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The new Levellers

Can the student protesters of the 2010s surpass those of the 1960s, or will they be quelled by the r

At the start of John le Carré's novel Our Kind of Traitor, published in September this year, the 30-year-old hero, educated at a state school and now lecturing in Oxford, suffers a crisis: "Would Orwell have believed it possible that the same overfed voices which had haunted him in the 1930s, the same crippling incompetence, addiction to foreign wars and assumptions of entitlement, were happily in place in 2009? Receiving no response from the blank student faces staring up at him, he had supplied it for himself: no. Orwell would emphatically not have believed it. Or if he had, he would have taken to the streets. He would have smashed some serious glass."

It can't be often that an autumn novel so catches a national mood that its fictional projection becomes reality even before it has achieved its Christmas sales. Student faces are blank no longer and the image of a young man, hooded, aiming a balletic kick into the serious glass front of the lobby of the Tory party's headquarters in Millbank on 10 November, was on all the front pages the next day.

Whatever the media might prefer, most voters did not see the students and their supporters as either troublemakers or privileged beneficiaries demanding special treatment from the taxpayer.

The students seem to be learning fast, too. On the day of the third big demonstration, on 30 November, a "19-year-old student" told the BBC: "Smashing up windows was necessary in the beginning to get the demonstrations on the front pages, but now any violence would be counterproductive."

Across Britain there has been a swell of student activism, occupations and demands, with a focus on higher education but reaching out for public support against cuts. Only once before has there been anything like this level of student action - at the end of the Sixties, starting in 1968. Will this decade succeed where the Sixties failed?

The Sixties changed our society and our culture. But here in Britain, unlike the rest of western Europe, the student rebellion of the left was politically marginalised; it arrived late, and was narrow by comparison with its counterparts on the Continent. The true political impact of the Sixties in Britain took another course. In October 1968, a then unknown Margaret Thatcher gave a speech at a fringe meeting of the Conservative party conference. She caught the anti-statism of the new zeitgeist, and it was the political right that eventually captured the legacy of Sixties anti-authoritarianism.

Neoliberalism and the free market were the main beneficiaries of the movement against state power and paternalism. Ironically, it is Thatcher's successors against whom the students are now mobilising.

David Cameron told this year's Conservative conference that the general election meant that "statism lost . . . society won . . . it's a revolution . . . We are the radicals now, breaking apart the old system with a massive transfer for power, from the state to citizens, politicians to people, government to society." He was taking the words of the student activists of the Sixties and stuffing them into the mouths of today's.

Understandably, the students are refusing to swallow. It is not just the huge hike in fees they are being asked to absorb, but the simultaneous withdrawal of four-fifths of all direct grants to universities. As the government will back the loans that are supposed to replace this, there will be no immediate difference to the deficit. The coalition is using the fiscal emergency as an excuse to abolish support for all humanities research and scholarship. Apparently, students will be expected to pay for this (at a time when, as the blogger and businessman Chris Goodall has calculated, they get at most £4,500 worth of teaching a year). No other advanced country has abandoned public support for the heart of its intellectual civilisation in this way. The very idea of a university is being guillotined.

While student resistance to this fate combines self-interest with a fight for the country's future as a whole, it is also being driven by a new generational divide. Once more, though this time thanks to "digitalisation", protest is underpinned by an epochal shift.

The Sixties announced the start of the great cycle of capitalist expansion. It was the opposite of now: jobs were plentiful, rent was cheap. We had our own music; there were miniskirts and Mini cars. It was "Americanisation", but we, too, influenced the States as London swung. Accompanying this heady sense of emancipation was the belief that our parents were from a different planet. They had grown up without TV, sex before marriage, drugs and rock'n'roll; and often without university education, as we were part of the first expansion of mass higher education. It was a generation gulf, not a gap. Ridiculous rules, hypocrisy and authoritarian teaching methods became a target for students, as did secrecy. (Students demanded that universities "open the files", and a number of occupations broke into the administration offices to do just that.)

While the student movement was strongly international, in each country it had its own national characteristics. The revolution in France was against the culture of "Oui, Papa", the formality of which was much stiffer than here. In Germany, which had much the deepest and best Sixties, the "anti-authoritarian movement" involved a generation that had to deal with the fact that their parents had been Nazis.

Then there was Vietnam. The Sixties were a time of violence as well as joy, and Americans expressed both. Hundreds of thousands of their troops were occupying another country, thousands of Vietnamese were dying each month, and torture by the Americans was routine: this was the deadly backdrop to the arrival of drugs, which then fed its stream of victims into the maelstrom.

This atmosphere of violence fed into the students' responses - extremist terrorist groups such as the Red Army Faction in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy and, in Britain, the Angry Brigade, mistook fantasy for strategy. Pauline Melville's Dionysian novel Eating Air, which draws directly on events of the period, the pitch-perfect archaeology of Hari Kunzru's My Revolutions and le Carré's Absolute Friends all catch the earnest and well-meaning initial impulse of the '68 movement - hippie, ultra-tolerant and impatient. And all three recall how the sectarians, the authorities and their agents were waiting in the wings.

Class conscious

Today it feels to me, as it did 40 years ago, that the protests connect to something larger. Perhaps they are now heralding the end of a long consumer boom, as opposed to its beginning.

I am not saying today's students are a repetition or mere followers. On the contrary, all that today's students need to learn from the Sixties is how not to become marginalised and defeated.

The differences between now and then may make this possible. We are a much more equal and open society. But the new generation faces debt and insecurity, and economic injustice in Britain has increased astronomically. After the crash of 2008 exposed bankers as robbers who skim off unearned capital, we discovered that we have to pay for their disaster. Belief in the fun­damental legitimacy of the system has been shaken, in a way that did not happen under Harold Wilson.

This means that, in contrast to the late Sixties, when student protest was ridiculed and pilloried, today it can make a credible claim to voice the anger and concerns of a wider public. And it is significant that the demonstrations have been joined by children protesting about the abolition of the Education Maintenance Assistance (EMA), which pays those from hard-up families to stay in school or further education.

Another important difference between then and now is that the student militancy of 1968 in Britain was largely confined to universities and art schools. There was a dramatic confrontation at Hornsey College of Art in north London in May 1968. But very few of what were then called "polytechnics" were involved. University students were mostly middle-class people on three-year courses on campuses away from home.

olytechnic students were mostly local and working-class. In 2010, the social composition of what were polytechnics and are now universities remains local and working-class, but many student occupations are taking place in them. Today "students" connotes a much broader, less privileged sector.

The web reinforces this cross-class generational relationship. Young people today communicate with and relate to each other in ways which mean that their lives, decisions and networks are much more spontaneous and flexible. Many who would otherwise not be involved will follow and, in a certain way, experience the new levels of activism. They may be stirred from passivity. Their capacity to learn what is really happening is much less mediated by the mainstream media, whose regular readership and viewing has collapsed among the under-25s.

The web reshapes, but is not a substitute for, power and organisation. Life remains, happily, a face-to-face affair. Nonetheless, the kind of society the new generation looks forward to will be unlike any that has gone before. It is easy to exaggerate this and then puncture the inflated projection. It's a generation gap, not a gulf as humanly painful as that experienced by their Sixties predecessors. Yet, in the short term, the new technology is sure to increase mobilisation sharply; and in the long term, the resources the internet provides may help this generation to succeed in its challenge to hierarchy with direct democracy, deliberation and openness - and to create a political culture that is not disabled by the routines of "representation" now largely expropriated by corporate influence.

The roles of race and gender are also different this time round. Back then, there weren't significant numbers of black and ethnic-minority students to make their participation an issue. But as I watched videos of the current protests, it struck me that there seem to be many more black pupils among the school protesters than among the university students.

The student occupations of the late Sixties preceded the feminist movement. The basic attitude to women was set by the Rolling Stones. Women were "chicks": attachments with closed mouths and short skirts. This was not seen as being imposed, however; individual women could insist on being treated as equals, and then they were. It was a culture of experimentation for everyone, of both sexes (and as with drugs, experiments can go badly wrong).

But the energy also fed into the feminist movement, which is the greatest political legacy of the Sixties. Today, after the heyday of that movement has passed, women's participation in the student movement, as in the economy and politics, is no longer in itself regarded as an "issue". However, the boys have yet to learn to desire equality as a mutual benefit. It is unspoken, but there is a casual "Of course you can be equal if you want to be" attitude, which somehow leaves open the possibility of benefiting from inequality, "if that's what they want". It is disappointing to me that this is still the culture among young men in the movement. Perhaps this time one of its effects will be to make feminism mainstream.

Tough choices all round

Besides feminism, the other great political legacy of the Sixties was the idea that protesting is a right. This belief clearly animates the student protests today. But the movement is still trying to establish what kinds of protest are acceptable: quiet, peaceful, non-violent demonstrations, or civil disobedience, or property damage? Violence against people seems to be wholly rejected, as shown by the spontaneous revulsion of the demonstrators against the protester who threw a fire extinguisher from the roof at Millbank tower - a welcome change.

The Sixties, too, started with the slogan "Love and peace". It wasn't serious and there seems a better understanding now of the need for no willed violence against people. Doubtless, provocateurs will try to undo this. But today's students are unlikely to go on to spawn bands of terrorists, not least because they have been preceded by a decade of fundamentalist terrorism. And everyone can see how that kind of "propaganda of the deed" simply feeds reaction and empowers the security state.

One of the reasons that the student movement in Britain in the Sixties, unlike those in France and Germany, was marginalised was the influence of the Labour Party, which was in office and played its role as pillar of the establishment. It was a smart move on Ed Miliband's part, therefore, to say that he had thought of going to talk to the students protesting outside parliament. He was never going to come out in support of the demonstrators, as his father, Ralph, did in 1968, but he must see that the country needs a politics built outside conventional party, parliamentary and careerist routines. Should he and his party colleagues fail to grasp this, one clear lesson from the Sixties is that, somehow or other, the Tories will.

In 1968, the occupations and protests in British universities were an attempt to catch up with Paris, Berlin and campuses across America; 2010 feels very different. Perhaps the principal contrast between this decade and the Sixties is the sense that, this time around, the students are ahead of the game.

In the general election campaign in May, the party that pitched most energetically for student votes against the two old party machines was the Liberal Democrats. The National Union of Students got the Lib Dem candidates to pledge in writing that they would, individually and jointly, oppose any extension of university tuition fees. The meaning of the gesture was clear: in any deals that might be forthcoming in the event of a hung parliament - which was the whole point of voting Lib Dem - they might compromise on other policies, but not on this.

In an editorial comment written after the Millbank riot, the Mail on Sunday declared:

Nowhere on earth can a young man or woman lead such a privileged life as that available in the colleges of our ancient universities. Surrounded by the glories of English architecture, tended by obsequious servants, feasted in shadowed, candlelit halls, taught face-to-face by the greatest minds of their generation, Oxbridge undergraduates are introduced at an early age to a way of life that most cannot begin to dream of.

Nobody in Britain has any justification for rioting. This is a free country with the rule of law and democratic government - rare possessions in a world of corrupt and authoritarian slums.

This neatly illustrates the difficulty for those who oppose the students. It is an absurdly idealised caricature of Oxbridge, where many may search for great minds but few are found. The 50,000 students who marched last month experience quite different educational conditions. The giveaway in the Mail's argument is the leap from its mouth-watering description of the good life enjoyed by a few to the claim that "nobody in Britain has any justification for rioting". What? Not even against the existence of such privilege?

Who's radical now?

Apparently not, because we have the rule of law and democratic government, unlike benighted lands elsewhere. But the failure of our democracy is symbolised by the Lib Dems' betrayal of their special pledge, while there seems to be no law for the bankers. Could it be that it is the Mail on Sunday which is still living in 1968?

Banners saying "F**k fees" play its game, however. They repel people, in a way that demands for higher education to be open to all who strive for it do not. So it is entirely possible that today's student protesters will be marginalised, like their predecessors in the Sixties.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons to suppose that this might not happen. First, the ghastly consequences of terrorism and indiscriminate violence against other human beings are widely understood. Second, thanks to the internet, the capacity of students to organise themselves, to network and to stay informed is by several magnitudes greater than it was four decades ago, creating the possibility of a politics that is open-minded, not fundamentalist. Third, the young are less repressed and healthier people. And fourth, what is on offer from the political system today seems exhausted, its institutions corrupted, its constitution a shambles and reinvention essential.

On the economy, should the coalition's approach succeed, who thinks it will deliver the "fairness" that the government insists is its lodestone? And if it fails? The Prime Minister boasts that he is leading a revolution and that he and his government are the radicals now. It is a claim he may come to regret.

Anthony Barnett was the first co-ordinator of Charter 88 and founder editor of openDemocracy. His most recent book, with Peter Carty, is "The Athenian Option: Radical Reform for the House of Lords" (Imprint Academic, £25). Thanks to Our Kingdom, UCL Occupation and Oxford Left Review

This article first appeared in the 13 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The radical Jesus

Kalpesh Lathigra for New Statesman
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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