When Tony Blair and Keir Starmer sauntered on to the stage together at the former’s “Future of Britain” conference in the Park Plaza hotel, by Westminster Bridge, on 18 July, it was – as Blair noted himself – quite a moment. Labour’s triple election winner has lived, these past years, in the domestic political shadows. He had been speaking to the current leader increasingly in private. So was this some kind of laying on of hands? A public acknowledgement between master and pupil – an affirmation that New Labour: Take 2 was on the way?
More of that later. But, perhaps by mutual agreement, the biggest subject of lingering difference was by and large excluded from their conversation. Starmer has been brutally explicit. For him, there can be no going back to the single market, the customs union, or, of course, the EU itself. The argument is over, done, finished.
Blair sees things very differently. Talking to the New Statesman before the conference, he describes Brexit as “a constant sadness to me”. And when I ask whether he can see a good future for Britain outside the EU, and if so, how we begin to tack towards it, he starts to shake his head: “I think it’s extremely difficult.” He describes how he sees a world evolving, with three huge power blocs elsewhere: the US – which has become more powerful and dominant under Biden – China and India. “But to return to Europe: the problem is, I can’t see how it’s just not vital to be part of your own continent when it comes not just to trade, but to… It’s the political effect of Brexit that has actually even surprised me a little.”
And the geopolitics rammed the problem home: “Even the big-population countries like Indonesia or Brazil are looking at how they form regional blocs, because they realise that individually, they’re not powerful enough to sit at the same table, so they need to get a collective seat. And that is the reason for the European Union.”
Does he see any realistic prospect of going back into the EU, or even the customs union or single market? “Well, I believe at some point a future generation will take Britain back into Europe, and, you know, you just have to look at what’s happened.” So much for the sorcerer’s apprentice: that is a sentence Starmer would not, could not, speak.
To leave the daily grind of normal electoral politics and enter the world of the Tony Blair Institute is to go back to a sunnier, lighter age; hyper-educated, beautiful young people with transatlantic accents play data ping-pong and talk admiringly of Kissinger on the balance of power. The raw desperation of life for ordinarily chaotic people trying to pay their bills in 2023 seems a long way away.
For Blair, the tragedy of the Brexit referendum was that the wrong people (dishonest, eye-on-the-main-chance, heedless-of-the-realities-of-the-modern-world opportunists) got a respectful hearing, while the smooth folks with all that data were ignored. He isn’t wrong. But suspicion is a big part of the story: as its experience of insecurity and inexplicable change increased, the country “took back control” from a natural ruling order.
Blair doesn’t seem self-critical or tortured about it – rather mildly baffled. Being elevated from ordinary politics, and living in the cabin-lounge stratosphere of geopolitics, has given him a unique oversight, but it may have come at the price of a vivid understanding of the daily realities. Everything in life has its price.
At any rate, Blair doesn’t see a short-term way of returning to the EU, although “we should get a proper working relationship with Europe” while “the British people are in a kind of negotiation with themselves about this”. He acknowledges that for Starmer it would be a huge diversion of energy: “So… I wish it had never happened, and I do believe at some point we will understand that we cannot afford to be outside the political decision-making of our own continent.
“And, by the way, one of the very easy examples to use in this is Ukraine, where Britain has played a very good and supporting role. But, as I say to people, at the conclusion of the conflict, President Zelensky will come, he’ll visit Britain, he’ll be immensely thankful and sincerely so – but then his business will be in Paris and Berlin, and we’ve just got to be realistic about this.”
In the meantime, I put to him something David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, said to me: “We need a special relationship with the EU.” Blair replies: “That’s a good way of putting it.”
So if that is the sorrow of the dedicated Europhile, inexpressible for the current Labour leader, what of the more general position Starmer is in? I ask Blair to compare the mid-1990s, when he was streets ahead in the polls but the election was still a long way off, with 2023: “It’s very difficult when you’re chomping at the bit as the opposition to have an election and to get into government, and I was always wanting the election to come sooner.
“That time you can use for two things: you can use it to prepare for government, you can use it to eliminate any vulnerabilities that you might have, and just get the policy platform in the right shape. And the other thing is that when a government gets into a situation where they start pushing back the time of an election, in the hope that something turns up, what you usually find is what turns up is worse than what was there before. So in a way, the longer this goes – and I can see the Labour Party doing this now, I can feel it – they are visibly strengthening all the time, and the Conservatives, I think, are finding it really hard to get traction.” Is there a half-hint there that Blair agrees with the growing minority who expect the Tories to call the election early, perhaps in May?
If Labour wins power, he concedes, the task ahead will be bigger than the one he faced in 1997: “Yes, this is a huge challenge. I mean, in our period we had three things going for us. The economy had been through a very difficult period, but to be fair to Ken Clarke and John Major, they had stabilised it somewhat. And so the prospect was that you could grow at a reasonable rate… that was one big difference with today.
“Another was that we had a set of things that we could do, like the minimum wage or constitutional change – a whole series of socially liberal things, which gave you a sense that the zeitgeist was changing and you were going with it. So all of that was good.
“We also had to rebuild the public realm, and that is quite similar to what is there today. But I think the biggest challenge – in progressive political terms for people within the Labour Party or the broader circle of the Labour Party – is to get out of the situation where you define ‘radical’ by how much you spend. The truth is – and this is a measure of the failure of the government – we are spending more than ever before. Except in crisis or war, we have basically got, under a Conservative government, the largest state spending that we have had.”
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Britain is spending more than ever, taxing more than at any time since the Second World War, has huge debt levels and poor outcomes. “So if, for example, we were to say, ‘We’re going to spend a whole lot more money,’ that would be the Labour equivalent of Truss-onomics. I mean, the facts are the facts, and that’s why what Keir Starmer’s doing is right – to be fiscally responsible. I think the question then is: what is it that you say to give people hope?”
And that, of course, is the million-dollar question. Blair sees this as essentially about the huge technological revolution being brought about by artificial intelligence: “I know some people disagree with it, but in my view, harnessing this, understanding it, mastering it, is the single biggest change, because it can produce the biggest amount of improvement in public services and in the way that people live and interact with government.”
AI will be “a revolutionary change… it will change literally everything”. Looking for examples, I ask about digitised health accounts, containing people’s full health histories, as some smaller European countries have: “Yeah, absolutely, it’s the future. And the larger countries will just have to catch up with the smaller ones, because the benefits are enormous.”
But Blair then goes much further in ways that many will find disturbing: “But you can also apply this to education: you should be able to store with each pupil not just the tests but the assessments – the teachers’ assessments, the interactions.” And after education, crime: “You will be able to do things like – through the use of DNA – change the whole basis of crime-fighting.”
We talk about how concerned people will be, and the trade-offs ahead. He was always, I remind him, an enthusiast for ID cards, so is this the moment when a more powerful AI-enabled system becomes a reality? “Yes, the debate should come, because what you can do with it is infinitely greater than anything I was talking about with ID cards – which I still think the public were basically in support of in the end.”
Using AI to track identities would hammer online fraud because you’d “be able to identify who is doing this much more easily. And if you’ve a digital ID… in my view, it’s always been the way to deal with the immigration problem – because the biggest problem in immigration is that at any one time, you’ve anywhere between half a million to a million people here without the right to be here.”
We discuss how politics was radically changed by the 19th-century Industrial Revolution, producing arguments over workplace safety and trade unions. What is coming now will be as big, Blair insists: “Once people understand what data can do, the question is going to be around how you protect the citizen against abuse, and these privacy questions. But you have to confront those questions because if people reject the gains that can be made by this technology, at least they should do it knowing what they’re giving up.”
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At one point in our conversation – Blair is wirily focused and heavily engaged throughout – I argue that climate change is a bigger issue than AI. But on this his language is less radical: “Well, it’s the single biggest global challenge, right, and Britain should play its part in that. But its part frankly is going to be less to do with Britain’s emissions. I mean, one year’s rise in China’s emissions would outscore the whole of Britain’s emissions for a year.”
Again, life in the stratosphere inevitably means that Britain looks smaller compared to the big powers of the world. But does proximity to the most important global companies and their leaders also mean the danger of overstating the virtue of the technologies they have designed and are selling?
On climate change, China, I say, is used here as a reason for not doing very much. “Yes, but it shouldn’t be. But even in climate change, AI and technology’s going to be key. There’s no answer to climate change without technology. And artificial intelligence will allow you to do things like radically shorten your planning timetable.”
Blair continues: “I think most people – not everyone, but most people, I would say 80 per cent of people – do not need convincing that climate change is a huge problem. I think their only issue is, ‘OK, we should do what we can, but don’t ask us to do a huge amount when frankly whatever we do in Britain is not really going to impact climate change.’ Because one of the things that is so clear now is that the issue today in climate – and this is where Britain could play a part – is, number one, how do you finance the energy transition? Because basically the developed world’s emissions are going down, but the developing world’s are going up, but these countries have got to grow, so how do you finance the transition; and secondly, how do you accelerate the technology?”
We move on to political reform, and he is noticeably cool about abolishing the House of Lords: “Let’s just say I keep an open mind on it!” On parliament generally, he describes himself as “totally sceptical” about new codes of conduct. And he returns, of course, to Brexit: “This idea, which was summed up in that gloriously absurd but very telling phrase ‘We’ve had enough of experts’, is part of the problem.
“The problem with politics is not whether your politicians are honest or not; the problem is when politicians who tell you the truth are considered the politicians that are dishonest, and the politicians who tell you what you want to hear, they’re the people who are the plain-speakers. So with the 2016 Brexit referendum… if you’d said to people at that time: ‘Cameron and Osborne versus Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage – who are the honest people?’ I bet you a large part of the population would say: ‘Cameron and Osborne, yeah, they’re just typical politicians; Farage and Johnson, now, they’re telling it like it is.’”
Thus the problem with democracy is deeper: “And you’ve got to ask: how does this populism get a grip?”
Well, indeed. I get the impression that for Tony Blair, losing office was only marginally more painful than the Brexit referendum. So what of the future, and the so-called progressive alliance with the Europhile Lib Dems, including voting reform? Blair tells me he is more open to PR than he once was, but that it would be very tough for the Labour Party, which would lose a lot of seats and might “march off to the left and become a sort of marginal group”.
That, he said, was a self-interested argument. “The second point – that’s the most important – is that you could build a large coalition now without electoral reform. In the end, electoral reform will put you in coalition with another party, right? But the old Liberal Party was itself a coalition. In my view, had Labour and the Liberal Party got together in the early part of the 20th century, that would have been a better outcome.”
Is there such a huge gap between Keir Starmer and Ed Davey? He doesn’t think so, “and therefore I think that, if I was back in front-line politics today, I’d be thinking about that, and electoral reform for me would be a secondary question. What won’t work with the electorate is an arithmetical thing, right? ‘They’ve got 13 per cent; we’ve got 40 per cent; now we’ve got 53 per cent.’ That doesn’t work. And you remember, in government, I did try.”
“If I was back.” What had he learned in the long years since leaving office? “Oh, just the sheer scale of change. So, technology change and geopolitical change.” On China, “it’s important that America retains military and technological superiority, and the West does, but we should engage with China, because, I mean – climate change… There’s absolutely no possibility of solving climate change without China.”
If there is a Labour government coming, would he want to be involved? “I think I’m best doing what I’m doing… We have a very large organisation now; we’re operating in well over 30 countries in the world with teams of people.” But, given his history and his global contacts, he would be a unique asset for Labour in power. “Yes, and it’s completely to be used however they wish it to be used – in the sense of advising and introducing and all of that. And my institute will continue to try and put forward a sensible policy agenda. But I think that’s probably the best role for me to play.”
The following day, ahead of the by-elections, he will talk with Keir Starmer in public for the first time. The two men do indeed speak privately and Starmer regards Blair’s experience, not least as a Labour prime-minister-in-waiting, as immensely valuable. But there is little sense of the sorcerer and his apprentice; rather a wary mutual respect, as they await the AI revolution that now obsesses Tony Blair. The world has moved on, Brexit and all.
This article appears in our Summer Special
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This article appears in the 26 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special