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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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital