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31 January 2020updated 01 Apr 2021 11:59am

Tony Blair on extremism: “You’ve got to destroy the ideas”

The former prime minister may have lost the argument on Brexit, but now he is making the case for fighting terrorist violence through education reform. Will anyone sign up?

By Alona Ferber

Eight years after Tony Blair swept Labour to power on the promise of “education, education, education”, the UK suffered its deadliest terrorist incident since the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. Fifty-six people, including four Islamist extremist suicide bombers, were killed in the coordinated 7/7 attacks in London.

“It happened,” remembers Tony Blair, “at the very moment when we were holding the G8 summit in 2005 in Scotland, and when we had just won the Olympic bid… We won the Olympic bid, hosted the G8 summit and then we had these terrorist attacks, and I remember leaving the summit, going back to London, putting in place certain measures.”

The perpetrators of 7/7, all of whom died that day, had grown up in the UK. Three, of Pakistani heritage, were born and bred in Britain. One, a Jamaicanborn Muslim convert, had moved here as a child. Leading the country through the crisis “brought home to me that, because these are people who had been brought up in this country, you are battling an ideology.”

We meet in his spacious office – the floor-to-ceiling glass roof to one side making it appear even more spacious than it is – in the London premises of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, where around half of the Institute’s 200 staff work. The 66-year-old former prime minister is instantly familiar in white shirt and trademark smile, an espresso on the glass coffee table in front of him.

Since 2016, in the eyes of many Brits, Tony Blair has morphed into Mr Anti-Brexit. The Labour grandee of the sensible centre (though his legacy will never be discussed without reference to the Iraq war) has spent the past few years making the case that leaving the EU is a historic error. His interventions – speeches, opinion pieces and appearances on the Today programme – have inspired both relief and resentment. For some he is one of the only grown-ups in the room, and thank heavens for that; for others he is a back-seat driver who has already had plenty of time at the wheel.

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But Blair continues to put a prodigious level of energy into his many political projects, which often extend beyond the UK’s borders. On top of trying to avert post-Brexit doom and convince the Labour Party to claw its way back from the far reaches of the left (if the party wants to, that is) he has been busy taking on a long list of interrelated issues facing the world.

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In no particular order, his eponymous Institute is aiming its consultants and policy wonks at: rising populism; the future of the political centre (which he has described as “flabby”); the instability of the Middle East; poor governance and  dependence on aid in Africa; the fourth industrial revolution; and extremism, both violent and non-violent.

This last subject has occupied Blair’s mind for a number of years. The Tony Blair Faith Foundation, founded in 2008, undertook research on religious extremism, with a focus on Islamism. The Foundation officially merged with other organisations to form the Institute in 2017, as Blair’s lucrative advisory business was wound down and the reserves gifted as seed funding for the Institute. The work on extremism has continued. The Institute’s stated mission is to “help political leaders and governments build open, inclusive and prosperous societies in a globalised world”, including “to promote coexistence and counter extremism by tackling the ideology behind violence, not just the violence itself.”

Since at least 2016, the former prime minister’s push for an international mechanism to prevent extremism through education has been a part of the work. Such an initiative would involve reforming curricula and teaching methods to ensure “quality education”, Blair writes in a foreword to Teaching Tolerance: How to Educate Against Extremism, a collection of essays published by his Institute last year. “Education has to be such that it enables creative thinking, encourages reflection and discussion, and allows young people not just to learn but to think for themselves.”

The goal for Blair and his team is to create the Global Commitment for the Prevention of Violent ExtremismThrough Education – as it says on the tin, a multilateral accord between governments, similar to the Kyoto Protocol that was adopted by the UK and most of the international community six months after Labour came to power in 1997.

When the environment first became important to the international agenda, Blair reflects, the idea was that the problem couldn’t be tackled “unless you’ve got countries cooperating together, and that you have to set a new policy framework in order to incentivise the acceleration of climate change solutions”. It was also based on the view “that as part of your global responsibility you have to accept that what was done inside your borders had an external impact.”

Blair sees a parallel in battling extremist ideas. “If you’ve got an education system that’s backward and regressive then it can pollute the mind,” he says. He believes that “many governments want to deal with this problem. Often you have weak state education systems and those weak state education systems are supplanted by education around religion. And if that education done in that informal setting is essentially prejudiced and bigoted or based simply on reading scripture rather than literature, creative thinking, mathematics and science, and so on, then that is going to be a very big problem.” 

In practice, a Global Commitment means “that countries enter into an agreement where they will reform their education systems to root out cultural prejudice and promote cultural coexistence,” he says. As with climate change agreements, what may sound simple in principle becomes more complicated in practice. The ambitious project has been in the works for nearly four years. There are ongoing discussions with heads of state, but the Institute can’t name any yet. His aides say the project is in its early stages. What’s taking so long? “We are working on getting the right sponsor governments and, you know, these commitments do take time,” Blair says, adding that global consensus on the environment took “a long time to get into the state it is now.” The aim, his aides say, is to launch the Commitment this year.

That education is the key to preventing extremism is not a particularly controversial idea. Initiatives in a similar vein, albeit on a smaller scale, already exist. Last year New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron spearheaded the “Christchurch Call” to eliminate extremism online in response to the far-right terror attack on mosques in Christchurch that killed 51 people. The shooter, a white supremacist, live-streamed the beginning of the attack on Facebook. Arden and Macron called on governments to commit to “counter the drivers of terrorism and violent extremism by strengthening the resilience and inclusiveness of our societies to enable them to resist terrorist and violent extremist ideologies, including through education.”

So what does the Global Commitment do differently? “Well I think the commitment is to get the governments of the world to focus on that specifically,” Blair says. “Again, it’s like the environment. It’s not that…no one was doing anything about the environment before global agreements, people were, but the global… way politics works is if the leadership of the main countries come together and say, ‘OK, this is part of our global responsibility,’ you give an impetus to programmes that coincide with the meeting of that responsibility.”

Skills are a key part of the arsenal. Signed up to the Commitment, countries would pledge to ensure that their education systems equip young people to navigate a world of fake news and populist division with digital literacy, common sense and openness to one another.

Generation Global, an Institute programme that has been running for a decade, has tested the ground for that approach. The programme pairs students in different countries via video conference for dialogues on difficult issues, such as women’s rights or extremism. Teachers are supported with materials to help them handle tough conversations, and students develop dialogue skills.

“Teaching young people to think creatively and to question what they are taught is the biggest benefit of the programme,” he says. This thinking is echoed by the OECD, which in 2018 added “global competences” to its Programme for International Student Assessment tests that year. By adding “global competence” to its criteria for ranking countries’ education systems, the OECD rated how well states educate their young people to “understand and appreciate different perspectives and world views, interact successfully and respectfully with others, and take responsible action toward sustainability and collective wellbeing.” The results in the one-off test will be released this year.

Under Blair’s Commitment, the long-term goal is for that kind of skill-set to beat the worldview that leads, for instance, teenage girls from Bethnal Green to run away to Syria to join Isis. But these skills are also key for participation in the future economy, he says. Today “there’s no doubt what young people need to be able to function effectively… We live in an interconnected and interdependent world and, however much people don’t like that, that’s the reality.”

Global extremism has changed since 7/7, with the rise of Isis and the far right. Prevention through education is a long game that needs to be complemented  with security measures, Blair says. But, he repeats in one form or another throughout our interview, security measures are not enough on their own. “I think the single most important thing is to understand that security measures are necessary, but we are spending billions and billions of dollars in security measures… In the end you’ve got to destroy the ideas.”

Security measures, as Blair calls them, also inevitably affect the extent to which ideas can spread. The killing of former Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a US raid in October, or the January US assassination of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Al-Quds general Qasem Soleimani, are cases in point. “You are always going to have the security questions,” Blair says, “but the central point is that you can defeat Isis; you can defeat the extremism and the destabilisation that comes out of the IRGC – you can defeat these things for a time through security methods, but the only long-term way you defeat them is by supplanting their bad idea with a better idea, and that better idea is one of coexistence.”

Was Trump, then, right to take out Soleimani? Blair – whose Institute will this year “explore further the impact of Shia Islamism which is creating sectarian divides among Sunni and Shia communities that will last generations if not better tackled”, as he wrote in a foreword to its Global Extremism Monitor report, published in January – would rather not say. “I’m going to comment on that at a time of my choosing. I don’t want to get into that.”

Blair’s own record in the Middle East is the most contentious part of his relationship with his party, which last year expelled his former spokesman, Alastair Campbell. Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour took pains to distance itself from the former prime minister, despite his achievements. 

But this meant the party glossed over much of what New Labour had achieved, particularly in education. Blair’s government set ambitious targets for university entrance and invested heavily in early years provision via the SureStart scheme. Under the ensuing coalition and Conservative governments, as many as 1,000 SureStart children’s centres may have been shut in England since 2010, the Sutton Trust said in 2018. Funding was cut by two-thirds from 2010 to 2017-18, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. As secretary of state for education between 2010 and 2014, Michael Gove and his then adviser Dominic Cummings mad radical changes to the education system. These included expanding the scope
of Labour’s policy of academisation, originally intended as a measure to improve standards on failing schools, to cover almost every school in the country. New Labour was “very careful with the academy programme”, Blair says, “particularly to take it step by step”. He recognises that education has improved in Britain over the past 20 years, but deplores funding cuts and the “mistake” of taking away the focus from early years provision. “If I was back in power today, I would certainly still be looking at further education reform and change, but I would put a big focus on early years education.” He would also “properly” reform the tuition fees system: “Ours was a lot fairer and better for students than the current one.”

Blair’s government also initially introduced the highly controversial Prevent policy in 2003. It remains one of the four strands of Contest, the UK’s counter-terror strategy. Prevent, which aims “to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism”, is undergoing a review this year, following a 2011 review under Cameron. “The basic idea behind the policy still works,” Blair maintains. To the accusation that Prevent unfairly targets Muslims, he adds that some of the attacks on Prevent come from people “who are actually promoting some of these [extremist] ideas”, but despite its perception “the basic principles behind the programme are correct.”

Framed as a push for an open, multicultural world, the Global Commitment smacks of liberal, progressive values that might not be shared by all the leaders Blair might like to get on board. But Blair is optimistic. “I think most countries around the world – whether they are in favour of democracy or not is another matter – do share the view that in today’s world, economically and socially, it is better to be open to people across boundaries of faith and culture,” he says. An international mechanism would help governments “fighting conservative elements within their society” to implement educational reforms, as they could say they are part of a global movement.

And yet the tensions between identity and community are already evident in schools in the UK. This has occurred most visibly in Birmingham, where parents mostly of Muslim faith have protested against LGBT equality lessons. A deeply religious man – Blair converted to Catholicism after leaving office – the former prime minister says his faith means he is comfortable talking about such matters. “I’m less worried about talking about religious faith because there is nothing wrong with having religious faith. We tend to live in very secular societies today, but you can’t really understand this phenomenon, particularly of Islamist extremism, unless you understand that it is based on a religious view of the world.”

Blair seems comfortable talking about most things. On any given topic the former PM has what sounds like a well-considered view, like a human policy jukebox. “People always think policy is a… boring diversion from the great politics,” he laughs. “But it’s not, it’s the foundation.”

He is scathing about the level of policy debate in December’s election. On healthcare, for example, it was “pathetic”. Labour and the Conservative Party competed about who’s spending pledge was the biggest while avoiding the real issues and how technology plays a part, Blair says. “That debate doesn’t even surface in British politics so we’ve got a big, big challenge in the progressive side of politics. While we carry on defining left as more power to an unreconstructed state, or nationalisation, or just traditional tax and spend we are going to miss the point completely.”

Is Boris Johnson doing a good job as prime minister? “I wish that… we didn’t have a Tory government, but my anxiety at the moment is that Labour learns the lessons of defeat.”

With Labour’s 120th anniversary approaching at the end of February, “it will be a time for reflection about how many years of that 120 the Labour party has spent in government.” The party has been in power for a total of just over 32 years – about a quarter of its lifetime. Ten of those years were under Blair, who led the party to three electoral victories.

The Labour leadership race has some “good candidates” he says vaguely, but whoever ends up at the helm of the party following its sorest electoral loss since 1935 will face no less than a reckoning with what progressive politics means today. “The thing I would emphasise more than anything else is that we’ve got to redefine the word ‘radical’, because what the Labour Party – and not just the Labour Party, we see this around the world – puts forward as radical today is not actually radical, it’s small-C conservative.”

After Brexit Day on 31 January, will Blair tone down the interventions? “No. I’ll continue to be involved in the debate, but I’m afraid we have got to face up to one simple point: we lost. It was a terrible mistake ever to agree a Brexit general election, as people like me tried to tell the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, but we did it, we paid the price for it. We’ve lost the debate and Brexit is now going to happen.”

So no more pushes for a second referendum, no more decrying the disintegration of the EU’s political project. “I’m afraid you’ve got to pivot to a completely new position… We’re going to have to be constructive about it and see how Britain develops a constructive relationship with Europe and finds its new niche in the world.” Clearly, whether anyone agrees with him or not, Blair still thinks there is a role for him to play as one of the grown-ups in the room.