This is a metaphor. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Your brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks

The “neuroscience” shelves in bookshops are groaning. But are the works of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer just self-help books dressed up in a lab coat?

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.

In my book-strewn lodgings, one literally trips over volumes promising that “the deepest mysteries of what makes us who we are are gradually being unravelled” by neuroscience and cognitive psychology. (Even practising scientists sometimes make such grandiose claims for a general audience, perhaps urged on by their editors: that quotation is from the psychologist Elaine Fox’s interesting book on “the new science of optimism”, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, published this summer.) In general, the “neural” explanation has become a gold standard of non-fiction exegesis, adding its own brand of computer-assisted lab-coat bling to a whole new industry of intellectual quackery that affects to elucidate even complex sociocultural phenomena. Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: the Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality disavows “reductionism” yet encourages readers to treat people with whom they disagree more as pathological specimens of brain biology than as rational interlocutors.

The New Atheist polemicist Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, interprets brain and other research as showing that there are objective moral truths, enthusiastically inferring – almost as though this were the point all along – that science proves “conservative Islam” is bad.

Happily, a new branch of the neuroscienceexplains everything genre may be created at any time by the simple expedient of adding the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about. Thus, “neuroeconomics” is the latest in a long line of rhetorical attempts to sell the dismal science as a hard one; “molecular gastronomy” has now been trumped in the scientised gluttony stakes by “neurogastronomy”; students of Republican and Democratic brains are doing “neuropolitics”; literature academics practise “neurocriticism”. There is “neurotheology”, “neuromagic” (according to Sleights of Mind, an amusing book about how conjurors exploit perceptual bias) and even “neuromarketing”. Hoping it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon, I have decided to announce that I, too, am skilled in the newly minted fields of neuroprocrastination and neuroflâneurship.

Illumination is promised on a personal as well as a political level by the junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry. How can I become more creative? How can I make better decisions? How can I be happier? Or thinner? Never fear: brain research has the answers. It is self-help armoured in hard science. Life advice is the hook for nearly all such books. (Some cram the hard sell right into the title – such as John B Arden’s Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life.) Quite consistently, heir recommendations boil down to a kind of neo- Stoicism, drizzled with brain-juice. In a selfcongratulatory egalitarian age, you can no longer tell people to improve themselves morally. So self-improvement is couched in instrumental, scientifically approved terms.

The idea that a neurological explanation could exhaust the meaning of experience was already being mocked as “medical materialism” by the psychologist William James a century ago. And today’s ubiquitous rhetorical confidence about how the brain works papers over a still-enormous scientific uncertainty. Paul Fletcher, professor of health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, says that he gets “exasperated” by much popular coverage of neuroimaging research, which assumes that “activity in a brain region is the answer to some profound question about psychological processes. This is very hard to justify given how little we currently know about what different regions of the brain actually do.” Too often, he tells me in an email correspondence, a popular writer will “opt for some sort of neuro-flapdoodle in which a highly simplistic and questionable point is accompanied by a suitably grand-sounding neural term and thus acquires a weightiness that it really doesn’t deserve. In my view, this is no different to some mountebank selling quacksalve by talking about the physics of water molecules’ memories, or a beautician talking about action liposomes.”

Shades of grey

The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it “lights up” on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions. Nor do we have the faintest clue about the biggest mystery of all – how does a lump of wet grey matter produce the conscious experience you are having right now, reading this paragraph? How come the brain gives rise to the mind? No one knows.

So, instead, here is a recipe for writing a hit popular brain book. You start each chapter with a pat anecdote about an individual’s professional or entrepreneurial success, or narrow escape from peril. You then mine the neuroscientific research for an apparently relevant specific result and narrate the experiment, perhaps interviewing the scientist involved and describing his hair. You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation, inferring from the scientific result a calming bromide about what it is to function optimally as a modern human being. Voilà, a laboratory-sanctioned Big Idea in digestible narrative form. This is what the psychologist Christopher Chabris has named the “story-study-lesson” model, perhaps first perfected by one Malcolm Gladwell. A series of these threesomes may be packaged into a book, and then resold again and again as a stand-up act on the wonderfully lucrative corporate lecture circuit.

Such is the rigid formula of Imagine: How Creativity Works, published in March this year by the American writer Jonah Lehrer. The book is a shatteringly glib mishmash of magazine yarn, bizarrely incompetent literary criticism, inspiring business stories about mops and dolls and zany overinterpretation of research findings in neuroscience and psychology. Lehrer responded to my hostile review of the book by claiming that I thought the science he was writing about was “useless”, but such garbage needs to be denounced precisely in defence of the achievements of science. (In a sense, as Paul Fletcher points out, such books are “anti science, given that science is supposed to be  our protection against believing whatever we find most convenient, comforting or compelling”.) More recently, Lehrer admitted fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan in Imagine, which was hastily withdrawn from sale, and he resigned from his post at the New Yorker. To invent things supposedly said by the most obsessively studied popular artist of our age is a surprising gambit. Perhaps Lehrer misunderstood his own advice about creativity.

Mastering one’s own brain is also the key to survival in a dog-eat-dog corporate world, as promised by the cognitive scientist Art Markman’s Smart Thinking: How to Think Big, Innovate and Outperform Your Rivals. Meanwhile, the field (or cult) of “neurolinguistic programming” (NLP) sells techniques not only of self-overcoming but of domination over others. (According to a recent NLP handbook, you can “create virtually any and all states” in other people by using “embedded commands”.) The employee using such arcane neurowisdom will get promoted over the heads of his colleagues; the executive will discover expert-sanctioned ways to render his underlings more docile and productive, harnessing “creativity” for profit.

Waterstones now even has a display section labelled “Smart Thinking”, stocked with pop brain tracts. The true function of such books, of course, is to free readers from the responsibility of thinking for themselves. This is made eerily explicit in the psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, published last March, which claims to show that “moral knowledge” is best obtained through “intuition” (arising from unconscious brain processing) rather than by explicit reasoning. “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason,” Haidt enthuses, in a perverse manifesto for autolobotomy. I made an Olympian effort to take his advice seriously, and found myself rejecting the reasoning of his entire book.

Modern neuro-self-help pictures the brain as a kind of recalcitrant Windows PC. You know there is obscure stuff going on under the hood, so you tinker delicately with what you can see to try to coax it into working the way you want. In an earlier age, thinkers pictured the brain as a marvellously subtle clockwork mechanism, that being the cutting-edge high technology of the day. Our own brain-as-computer metaphor has been around for decades: there is the “hardware”, made up of different physical parts (the brain), and the “software”, processing routines that use different neuronal “circuits”. Updating things a bit for the kids, the evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, in Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite, explains that the brain is like an iPhone running a bunch of different apps.

Such metaphors are apt to a degree, as long as you remember to get them the right way round. (Gladwell, in Blink – whose motivational selfhelp slogan is that “we can control rapid cognition” – burblingly describes the fusiform gyrus as “an incredibly sophisticated piece of brain software”, though the fusiform gyrus is a physical area of the brain, and so analogous to “hardware” not “software”.) But these writers tend to reach for just one functional story about a brain subsystem – the story that fits with their Big Idea – while ignoring other roles the same system might play. This can lead to a comical inconsistency across different books, and even within the oeuvre of a single author.

Is dopamine “the molecule of intuition”, as Jonah Lehrer risibly suggested in The Decisive Moment (2009), or is it the basis of “the neural highway that’s responsible for generating the pleasurable emotions”, as he wrote in Imagine? (Meanwhile, Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking calls dopamine the “reward chemical” and postulates that extroverts are more responsive to it.) Other recurring stars of the pop literature are the hormone oxytocin (the “love chemical”) and mirror neurons, which allegedly explain empathy. Jonathan Haidt tells the weirdly unexplanatory micro-story that, in one experiment, “The subjects used their mirror neurons, empathised, and felt the other’s pain.” If I tell you to use your mirror neurons, do you know what to do? Alternatively, can you do as Lehrer advises and “listen to” your prefrontal cortex? Self-help can be a tricky business.

Cherry-picking

Distortion of what and how much we know is bound to occur, Paul Fletcher points out, if the literature is cherry-picked.

“Having outlined your theory,” he says, “you can then cite a finding from a neuroimaging study identifying, for example, activity in a brain region such as the insula . . . You then select from among the many theories of insula function, choosing the one that best fits with your overall hypothesis, but neglecting to mention that nobody really knows what the insula does or that there are many ideas about its possible function.”

But the great movie-monster of nearly all the pop brain literature is another region: the amygdala. It is routinely described as the “ancient” or “primitive” brain, scarily atavistic. There is strong evidence for the amygdala’s role in fear, but then fear is one of the most heavily studied emotions; popularisers downplay or ignore the amygdala’s associations with the cuddlier emotions and memory. The implicit picture is of our uneasy coexistence with a beast inside the head, which needs to be controlled if we are to be happy, or at least liberal. (In The Republican Brain, Mooney suggests that “conservatives and authoritarians” might be the nasty way they are because they have a “more active amygdala”.) René Descartes located the soul in the pineal gland; the moral of modern pop neuroscience is that original sin is physical – a bestial, demonic proto-brain lurking at the heart of darkness within our own skulls. It’s an angry ghost in the machine.

Indeed, despite their technical paraphernalia of neurotransmitters and anterior temporal gyruses, modern pop brain books are offering a spiritual topography. Such is the seductive appeal of fMRI brain scans, their splashes of red, yellow and green lighting up what looks like a black intracranial vacuum. In mass culture, the fMRI scan (usually merged from several individuals) has become a secular icon, the converse of a Hubble Space Telescope image. The latter shows us awe-inspiring vistas of distant nebulae, as though painstakingly airbrushed by a sci-fi book-jacket artist; the former peers the other way, into psychedelic inner space. And the pictures, like religious icons, inspire uncritical devotion: a 2008 study, Fletcher notes, showed that “people – even neuroscience undergrads – are more likely to believe a brain scan than a bar graph”.

In The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and his collaborator Daniel Simons advise readers to be wary of such “brain porn”, but popular magazines, science websites and books are frenzied consumers and hypers of these scans. “This is your brain on music”, announces a caption to a set of fMRI images, and we are invited to conclude that we now understand more about the experience of listening to music. The “This is your brain on” meme, it seems, is indefinitely extensible: Google results offer “This is your brain on poker”, “This is your brain on metaphor”, “This is your brain on diet soda”, “This is your brain on God” and so on, ad nauseam. I hereby volunteer to submit to a functional magnetic-resonance imaging scan while reading a stack of pop neuroscience volumes, for an illuminating series of pictures entitled This Is Your Brain on Stupid Books About Your Brain.

None of the foregoing should be taken to imply that fMRI and other brain-investigation techniques are useless: there is beautiful and amazing science in how they work and what well-designed experiments can teach us. “One of my favourites,” Fletcher says, “is the observation that one can take measures of brain activity (either using fMRI or EEG) while someone is learning . . . a list of words, and that activity can actually predict whether particular words will be remembered when the person is tested later (even the next day). This to me demonstrates something important – that observing activity in the brain can tell us something about how somebody is processing stimuli in ways that the person themselves is unable to report. With measures like that, we can begin to see how valuable it is to measure brain activity – it is giving us information that would otherwise be hidden from us.”

In this light, one might humbly venture a preliminary diagnosis of the pop brain hacks’ chronic intellectual error. It is that they misleadingly assume we always know how to interpret such “hidden” information, and that it is always more reliably meaningful than what lies in plain view. The hucksters of neuroscientism are the conspiracy theorists of the human animal, the 9/11 Truthers of the life of the mind.

Steven Poole is the author of the forthcoming book “You Aren’t What You Eat”, which will be published by Union Books in October.

This article was updated on 18 September 2012.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

Kalpesh Lathigra for New Statesman
Show Hide image

Tony Blair’s unfinished business

The former prime minister on Trump, Brexit, Corbyn and his return to public life in an attempt to revive “the progressive centre”. Will anyone listen?

Tony Blair enters the room at his London offices wearing a navy blue crew-neck sweater, an open-neck pale blue shirt, informal dark trousers and dark shoes. This relaxed, casual style is strikingly reminiscent of how he was dressed when he appeared alongside George W Bush during their first meeting at Camp David in February 2001, the beginning of a relationship that set Britain on the road to war in Iraq, the reverberations of which continue to destabilise the world and distort the legacy of Labour’s most electorally successful leader.

Protected by his personal security team, Blair travels incessantly, a habitué of the first-class lounge and the luxury international hotel, and on this damp, early Monday morning, he looks puffy-eyed and tired. He sits to my left, in a stiff-backed chair, leans forward, his legs slightly splayed, and asks for some coffee. There is a monitor mounted on the wall and several small bottles of water in a bucket of ice on a sideboard. The blinds are partially closed, lending our meeting a curious conspiratorial atmosphere.

Neither of us can recall the last time he was interviewed by the New Statesman. In his memoir, A Journey (2010), he wrote of this publication in a sly aside: “It used to be a serious magazine.” (The New Statesman has been resolute in its opposition to the Iraq War and took the side of the Brownites in Labour’s internal conflict.) “Did I say that?” he says, smiling. “It’s much more serious now, really very interesting.”

Blair, who in conversation is personable and animated, is not quite a fugitive in his own land but, because of the Iraq War and his extensive business operations since leaving office, as well as some of the dubious company he has kept among the global plutocracy, he is widely reviled, a fate that frustrates him but to which he is resigned. “I gave up a long time ago, worrying as to whether life’s treated you unfairly,” he says, when I mention his public image in Britain.

But these are turbulent new times and Blair is planning a fresh start and a renewed engagement with British politics. In September, he announced that he would “close down Tony Blair Associates and wind up the Firerush and Windrush structures”, two companies in the group through which the revenues flow. While he will keep some personal consultancies, Blair said that he will concentrate on his charitable and not-for-profit work. “The substantial reserves” – estimated to be around £8m – “that TBA has accumulated will be gifted to the not-for-profit work,” the Office of Tony Blair said in a press statement, which noted that his group of organisations employed 200 people in 20 countries. It was as if Blair was clearing the ground for a comeback. At the age of 63, his journey was far
from complete.

The day before our meeting, the Sunday Times reported that Blair was “positioning himself to play a pivotal role in shaping Britain’s Brexit deal”. He was also alleged by unnamed sources to have called Jeremy Corbyn a “nutter” and Theresa May a “lightweight”. The report irritated his aides and Blair alluded to it several times during our conversation, as if eager to correct any misunderstanding.

There has been speculation to the effect that he wants to set up a new political party. He says that he does not. Nor does he want a role in Brexit negotiations, or to lead the resistance to it. But he wants to participate in public life, engaging with new ideas and policy initiatives. He wants to be heard and to influence the wider debate – because, as he told me, the state of Western politics simultaneously dismays and motivates him. His dismay is motivating his re-engagement.

Blair hasn’t met Theresa May since she became Prime Minister but expects to before long. “I didn’t call her that [a lightweight],” he says. “This is completely not my view, by the way. I would not be rude and disrespectful in that way. I’ve not said that about her, I don’t think that about her. No, I think she’s a very solid, sensible person but she’s delivering Brexit. And she has to deliver it. Otherwise she will lose the support of that very strong right-wing media. And they’ll open up a rift in the Tory party again. It will be very difficult for her, and that’s why I don’t disrespect her at all. She’s got a very difficult political hand to play.”

As for Corbyn, he says: “I did not call Jeremy Corbyn ‘a nutter’. I don’t think he’s a nutter. I just think he is someone on the far left of politics and he’s been consistent for the last 35 years that I’ve known him, which is fine. I don’t think that’s an unprincipled position. I just don’t think it’s a position that is either correct or one from which he can win an election. But I may be wrong, so let’s wait and see.”

What is unambiguous is that Blair is determined once again to become an agent of influence in British politics, on issues from Brexit to reviving what he describes as the “progressive centre or centre left”.

His allies call for a new “muscular centre”. They are discussing how best to counter the populist surge on both the radical left and radical right. There are plans for a new think tank or organisation to generate policy initiatives, and for Blair to make more direct interventions. Jim Murphy, a former leader of Scottish Labour, is working as an associate on various projects.

“You’ve got to unpack, first of all, what bits of the so-called liberal agenda have failed and what bits haven’t,” Blair told me. “And you’ve got to learn the right lessons of Brexit, Trump and these popular movements across the Western world. Otherwise you’re going to end up in a situation where you seriously think that the populism of the left is going to defeat the populism of the right. It absolutely won’t.”

Our new emerging political order, he believes, is defined less by a conflict between left and right than by one between “open and closed”, and this is a theme he has been exploring since 2007.

“Open v closed is a really important debate today, because in a curious way the populism of the left and the populism of the right – at a certain point they meet each other. They tend to be isolationist. OK, the left is more anti-business, the right is more anti-immigrant, but they tend to be protectionist and they have an attitude to the process of globalisation that says this is a policy that is given by government and we can stop it and should stop it. Whereas my view about globalisation is that it’s a force essentially driven by people, by technological change, by the way the world has opened up. You’re not going to reverse that. The question is: how do we make that just and fair? That is the big question of our times. The centre left does not provide an answer to that, and we can and should.”

He does not want Labour to split, though he feels that the party is in a much weaker position than it was even in the 1980s. “It’s a tough business . . . The leadership has been captured by the far left for the first time in the party’s history, so we have to see. I hope that the Labour Party realises that it has a historic duty to try to represent people in this country who need our representation desperately. I hope it rediscovers the fact that the government that I led and that Gordon Brown led actually did a huge amount for the people who were left behind by the policies of the previous Conservative government.”

Blair knows that he is unpopular, especially with the left, and why. But does he feel misunderstood?

“Well, I think there was huge misunderstanding of what we were about and why we were about it. That’s partly one of the reasons I’m changing everything.”

Changing everything: the phrase is resonant and refers not only to Blair’s decision to close down most of his commercial and business interests, but also to his renewed sense of political engagement. “What I’m doing is to spend more time not in the front line of politics, because I have no intention of going back to the front line of politics, to correct another misunderstanding . . . but in trying to create the space for a political debate about where modern Western democracies go and where the progressive forces particularly find their place . . . I’m dismayed by the state of Western politics, but also incredibly motivated by it. I think in Britain today, you’ve got millions of effectively politically homeless people.”

He tilts forward. His voice quickens even as his body language betrays frustration. “I can’t come into front-line politics. There’s just too much hostility, and also there are elements of the media who would literally move to destroy mode if I tried to do that . . .”

So what can he do? Is there someone in whom he can invest his hopes? He says that his first priority is to “build a platform” that will allow people to debate ideas and formulate solutions, without the abuse or vilification that has become so prevalent in modern politics. “The best thing I can do is use [my] long experience, not just as prime minister – I’ve learned a huge amount being out in the world these past nine or ten years . . .”

The platform will be driven by technology. “One advantage of today’s social media is that you can build networks. Movements can begin at scale and build speed quickly. You’re not going to relate the answers to the challenges that we face by a Twitter exchange, so what I’m interested in doing is asking: what are the types of ideas that we should be taking forward? How do we provide a service to people who are in the front line of politics, so that we can provide some thinking and some ideas? The thing that’s really tragic about politics today is that the best ideas about politics aren’t in politics. I find the ideas are much more interesting in the technology sector, much more interesting ideas about how you change the world.”

***

Tony Blair believes that Brexit can be halted. “It can be stopped if the British people decide that, having seen what it means, the pain-gain cost-benefit analysis doesn’t stack up. And that can happen in one of two ways. I’m not saying it will [be stopped], by the way, but it could. I’m just saying: until you see what it means, how do you know?”

Attempting to secure access to the single market will be the defining negotiation. “Either you get maximum access to the single market – in which case you’ll end up accepting a significant number of the rules on immigration, on payment into the budget, on the European Court’s jurisdiction. People may then say, ‘Well, hang on, why are we leaving then?’ Or alternatively, you’ll be out of the single market and the economic pain may be very great, because beyond doubt if you do that you’ll have years, maybe a decade, of economic restructuring.”

But, I suggest, the Remain side made numberless dire economic forecasts during the long, dispiriting referendum campaign and they were ignored. The public understands well enough the risks of Brexit.

“But this is what I keep saying to people. This is like agreeing to a house swap without having seen the other house . . . You’ve got to understand, this has been driven essentially ideologically. You’ve got a very powerful cartel of the media on the right who provided the platform for the Brexiteers who allied themselves with the people in the Tory party who saw a chance to run with this. And, OK, they ended up in circumstances where there was a very brutal but not particularly enlightening campaign. They won that campaign.”

He pauses to reach for his coffee cup.

“But in the end, for a large number of the people, even those who voted Leave, they will look at this in a practical way, not an ideological way. And all I’m saying is: what shows you how ideological this is is that when I say, ‘Well, let’s just keep our options open,’ it’s condemned as treason. Why wouldn’t you keep your options open? Why wouldn’t you say, ‘We took this decision, we took it before we saw what its consequences are; now we see its consequences, we’re not so sure’?

“I think, in the end, it’s going to be about parliament and the country scrutinising the deal. So, for example, the deal that was done with Nissan” – to persuade the Japanese carmaker to expand its production in Sunderland after Brexit – “I don’t know what the terms of that deal are, but we should know. Because that will tell us a lot about what they’re prepared to concede in order to keep access to the single market.”

***

Blair says that he has never met Donald Trump, although last week he met his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the real estate multimillionaire who is part of the Trump transition team and is married to Ivanka Trump. Blair’s aides said that the encounter with Kushner was at Cipriani, an Italian restaurant in Manhattan. Donald Trump was not present. “[Tony] knew a couple of people at the table and was invited to join them. However, the assertion that he was ‘angling for a role’ is complete nonsense.”

Trump’s venality, belligerence, isolationist rhetoric and narrow definition of the national interest has alarmed the Anglo-American foreign policy establishment, which considers the president-elect to be a clear and present danger to the rules-based liberal world order. The urgent challenge facing the West in an age of intensifying nationalism, great power rivalry and demagogic plutocracy will be to hold together the alliance structure that has defined the world for the past 70 years.

Under Trump’s presidency, the political scientist Robert Kagan has written, the US is likely to retreat into “national solipsism”. It could be much worse than that, but Blair’s response to Trump’s victory is to invoke realpolitik. He does not denounce the president-elect, but nor does he welcome his improbable triumph. Neither for nor against Trump – in public, at least – he wants to
understand and explain.

“Look, he’s been elected president of America and [I agree with] the comments that Barack Obama has made about working with him, trying to make sure that those things that people are worried about don’t materialise. That’s our obligation now. He’s the American president, duly elected through their electoral college system, and that’s it. He won because people want to change. Because there are various issues upon which the Republican platform was stronger than the Democrats’. And this is part of a general global movement, which is partly a reaction to globalisation and partly economic. But it is also a lot to do with culture and identity, and people’s feelings that the world is changing rapidly around them and that the left doesn’t get this.”

He believes that Trump’s preoccupation with questions of identity and belonging, as well as his appeal to people’s anxieties about immigration and Islamist terror, was fundamental to his appeal. “If you leave aside all the comments that Donald Trump made and you just look at the two platforms, on the issues that related to culture and identity, I could see why there would be Americans, even in the centre ground, who might be attracted by that [Trump’s] platform – even if, by the way, they weren’t attracted by the personality of the person who is the standard bearer. There’s got to be a lot of analysis as to why this happened.”

Blair’s response to the fragmentation of globalisation is not to reject but to reaffirm his commitment to it and to free market economics and the open society. In other words, he favours not less but more liberalism. “Against the received wisdom, I think the absolute essence is to revive the centre. Progressive forces, if they’re not coming at this from a strong centrist position, are likely to find themselves just enough off-centre on the debates around culture and identity, never mind the economy, where they’re going to be defeated by a populism of the right. And if you put a populism of the left against that, which is where some people want to go – it’s where the British Labour Party’s gone [and] many Democrats argue that, really, if we’d had Bernie Sanders, we’d have done better – if we go down that path, we’ll just get beaten bigger.”

***

So is this the beginning of Tony Blair’s second act in British public life? Will enough people be prepared to listen to him, or is the stain of the Iraq misadventure and subsequent pursuit of personal wealth too deep? The property portfolio that he and Cherie Blair own, which includes a main residence in Connaught Square in London and a country home in Buckinghamshire, is worth at least £27m, according to the Guardian. Blair’s total wealth may be at least twice that, according to media reports, though he said in 2014 that it was less than £20m.

 “We are suffering a crisis of global leadership,” says one former ally and associate of Blair’s. “There’s an absence of a strong centrist foreign policy voice. We need someone to make the case for Nato and for the alliance system. Blair could do that. But it will be difficult for him, because he’s never found a way of acknowledging the mistakes he made. If he wants to talk about Brexit and Trump, he needs to do so with humility and not be so Manichaean about it. He has long spoken of the clash between Islamism and Western civilisation – now we have a problem with Western civilisation, don’t we?”

In his long Atlantic interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in April 2016, Barack Obama discussed the moral limits of American power and articulated what he called his doctrine of “tragic realism”. Like the philosopher-theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whom he has read carefully, Obama acknowledges the existence of evil (as the more religious Blair does) in the world, but also the difficulties and dangers inherent in confronting it. Obama, who opposed the Iraq War, understood the risks of attempting to impose through violence Western values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. His foreign policy, unlike Blair’s, was defined by a sense of cautious “realism”. Great power carries the burden of responsibility and demands the necessity of restraint – perhaps far too much restraint, in the case of Obama and the Syrian tragedy.

“We cannot do good without also doing evil,” Niebuhr wrote in The Irony of American History. “We cannot defend what is dearest to us without running the risk of destroying what is even more precious than our life . . .”

In his response to the Chilcot inquiry, Blair accepted responsibility for the failures of post-invasion planning, but defended the original decision to invade and occupy Iraq. With his voice croaky and weakening, he was described as resembling a “broken man” by some commentators during the press conference at which he replied to Chilcot. Yet, in person, he seems anything but broken: he is alert, vigorous, optimistic about the prospects for globalisation, and determined to fight back against the waves of populism sweeping the West. He believes that the arc of history still bends towards progress and enlightenment.

Talking to him, I was reminded of the speech he gave at the 2001 Labour party conference, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. “The kaleidoscope has been shaken,” he suggested, and it was time to reorder the world. For Blair, 9/11 was a profound shock but also an opportunity. The catastrophe enabled him to find a public voice commensurate with the moment, a voice that George W Bush could not find, and he saw an opportunity to influence Bush and internationalise US foreign policy, drawing the world’s one essential nation away from hermit security and back into the world.

Trump’s “America First” isolationism is today an exaggerated caricature of Bush’s pre-9/11 positions on foreign policy. In the 2000 presidential debates with Al Gore, Bush said, “I’m not so sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say this is the way it’s got to be.” How incredible that now seems.

“Every American president I’ve ever dealt with, and I’ve dealt with three now, has always come to power with an essentially domestic programme,” Blair says now. “And all of them have ended up, because this is America’s inevitable role in the world, being highly engaged in global affairs. And even in relation to a President Trump and President Putin, let’s see what happens. Let’s see what happens when they actually have to negotiate.”

Asked about the threat posed by Russia to the West, Blair says: “It’s important in my view that we in the West stand up for our essential values. The language that President Putin understands is strength. He will take advantage of any weakness. We have got to be very clear . . . This concept of a sort of new authoritarianism, I think, is a real risk in the world as a whole, but again the best way of dealing with that is to respond to those people who want some authority and order. I mean the electorate, even in the West. There was a poll I saw in Le Monde, the other week, with an astonishing amount of people worried that democracy didn’t actually work. The answer to that is to have a centre ground that is strong and radical. And the centre ground has become flabby and managers of the status quo.”

With his flag planted firmly in the “progressive centre ground” and with opposition to the Tories so divided, Blair is preparing for his re-entry into public life, though his plans remain inchoate. It’s almost as if he believes he’s on an ethical mission, that he has unfinished business. But the ground beneath his feet is shifting violently.

What if America under Trump ceases to be the last best hope for the world and becomes something darker and more malevolent? This isn’t something that Blair wishes to contemplate. He and millions like him may feel “politically homeless”, but he remains, at heart, a liberal optimist. But is his optimism no more than misguided faith? What if history is not linear, as he believes, but cyclical, contingent and discontinuous?

“In a world of uncertainty, people want strength in their leaders,” Blair says. “It’s our job to make sure that that does not bleed across into authoritarianism. And that’s why, when we were in government, we introduced real reforms, not least around the Supreme Court, the European Convention on Human Rights being incorporated into British law . . . We had more devolution, more giving away of government power at the centre. But it was still a strong government, with a very clear sense of where it was going, and it had control of the political agenda. And this is not a lesson of politics that’s [only] relevant to this time but to any time. And if you look back at when progressive forces do well, they always do well when they are at the cutting edge of the future, and when they have sufficient strength that people feel there is real leadership taking the country forward. Now, I don’t doubt that the post-financial crisis world has made a significant difference, but . . . when you really look at, for example, the people supporting Brexit, the people supporting Trump, they’re not particularly anti-wealth. What they are is anti a system they think they’re paying into that other people aren’t.”

Trump, Brexit, Corbyn – Tony Blair keeps ending up on the losing side, though the years when he was winning sustain him in his convictions and extraordinary self-belief. He cautions against fatalism and he remains defiant. And he never doubts he’s on the right side of history.

“Of course, history has a direction,” he says, dismissing my scepticism. “There is progress, we are making progress, even in our own countries. If you think of the world your son is growing up in and the world my grandfather grew up in, if you think what he’s going to have and what my father had, I mean, come on! There’s a lot to celebrate. There is absolutely no reason to be pessimistic about the human condition. But there are people who will exploit the fears of people if we don’t root the hopes of people in realistic, sensible policies.”

 


Tony Blair on Trump, the EU referendum and Strictly

Jason Cowley Are we entering a post-liberal era? If so, why are many people rejecting liberalism?

Tony Blair You’ve got to be really careful of what’s been rejected and what hasn’t been. And one of the things I find quite bizarre about the present debate is the number of voices on the progressive left who want to blame those of us who won elections for the defeats we’ve subsequently suffered. What would be more sensible would be also to analyse why we won and what’s changed and what hasn’t changed. And when people say that liberalism has been defeated, it depends what you mean by liberalism.

JC Trump won on a hostility to globalisation, open markets and freedom of movement of peoples, all of which are associated with what one might call the market globalisation of the past 25 years.

TB It’s true that there is a reaction against globalisation. The degree to which that means people have all gone against free trade, I think you’ve really got to watch that. These issues of culture and identity are far more important than this. And those feelings of culture and identity are bound to happen at a period of rapid change. The sensible thing is to deal with those issues and anxieties. And to deal with them by having strong, clear policy positions on them – that then allows you to make the sensible case for immigration, but for controls.

JC As well as ultra-economic liberalism, we also have identity liberalism, too – a rainbow coalition of identity interests, many of which Hillary Clinton attempted to appeal to. And Trump disregarded much of that rhetoric and agenda.

TB What is very instructive is to go look at the Democratic platform for that election and look at the Republican one – leave aside Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Just look at those two platforms and you’ll see what the problem is. For example, when it comes to a discussion of radical Islam and the Islamist threat, the Democrats felt that, for reasons I completely understand, that if you talked about it in that language, the general prevailing sense is that you were then stigmatising all Muslims. I don’t personally agree with that. I think that you’re perfectly able to distinguish between Islamists and Muslims. But there is a threat that is based on the perversion of religion, and you should acknowledge it as such in my view. Whereas the Republicans had a whole section that was all about that. Again, if you’re looking at America and how they feel about things, what they feel is that the liberal left is unwilling to have a discussion about these things.

JC What is the best-case scenario for a Trump presidency?

TB That the Trump who is a deal-maker and a non-ideologue comes through. But the only thing you can do is to wait and see.

JC Michael Portillo described David Cameron’s decision to hold the EU referendum as the greatest blunder ever made by a British prime minister. Do you agree?

TB I understand the reasons for it. As you may recall, I argued very strongly against it before the general election . . . but . . . I could’ve held one in 2005 and lost one. When we thought we were going to have to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, I thought that was a very, very open question as to whether we were going to win or not. What it shows you [is] that if you put this decision to people like this in a referendum, I think at any point in time in the last 30 years you could have got that result.

JC If the prime minister believed leaving the EU would be potentially so disastrous, why take the risk?

TB Jason, I  wouldn’t have done it myself, I’d be strongly against it. But I know what it’s like, so I’m more forgiving of people who hold the position of prime minister.

JC You’re interested in networks and their possibilities. Are you impressed by what Arron Banks pulled off by creating Leave.EU? And what do you think of Nigel Farage?

TB I think what the Leave campaign created was a really interesting machine. You should learn from that. One of the things you have got to be able to do in modern politics is to build that platform of connections and networks. On the other hand, never ever forget that it starts with the right policies.

JC In your view, Farage obviously doesn’t have the right policies, but he has the ability to communicate . . . Trump has even said he should be British ambassador to the United States.

TB I know we talk about this as a new thing, but many of us grew up with Enoch Powell. I mean, you remember the “rivers of blood” [speech], and black people were welcomed into the country and weren’t expelled, and that Britain was going to fall apart as a nation. I mean, these people are always on the wrong side of history, they always are, because that’s not the way the world is today. The world’s going to integrate more. It may integrate fast or slow, but it will integrate. Because technology, travel, migration, trade are bringing the world closer together. If you take a step back and you look at the broad sweep of history, this is actually a great time for humanity in many ways. You’ve had more people out of poverty than ever before in human history.

JC What do you think of Ed Balls on Strictly Come Dancing?

TB I have huge admiration for him, I have to say. I mean, that requires courage beyond . . .

JC Would you do it?

TB No, I absolutely would not dare to do that. I absolutely take my hat off to him and I think he’s been brilliant.

JC Have you watched it?

TB My family’s completely devoted to Strictly, so even if I didn’t want to watch it I’d be watching it.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile