Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation speech

Listen to him – even if you can’t stand him

Tony Blair led the first in a series of seminars hosted by his Faith Foundation on Monday night. Judging by the reaction so far, anything useful he might have said in his speech at the RSA in London is being drowned out by a chorus of outrage that he should think himself fit to have delivered it. Now that Blair is openly "doing God", there are indeed many questions.

If his faith is so important to him, why did he wait until he left Downing Street to convert to Catholicism? I raised this at the time in the New Statesman, and Blair's subsequent response in a BBC interview -- that it would have caused a "palaver" if he had done so in office -- does not begin to answer it. No daring Daniel he, evidently.

Most obviously, how on earth could he square his Christian beliefs with his bellicose actions? (My former colleague at the Independent on Sunday, the great Alan Watkins, regularly used to refer to him as "the young war criminal".) And to what extent were these beliefs guiding his politics?

Leaving all that aside, he appears to have made a quite astonishing admission in a Q&A at the end of his speech. According to Andrew Brown in the Guardian, "he mentioned that he had not properly understood the role that religion played in the Middle East while he was prime minister. Only once he had moved to Jerusalem did he see this." This is such jaw-on-the-floor stuff that it's difficult to know what to say, although it will only confirm the view of those who are sickened by the very idea of a Tony Blair Faith Foundation. (Isn't there also something rather embarrassingly self-aggrandising about naming a foundation after yourself?)

And yet, whatever one thinks about all this, the work and purpose of the foundation should not be dismissed because of justified reservations about our former prime minister. The TBFF is not out to proselytise, but to increase interfaith understanding and, most importantly, to act in partnership with religious and non-religious development organisations such as the UK's DfID. "The Foundation will use its profile and resources to encourage people of faith to work together more closely to tackle global poverty and conflict," says its mission statement.

The foundation is, for instance, already very active in the fight against malaria in Africa. It may irritate some that health care is being provided by faith agencies, but I doubt that it matters to those whose lives are saved. No one should let cavils about the means stop them welcoming the ends in this case.

Lastly, Blair was correct to point out in his speech that "to ignore the role of faith is to be blind to a dimension of the world that plays a part in the thinking and attitudes of billions of people". Recognising and engaging with this fact matters -- even if you think those billions are deluded, and you can't stand the man behind the statement.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.