Radical Islamism goes deeper than we think, says Tony Blair

In a forensic and measured interview by the BBC's John Humphrys, the former Prime Minister defends h

Tony Blair has sparred with John Humphrys over his prime ministerial record.

The BBC Today interviewer asked Blair whether he believed the "war on terror" had been won. "We've achieved significant results . . . but I don't think this is over," he replied. I think the radical Islamism which gave rise to this terrorist group is still with us, still powerful."

In a wide-ranging 28-minute interview, taking in Iran, extraordinary rendition and the death toll in Iraq, Blair repeated several times his belief that al-Qaeda was part of a "bigger, broader picture". He also said he had no knowledge of British collusion in the torture of detainees who had been subject to extraordinary rendition: "You can't know everything the security services are doing."

Here are some of the key exchanges.

On the "war on terror":

Tony Blair: The real question is not whether you call it the war on terror or you don't, it is: what is the nature of the threat? I think the most interesting and difficult question for me ten years on is: was this a group of isolated people, terrorists, with an ideology, who committed a terrible atrocity or was this group at the furthest end of a spectrum of what I would call radical Islamism, and therefore this is something far bigger, far greater than even we assessed after September 11 . . .

I don't think you can treat these people as just a weird and warped group with no connection to the wider world.

On the threat of Islamism:

TB: When I'm in the Middle East, and you see the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood, or Hamas, you look at the role that Iran is playing in the region, I think it's a big mistake to say this was just about Bin Laden and a group of terrorists. That's my view.

John Humphrys: The fact you pitched the "war on terror" at every stage against the worst that we could imagine led to appalling consequences.
Tony Blair: I wouldn't agree with that. I think the difficulties we had in Afghanistan or Iraq - we removed the regimes actually quite easily, the Taliban in a couple of months and Saddam in two months - what then happened is the very forces I'm talking about combined together, Iran from the outside, al-Qaeda from the outside, insurgents from inside, in order to try to destabilise those countries.

On the death toll in Iraq:

JH: That's rather the dismissing the consequences of what you did . . . Look at Iraq. The deaths of tens - most people believe hundreds - of thousands of entirely innocent people. . . Many more than had been killed in any acts of terrorism.
TB: The figure that the Iraq Body Count gives is over 100,000.
JH: Johns Hopkins [university]... 650,000.
TB: Those figures were hugely discredited.

On WMD:

TB: Let's look at what we did in Afghanistan and Iraq. What we did was remove a brutal and repressive dictatorship.
JH: ... that wasn't threatening us. Or the Western world.
TB: I disagree. I think the Taliban harbouring al-Qaeda was threatening us. I think Saddam was undoubtedly a threat.
JH: How? He didn't have weapons of mass destruction, as we now know.
TB: He was in breach of United Nations resolutions going back many years, and had used chemical weapons against his own people. And by the way, started two wars in the region.

On how Blair dealt with Bin Laden:

JH: You went off on the wrong foot and created massive problems.
TB: That is to assume that the problem was Bin Laden and a group of terrorists. That comes back to the difference in analysis between us - if you were right, then now that Bin Laden is dead, you would expect to find this radical Islamism dying with him. But it's not. Look at Nigeria, Somalia, look at what's happened in the Middle East, in Lebanon, look what's happening in Yemen today. Look at what's happening in all of these countries where radical Islamism is developing. It's not about one man.
JH: And we're not dealing with all of those by invading those particular countries.

On Iran:

TB: Iran was a threat before Saddam.
JH: But it's a greater threat now.
TB: It's a threat that has been growing for a period of time. The reason it's a bigger threat now is not because Saddam has gone in Iraq.
JH: Oh, it is. [Ahmedinajad] has influence in Iraq that he didn't have before.
TB: That is correct that Iran is trying to influence Iraq in a way that is deeply unhelpful. My answer to that is you deal with Iran.
JH: What do you do to Iran?
TB: If necessary, you've got to be prepared to use force to stop their military nuclear programme.
JH: What kind of force . . . could it include invasion?
TB: No, I don't think it would include invasion, but I think you cannot rule out using military force against Iran if they continue to develop nuclear weapons.

You can listen to the full interview here. It begins around the 1.32 mark.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.