu, while Christianity, brought first by the Portuguese and then by the Dutch, is widespread in the eastern isles. Even where Islam took hold, it overlay rather than obliterated pre-existing belief systems. President Suharto, who ruled from 1967-98, was a Muslim, but he also consulted a dukun, or soothsayer, and made much of his wife's royal lineage to draw on the mystical authority historically vested in Javanese rulers. One biographer referred to him as "Indonesia's last sultan".

Under Sukarno, who instituted "guided democracy" in 1957 (the last free elections before 1999 were held in 1955), and then Suharto, "the Indonesian state . . . was practically hostile to Islam", wrote Bahtiar Effendy, professor of political science at the State Islamic University, Jakarta. In consequence, Muslims adopted a "docile religious-political stance". The waves of radicalisation that swept through the Muslim world, first in reaction to the perceived failure of the pan-Arabist nationalist experiment in the 1970s and then, in the 1980s, after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, crashed into an impermeable obstacle in Suharto's authoritarian New Order (whose fervent anti-communism gained it such favour in the west that both the US and Australia backed his invasion of East Timor in 1975).

Although most of the population was Muslim, religion was expected to take second place to Pancasila, the five-pillared national ideology that includes belief in "one God" but deliberately does not specify which. Opposition of all kinds was firmly repressed, resulting in either banishment from the country, as in the case of the radical cleric Abu Bakar Ba'asyir (who later emerged as JI's spiritual leader), or internal exile, such as the thousands of suspected communists imprisoned on the penal island of Buru in the far east.

Then the unthinkable happened. The Suhar­to regime finally fell, brought down in the middle of the Asian economic crisis by demonstrations, riots, splits in the armed forces and an emboldened opposition. As the political sphere opened to all comers, a multiplicity of parties emerged: 181 between May and October 1998, 42 of which were specifically Islamic.

“We weren't prepared," says Zulkieflimansyah, chief economic strategist for the PKS. Zul and his progressive-minded allies, who want PKS to be inclusive and moderate, thought Suharto wouldn't step down until 2010. They weren't in place when the dictator fell, and the "seniors" who were - PKS has four cabinet ministers today - weren't so forward-thinking. "They were very influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. So people said we were Taliban."

This impression was not helped by PKS's involvement in the passing of the very broadly defined anti-pornography law in October 2008, which was deemed a threat to the erotic dance cultures of Bali and Java and an attempt to impose Islamic values on the non-Muslim east. "Anything that supposedly raises the libido could be prosecutable," complained one protester at the time.

The Salihara arts complex, in the narrow, winding, low-rise streets of south Jakarta, is one place where the effects of the bill were feared - but never realised. Goenawan Mohamad, a renowned poet and founder-editor of Tempo magazine, says: "The trend to conservatism is unmistakable, more and more women wearing hijabs and so on. What's most worrying is the Islamic militants who might attack your theatre, or seize your books."

Tempo was twice closed down during the New Order. Goenawan's friends were jailed and one was kidnapped, never to be seen again. It must be unnerving to receive death threats. "The first time, yes," he says. "But after that, if I say something blasphemous, people go, 'He's not a famous Muslim intellectual, so what?'"

Goenawan, who is 69, mentions people's attachment to the Pancasila ideology and the strength it gives to those who oppose any attempt to curtail pluralism or free expression. It reaches back into a much older Javanese culture, which has always been very sensual. "It goes far deeper than Wahhabism," he says. "When we say 'unity in diversity', the Muslims can't say anything. We are an archipelagic culture. We have a lot of shores that have always been open to strangers."

Although Pancasila was used partly as an instrument of oppression under Suharto, it also exists to protect liberties.

The day I arrived in Jakarta, anti-government protesters paraded a buffalo named SiBuYa through the streets. The closeness to the president's initials, SBY, was not coincidental. "Under Suharto they would have been shot," Goenawan says.

Confidence may be widespread among Indonesians that their gentle tradition of Islam will endure. The outside world, however, worries. It is little more than a year since the bombs went off in Jakarta; today, hotels and shopping centres insist visitors pass through security scanners before entering. The early release of Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, jailed in 2005 in connection with JI terrorist attacks, infuriated Australia and the US. Detachment 88, the country's elite special force unit named in honour of the number of Australians who died in the first Bali bombings of 2002, has had great success in rounding up JI members. What was Indonesia doing releasing the group's spiritual leader so soon?

Goenawan says that criticism was mistaken. "It's good that he's out. Otherwise he would be a hero. Instead, he's a grumpy old man, a joke. Freedom helps. The Muslim Brotherhood flourished under Anwar al-Sadat because Egypt had no democracy. Only a small minority have ever voted for parties here that want an Islamic state. Democracy has the means to quell this."

Through pluralism and confidence in its own traditions, Indonesia, this nation state of 240 million people, offers a different model to the world of what it means to be a democratic, Muslim-majority country. There is unanimity that pursuing the goals of justice and alleviating poverty will ensure that the country's moderation is preserved.

The links with the Middle East will always persist, particularly through al-Azhar University in Cairo and the hajj to Mecca. Al-Azhar is generally considered the oldest university in the world and was historically the greatest centre of Sunni scholarship - so Muslims from Indonesia will always travel there to be educated in theology.

Indonesia has its own centres of Islamic scholarship and moderate networks of pesantren, or Muslim boarding schools. Saudis may fund mosques, it is argued, but the extremist ideology they hope to export along with the buildings fails to take root in a soil too rich and varied for dry, husky seeds from Arabia.

The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, for one, is optimistic. "As I travel around the world," she said during a visit to Jakarta in February last year, "I will be saying to people, if you want to know whether Islam, democracy, modernity and women's rights can coexist, go to Indonesia."

Zulkieflimansyah makes an even greater prediction. "If we can show that Islam and democratic values are compatible, we are confident the future of Islam can be written here in Indonesia," he says. "Otherwise there is no hope."

Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 09 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The first 100 days

Kalpesh Lathigra for New Statesman
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Tony Blair’s unfinished business

The former prime minister on Trump, Brexit, Corbyn and his return to public life in an attempt to revive “the progressive centre”. Will anyone listen?

Tony Blair enters the room at his London offices wearing a navy blue crew-neck sweater, an open-neck pale blue shirt, informal dark trousers and dark shoes. This relaxed, casual style is strikingly reminiscent of how he was dressed when he appeared alongside George W Bush during their first meeting at Camp David in February 2001, the beginning of a relationship that set Britain on the road to war in Iraq, the reverberations of which continue to destabilise the world and distort the legacy of Labour’s most electorally successful leader.

Protected by his personal security team, Blair travels incessantly, a habitué of the first-class lounge and the luxury international hotel, and on this damp, early Monday morning, he looks puffy-eyed and tired. He sits to my left, in a stiff-backed chair, leans forward, his legs slightly splayed, and asks for some coffee. There is a monitor mounted on the wall and several small bottles of water in a bucket of ice on a sideboard. The blinds are partially closed, lending our meeting a curious conspiratorial atmosphere.

Neither of us can recall the last time he was interviewed by the New Statesman. In his memoir, A Journey (2010), he wrote of this publication in a sly aside: “It used to be a serious magazine.” (The New Statesman has been resolute in its opposition to the Iraq War and took the side of the Brownites in Labour’s internal conflict.) “Did I say that?” he says, smiling. “It’s much more serious now, really very interesting.”

Blair, who in conversation is personable and animated, is not quite a fugitive in his own land but, because of the Iraq War and his extensive business operations since leaving office, as well as some of the dubious company he has kept among the global plutocracy, he is widely reviled, a fate that frustrates him but to which he is resigned. “I gave up a long time ago, worrying as to whether life’s treated you unfairly,” he says, when I mention his public image in Britain.

But these are turbulent new times and Blair is planning a fresh start and a renewed engagement with British politics. In September, he announced that he would “close down Tony Blair Associates and wind up the Firerush and Windrush structures”, two companies in the group through which the revenues flow. While he will keep some personal consultancies, Blair said that he will concentrate on his charitable and not-for-profit work. “The substantial reserves” – estimated to be around £8m – “that TBA has accumulated will be gifted to the not-for-profit work,” the Office of Tony Blair said in a press statement, which noted that his group of organisations employed 200 people in 20 countries. It was as if Blair was clearing the ground for a comeback. At the age of 63, his journey was far
from complete.

The day before our meeting, the Sunday Times reported that Blair was “positioning himself to play a pivotal role in shaping Britain’s Brexit deal”. He was also alleged by unnamed sources to have called Jeremy Corbyn a “nutter” and Theresa May a “lightweight”. The report irritated his aides and Blair alluded to it several times during our conversation, as if eager to correct any misunderstanding.

There has been speculation to the effect that he wants to set up a new political party. He says that he does not. Nor does he want a role in Brexit negotiations, or to lead the resistance to it. But he wants to participate in public life, engaging with new ideas and policy initiatives. He wants to be heard and to influence the wider debate – because, as he told me, the state of Western politics simultaneously dismays and motivates him. His dismay is motivating his re-engagement.

Blair hasn’t met Theresa May since she became Prime Minister but expects to before long. “I didn’t call her that [a lightweight],” he says. “This is completely not my view, by the way. I would not be rude and disrespectful in that way. I’ve not said that about her, I don’t think that about her. No, I think she’s a very solid, sensible person but she’s delivering Brexit. And she has to deliver it. Otherwise she will lose the support of that very strong right-wing media. And they’ll open up a rift in the Tory party again. It will be very difficult for her, and that’s why I don’t disrespect her at all. She’s got a very difficult political hand to play.”

As for Corbyn, he says: “I did not call Jeremy Corbyn ‘a nutter’. I don’t think he’s a nutter. I just think he is someone on the far left of politics and he’s been consistent for the last 35 years that I’ve known him, which is fine. I don’t think that’s an unprincipled position. I just don’t think it’s a position that is either correct or one from which he can win an election. But I may be wrong, so let’s wait and see.”

What is unambiguous is that Blair is determined once again to become an agent of influence in British politics, on issues from Brexit to reviving what he describes as the “progressive centre or centre left”.

His allies call for a new “muscular centre”. They are discussing how best to counter the populist surge on both the radical left and radical right. There are plans for a new think tank or organisation to generate policy initiatives, and for Blair to make more direct interventions. Jim Murphy, a former leader of Scottish Labour, is working as an associate on various projects.

“You’ve got to unpack, first of all, what bits of the so-called liberal agenda have failed and what bits haven’t,” Blair told me. “And you’ve got to learn the right lessons of Brexit, Trump and these popular movements across the Western world. Otherwise you’re going to end up in a situation where you seriously think that the populism of the left is going to defeat the populism of the right. It absolutely won’t.”

Our new emerging political order, he believes, is defined less by a conflict between left and right than by one between “open and closed”, and this is a theme he has been exploring since 2007.

“Open v closed is a really important debate today, because in a curious way the populism of the left and the populism of the right – at a certain point they meet each other. They tend to be isolationist. OK, the left is more anti-business, the right is more anti-immigrant, but they tend to be protectionist and they have an attitude to the process of globalisation that says this is a policy that is given by government and we can stop it and should stop it. Whereas my view about globalisation is that it’s a force essentially driven by people, by technological change, by the way the world has opened up. You’re not going to reverse that. The question is: how do we make that just and fair? That is the big question of our times. The centre left does not provide an answer to that, and we can and should.”

He does not want Labour to split, though he feels that the party is in a much weaker position than it was even in the 1980s. “It’s a tough business . . . The leadership has been captured by the far left for the first time in the party’s history, so we have to see. I hope that the Labour Party realises that it has a historic duty to try to represent people in this country who need our representation desperately. I hope it rediscovers the fact that the government that I led and that Gordon Brown led actually did a huge amount for the people who were left behind by the policies of the previous Conservative government.”

Blair knows that he is unpopular, especially with the left, and why. But does he feel misunderstood?

“Well, I think there was huge misunderstanding of what we were about and why we were about it. That’s partly one of the reasons I’m changing everything.”

Changing everything: the phrase is resonant and refers not only to Blair’s decision to close down most of his commercial and business interests, but also to his renewed sense of political engagement. “What I’m doing is to spend more time not in the front line of politics, because I have no intention of going back to the front line of politics, to correct another misunderstanding . . . but in trying to create the space for a political debate about where modern Western democracies go and where the progressive forces particularly find their place . . . I’m dismayed by the state of Western politics, but also incredibly motivated by it. I think in Britain today, you’ve got millions of effectively politically homeless people.”

He tilts forward. His voice quickens even as his body language betrays frustration. “I can’t come into front-line politics. There’s just too much hostility, and also there are elements of the media who would literally move to destroy mode if I tried to do that . . .”

So what can he do? Is there someone in whom he can invest his hopes? He says that his first priority is to “build a platform” that will allow people to debate ideas and formulate solutions, without the abuse or vilification that has become so prevalent in modern politics. “The best thing I can do is use [my] long experience, not just as prime minister – I’ve learned a huge amount being out in the world these past nine or ten years . . .”

The platform will be driven by technology. “One advantage of today’s social media is that you can build networks. Movements can begin at scale and build speed quickly. You’re not going to relate the answers to the challenges that we face by a Twitter exchange, so what I’m interested in doing is asking: what are the types of ideas that we should be taking forward? How do we provide a service to people who are in the front line of politics, so that we can provide some thinking and some ideas? The thing that’s really tragic about politics today is that the best ideas about politics aren’t in politics. I find the ideas are much more interesting in the technology sector, much more interesting ideas about how you change the world.”

***

Tony Blair believes that Brexit can be halted. “It can be stopped if the British people decide that, having seen what it means, the pain-gain cost-benefit analysis doesn’t stack up. And that can happen in one of two ways. I’m not saying it will [be stopped], by the way, but it could. I’m just saying: until you see what it means, how do you know?”

Attempting to secure access to the single market will be the defining negotiation. “Either you get maximum access to the single market – in which case you’ll end up accepting a significant number of the rules on immigration, on payment into the budget, on the European Court’s jurisdiction. People may then say, ‘Well, hang on, why are we leaving then?’ Or alternatively, you’ll be out of the single market and the economic pain may be very great, because beyond doubt if you do that you’ll have years, maybe a decade, of economic restructuring.”

But, I suggest, the Remain side made numberless dire economic forecasts during the long, dispiriting referendum campaign and they were ignored. The public understands well enough the risks of Brexit.

“But this is what I keep saying to people. This is like agreeing to a house swap without having seen the other house . . . You’ve got to understand, this has been driven essentially ideologically. You’ve got a very powerful cartel of the media on the right who provided the platform for the Brexiteers who allied themselves with the people in the Tory party who saw a chance to run with this. And, OK, they ended up in circumstances where there was a very brutal but not particularly enlightening campaign. They won that campaign.”

He pauses to reach for his coffee cup.

“But in the end, for a large number of the people, even those who voted Leave, they will look at this in a practical way, not an ideological way. And all I’m saying is: what shows you how ideological this is is that when I say, ‘Well, let’s just keep our options open,’ it’s condemned as treason. Why wouldn’t you keep your options open? Why wouldn’t you say, ‘We took this decision, we took it before we saw what its consequences are; now we see its consequences, we’re not so sure’?

“I think, in the end, it’s going to be about parliament and the country scrutinising the deal. So, for example, the deal that was done with Nissan” – to persuade the Japanese carmaker to expand its production in Sunderland after Brexit – “I don’t know what the terms of that deal are, but we should know. Because that will tell us a lot about what they’re prepared to concede in order to keep access to the single market.”

***

Blair says that he has never met Donald Trump, although last week he met his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the real estate multimillionaire who is part of the Trump transition team and is married to Ivanka Trump. Blair’s aides said that the encounter with Kushner was at Cipriani, an Italian restaurant in Manhattan. Donald Trump was not present. “[Tony] knew a couple of people at the table and was invited to join them. However, the assertion that he was ‘angling for a role’ is complete nonsense.”

Trump’s venality, belligerence, isolationist rhetoric and narrow definition of the national interest has alarmed the Anglo-American foreign policy establishment, which considers the president-elect to be a clear and present danger to the rules-based liberal world order. The urgent challenge facing the West in an age of intensifying nationalism, great power rivalry and demagogic plutocracy will be to hold together the alliance structure that has defined the world for the past 70 years.

Under Trump’s presidency, the political scientist Robert Kagan has written, the US is likely to retreat into “national solipsism”. It could be much worse than that, but Blair’s response to Trump’s victory is to invoke realpolitik. He does not denounce the president-elect, but nor does he welcome his improbable triumph. Neither for nor against Trump – in public, at least – he wants to
understand and explain.

“Look, he’s been elected president of America and [I agree with] the comments that Barack Obama has made about working with him, trying to make sure that those things that people are worried about don’t materialise. That’s our obligation now. He’s the American president, duly elected through their electoral college system, and that’s it. He won because people want to change. Because there are various issues upon which the Republican platform was stronger than the Democrats’. And this is part of a general global movement, which is partly a reaction to globalisation and partly economic. But it is also a lot to do with culture and identity, and people’s feelings that the world is changing rapidly around them and that the left doesn’t get this.”

He believes that Trump’s preoccupation with questions of identity and belonging, as well as his appeal to people’s anxieties about immigration and Islamist terror, was fundamental to his appeal. “If you leave aside all the comments that Donald Trump made and you just look at the two platforms, on the issues that related to culture and identity, I could see why there would be Americans, even in the centre ground, who might be attracted by that [Trump’s] platform – even if, by the way, they weren’t attracted by the personality of the person who is the standard bearer. There’s got to be a lot of analysis as to why this happened.”

Blair’s response to the fragmentation of globalisation is not to reject but to reaffirm his commitment to it and to free market economics and the open society. In other words, he favours not less but more liberalism. “Against the received wisdom, I think the absolute essence is to revive the centre. Progressive forces, if they’re not coming at this from a strong centrist position, are likely to find themselves just enough off-centre on the debates around culture and identity, never mind the economy, where they’re going to be defeated by a populism of the right. And if you put a populism of the left against that, which is where some people want to go – it’s where the British Labour Party’s gone [and] many Democrats argue that, really, if we’d had Bernie Sanders, we’d have done better – if we go down that path, we’ll just get beaten bigger.”

***

So is this the beginning of Tony Blair’s second act in British public life? Will enough people be prepared to listen to him, or is the stain of the Iraq misadventure and subsequent pursuit of personal wealth too deep? The property portfolio that he and Cherie Blair own, which includes a main residence in Connaught Square in London and a country home in Buckinghamshire, is worth at least £27m, according to the Guardian. Blair’s total wealth may be at least twice that, according to media reports, though he said in 2014 that it was less than £20m.

 “We are suffering a crisis of global leadership,” says one former ally and associate of Blair’s. “There’s an absence of a strong centrist foreign policy voice. We need someone to make the case for Nato and for the alliance system. Blair could do that. But it will be difficult for him, because he’s never found a way of acknowledging the mistakes he made. If he wants to talk about Brexit and Trump, he needs to do so with humility and not be so Manichaean about it. He has long spoken of the clash between Islamism and Western civilisation – now we have a problem with Western civilisation, don’t we?”

In his long Atlantic interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in April 2016, Barack Obama discussed the moral limits of American power and articulated what he called his doctrine of “tragic realism”. Like the philosopher-theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whom he has read carefully, Obama acknowledges the existence of evil (as the more religious Blair does) in the world, but also the difficulties and dangers inherent in confronting it. Obama, who opposed the Iraq War, understood the risks of attempting to impose through violence Western values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. His foreign policy, unlike Blair’s, was defined by a sense of cautious “realism”. Great power carries the burden of responsibility and demands the necessity of restraint – perhaps far too much restraint, in the case of Obama and the Syrian tragedy.

“We cannot do good without also doing evil,” Niebuhr wrote in The Irony of American History. “We cannot defend what is dearest to us without running the risk of destroying what is even more precious than our life . . .”

In his response to the Chilcot inquiry, Blair accepted responsibility for the failures of post-invasion planning, but defended the original decision to invade and occupy Iraq. With his voice croaky and weakening, he was described as resembling a “broken man” by some commentators during the press conference at which he replied to Chilcot. Yet, in person, he seems anything but broken: he is alert, vigorous, optimistic about the prospects for globalisation, and determined to fight back against the waves of populism sweeping the West. He believes that the arc of history still bends towards progress and enlightenment.

Talking to him, I was reminded of the speech he gave at the 2001 Labour party conference, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. “The kaleidoscope has been shaken,” he suggested, and it was time to reorder the world. For Blair, 9/11 was a profound shock but also an opportunity. The catastrophe enabled him to find a public voice commensurate with the moment, a voice that George W Bush could not find, and he saw an opportunity to influence Bush and internationalise US foreign policy, drawing the world’s one essential nation away from hermit security and back into the world.

Trump’s “America First” isolationism is today an exaggerated caricature of Bush’s pre-9/11 positions on foreign policy. In the 2000 presidential debates with Al Gore, Bush said, “I’m not so sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say this is the way it’s got to be.” How incredible that now seems.

“Every American president I’ve ever dealt with, and I’ve dealt with three now, has always come to power with an essentially domestic programme,” Blair says now. “And all of them have ended up, because this is America’s inevitable role in the world, being highly engaged in global affairs. And even in relation to a President Trump and President Putin, let’s see what happens. Let’s see what happens when they actually have to negotiate.”

Asked about the threat posed by Russia to the West, Blair says: “It’s important in my view that we in the West stand up for our essential values. The language that President Putin understands is strength. He will take advantage of any weakness. We have got to be very clear . . . This concept of a sort of new authoritarianism, I think, is a real risk in the world as a whole, but again the best way of dealing with that is to respond to those people who want some authority and order. I mean the electorate, even in the West. There was a poll I saw in Le Monde, the other week, with an astonishing amount of people worried that democracy didn’t actually work. The answer to that is to have a centre ground that is strong and radical. And the centre ground has become flabby and managers of the status quo.”

With his flag planted firmly in the “progressive centre ground” and with opposition to the Tories so divided, Blair is preparing for his re-entry into public life, though his plans remain inchoate. It’s almost as if he believes he’s on an ethical mission, that he has unfinished business. But the ground beneath his feet is shifting violently.

What if America under Trump ceases to be the last best hope for the world and becomes something darker and more malevolent? This isn’t something that Blair wishes to contemplate. He and millions like him may feel “politically homeless”, but he remains, at heart, a liberal optimist. But is his optimism no more than misguided faith? What if history is not linear, as he believes, but cyclical, contingent and discontinuous?

“In a world of uncertainty, people want strength in their leaders,” Blair says. “It’s our job to make sure that that does not bleed across into authoritarianism. And that’s why, when we were in government, we introduced real reforms, not least around the Supreme Court, the European Convention on Human Rights being incorporated into British law . . . We had more devolution, more giving away of government power at the centre. But it was still a strong government, with a very clear sense of where it was going, and it had control of the political agenda. And this is not a lesson of politics that’s [only] relevant to this time but to any time. And if you look back at when progressive forces do well, they always do well when they are at the cutting edge of the future, and when they have sufficient strength that people feel there is real leadership taking the country forward. Now, I don’t doubt that the post-financial crisis world has made a significant difference, but . . . when you really look at, for example, the people supporting Brexit, the people supporting Trump, they’re not particularly anti-wealth. What they are is anti a system they think they’re paying into that other people aren’t.”

Trump, Brexit, Corbyn – Tony Blair keeps ending up on the losing side, though the years when he was winning sustain him in his convictions and extraordinary self-belief. He cautions against fatalism and he remains defiant. And he never doubts he’s on the right side of history.

“Of course, history has a direction,” he says, dismissing my scepticism. “There is progress, we are making progress, even in our own countries. If you think of the world your son is growing up in and the world my grandfather grew up in, if you think what he’s going to have and what my father had, I mean, come on! There’s a lot to celebrate. There is absolutely no reason to be pessimistic about the human condition. But there are people who will exploit the fears of people if we don’t root the hopes of people in realistic, sensible policies.”

 


Tony Blair on Trump, the EU referendum and Strictly

Jason Cowley Are we entering a post-liberal era? If so, why are many people rejecting liberalism?

Tony Blair You’ve got to be really careful of what’s been rejected and what hasn’t been. And one of the things I find quite bizarre about the present debate is the number of voices on the progressive left who want to blame those of us who won elections for the defeats we’ve subsequently suffered. What would be more sensible would be also to analyse why we won and what’s changed and what hasn’t changed. And when people say that liberalism has been defeated, it depends what you mean by liberalism.

JC Trump won on a hostility to globalisation, open markets and freedom of movement of peoples, all of which are associated with what one might call the market globalisation of the past 25 years.

TB It’s true that there is a reaction against globalisation. The degree to which that means people have all gone against free trade, I think you’ve really got to watch that. These issues of culture and identity are far more important than this. And those feelings of culture and identity are bound to happen at a period of rapid change. The sensible thing is to deal with those issues and anxieties. And to deal with them by having strong, clear policy positions on them – that then allows you to make the sensible case for immigration, but for controls.

JC As well as ultra-economic liberalism, we also have identity liberalism, too – a rainbow coalition of identity interests, many of which Hillary Clinton attempted to appeal to. And Trump disregarded much of that rhetoric and agenda.

TB What is very instructive is to go look at the Democratic platform for that election and look at the Republican one – leave aside Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Just look at those two platforms and you’ll see what the problem is. For example, when it comes to a discussion of radical Islam and the Islamist threat, the Democrats felt that, for reasons I completely understand, that if you talked about it in that language, the general prevailing sense is that you were then stigmatising all Muslims. I don’t personally agree with that. I think that you’re perfectly able to distinguish between Islamists and Muslims. But there is a threat that is based on the perversion of religion, and you should acknowledge it as such in my view. Whereas the Republicans had a whole section that was all about that. Again, if you’re looking at America and how they feel about things, what they feel is that the liberal left is unwilling to have a discussion about these things.

JC What is the best-case scenario for a Trump presidency?

TB That the Trump who is a deal-maker and a non-ideologue comes through. But the only thing you can do is to wait and see.

JC Michael Portillo described David Cameron’s decision to hold the EU referendum as the greatest blunder ever made by a British prime minister. Do you agree?

TB I understand the reasons for it. As you may recall, I argued very strongly against it before the general election . . . but . . . I could’ve held one in 2005 and lost one. When we thought we were going to have to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, I thought that was a very, very open question as to whether we were going to win or not. What it shows you [is] that if you put this decision to people like this in a referendum, I think at any point in time in the last 30 years you could have got that result.

JC If the prime minister believed leaving the EU would be potentially so disastrous, why take the risk?

TB Jason, I  wouldn’t have done it myself, I’d be strongly against it. But I know what it’s like, so I’m more forgiving of people who hold the position of prime minister.

JC You’re interested in networks and their possibilities. Are you impressed by what Arron Banks pulled off by creating Leave.EU? And what do you think of Nigel Farage?

TB I think what the Leave campaign created was a really interesting machine. You should learn from that. One of the things you have got to be able to do in modern politics is to build that platform of connections and networks. On the other hand, never ever forget that it starts with the right policies.

JC In your view, Farage obviously doesn’t have the right policies, but he has the ability to communicate . . . Trump has even said he should be British ambassador to the United States.

TB I know we talk about this as a new thing, but many of us grew up with Enoch Powell. I mean, you remember the “rivers of blood” [speech], and black people were welcomed into the country and weren’t expelled, and that Britain was going to fall apart as a nation. I mean, these people are always on the wrong side of history, they always are, because that’s not the way the world is today. The world’s going to integrate more. It may integrate fast or slow, but it will integrate. Because technology, travel, migration, trade are bringing the world closer together. If you take a step back and you look at the broad sweep of history, this is actually a great time for humanity in many ways. You’ve had more people out of poverty than ever before in human history.

JC What do you think of Ed Balls on Strictly Come Dancing?

TB I have huge admiration for him, I have to say. I mean, that requires courage beyond . . .

JC Would you do it?

TB No, I absolutely would not dare to do that. I absolutely take my hat off to him and I think he’s been brilliant.

JC Have you watched it?

TB My family’s completely devoted to Strictly, so even if I didn’t want to watch it I’d be watching it.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile