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
Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR