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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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era