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11 October 2019updated 24 Jul 2021 5:31am

An encounter with Tony Blair was a reminder the UK needs profound change

The former PM grasps the scale of the UK’s predicament but not the full need for transformative constitutional reform. 

By Chris Deerin

Until this week, I hadn’t seen Tony Blair in the flesh for 22 years. He was weeks from becoming prime minister then; I was a cub reporter who had somehow sneaked an interview for the furiously anti-Blair, pro-Major Daily Mail, for which I had recently started working in Scotland. I looked at the crew sitting in a semi-circle around me, giving the Mail man the evil eye – Blair, Alastair Campbell, Helen Liddell, George Robertson and Jack McConnell – and gulped. I’d forgotten my tape recorder, and my hands were shaking. I really didn’t know what I was doing.

Blair was three years younger than I am now, and, like a sportsman in his prime, gave off the hum of focused energy, the crackle of approaching power and looming greatness. He was clearly different. It left its mark on me. As I departed I wished him every success in the forthcoming general election, and meant it, which must have puzzled them. 

We met again on Tuesday, when he came north for an event with my think tank, Reform Scotland – his first trip to Scotland in a long time. He was there to talk about the 20th anniversary of devolution and the future of the Union, though we inevitably wandered on to Brexit, the tech revolution, and the fate of the Labour Party.

Two decades on, the physical change was the first thing I noticed: the wintry hair and the extreme tautness of his sallow skin. Leadership, controversy and unpopularity are wearying. That familiar silken voice no longer flows as smoothly as it once did; a simple consequence of ageing. But the eyes, an unusually deep blue, have lost none of their force.

Nor have his arguments. The great persuader of 1996 is as clear-thinking, as relentlessly logical and convincing, as ever. Were he running a government now, the entire project would be shaped around adapting the economy and workforce to technological change, and pursuing social justice. After the awfulness of the past few years I couldn’t help but feel, gratefully, that I was finally in the company of a grown-up.

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One of the most impressive things about Blair – though the hard left will disagree – is his refusal to go away. He is shouted down as a war criminal, harangued in the media, abused by his own former colleagues and party members. But he carries on, doggedly promoting the centrist politics that won him three large majorities, seeking to understand the crazy currents of modern life, searching for solutions that might bring this brutally divided country to some sort of acceptable compromise. He’s made his money, had his time – he could just stop. But he doesn’t. I, for one, admire that.

Blair retains his pulling power, too – the hall was packed with Scots from politics, academia, business, media and the third sector. There is still an audience – a big one – that sympathises with him. “I wish he was prime minister now” was a not-uncommon response after our event. Many of us would agree that. Even if Blair’s moment has passed, a replicant would be welcome in 2019.

Brexit, like some gigantic bulldozer, flattens everything in its path. But Brexit is not just Brexit, you can’t just “get Brexit done” — “an inane phrase,” Blair said. It has consequences for every aspect of our national life, including its continued existence.

This was what I wanted to talk to him about. As the prime minister who delivered a major programme of constitutional reform, how had it played out? And what was coming next? It was Blair who gave us the Scottish parliament and the Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies; he reformed the House of Lords and created the London mayoralty, which now finds its echo in many of the other great cities of England.

He professed himself disappointed with the performance of Holyrood, especially its lack of radicalism in reforming public services. This was down to a failure of leadership, he said. He had perhaps been “naive” in thinking devolution would kill nationalism, but argued that “the reasons for the Union between England and Scotland remain powerful… we are in this perilous situation because British politics has broken down.”

Populism, he said “will exhaust itself in time. But here is the tragic dimension to Britain’s populist insurgence: in other countries, populism has taken the form of the election of leaders and governments, whose tenure is naturally transient. Britain’s populism has expressed itself in a decision of policy [Brexit} which is permanent.

“Politics must renew its core strength. Its centre. A place of reason. A place of maximum agreement and respectful disagreement. The place where radical change is pursued but of the practical and sensible kind, the kind which works.”

This was also what Scotland needed. “There will be a continuing debate around independence. But those opposing it need a strategy which celebrates the Union of the UK, sees advantage in nation states being part of a bigger alliance such as the European Union, and understands that changing lives depends less on constitutions than on courageous and forward-thinking policy and maps out an agenda for the future.”

The case for the Union had to be something based on more than “pounds, shillings and pence. You need a renewed sense of mission as the UK but I’m not sure that’s possible unless you renew our politics. At the moment the choice is between nationalist Tories and far-left Labour.

I couldn’t disagree with much of that. But I felt obliged to point out that Scots indeed see advantage in being part of a bigger alliance such as the EU, but are being taken out of it by an English majority that doesn’t. And that grim choice between Johnson and Corbyn, and the glaring lack of any obvious forthcoming improvement in that situation, made it hard to develop the pro-Union argument beyond the idea of relative economic safety. Britain is a pretty grim offer right now. Blair had the good grace to admit this was a fair point.

He – like a growing number of Tory rebels – thought the introduction of a PR voting system at Westminster might help restore trust in politics. I would go further, and argue that wholesale constitutional change, on a scale greater than his own programme, is needed – a new voting system, yes, but also a completely rethought Lords, considerably more power for Holyrood (and Wales and Northern Ireland if they want it), and greater local and regional devolution throughout the UK. Freedom within the Union, if you like.

It strikes me that a national constitutional convention is needed – the equivalent of the one that delivered Holyrood in Scotland, or the UK Infrastructure Commission – cross-party, run by big names with their careers behind them and the national interest at heart. We could seek to restore the centre as a place of reason. And I can think of an obvious chairman.

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