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Does Tony Blair’s new centrist project have any answers?

At the former PM’s Future of Britain conference, it felt as if the past 15 years of British politics never happened.

By Freddie Hayward

At 9am on 30 June, Tony Blair opened his Future of Britain conference with a call to “plan and prepare for a new world”. Blair told this gathering of change-makers that the conference was not the germination of a new political party but an attempt to forge a “new politics”. The premise was simple: to bring progressive centrists together to discuss the policy challenges of the future, from climate change to the technological revolution.

Sat in the basement of a swish hotel in Westminster, we were there to listen to the experts. Ably compèred by an effortlessly smug Jon Sopel, the presentations progressed with slick precision. Larry Summers, the US  economist who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations, was one of the first speakers. He admitted that “we [in the progressive centre] never dreamt that something like Brexit could happen; never dreamt that somebody like Donald Trump would be president of the United States; never expected the degree of backlash from our middle classes to ideas we thought were fairly self-evident.”

And that remains the case. Despite the convulsions of the past ten years, Summers’ views haven’t changed. He thinks the solution now isn’t “de-globalisation” but “intelligent globalisation”. The answer is self-evident to those clever enough to see it. The policies weren’t wrong; we simply need to implement them in a more intelligent way.

After coffee, there were PowerPoint slides along the lines of “Three E’s to solve education” and “Five C’s to fix the climate crisis”. In one session, the speaker pointed to the fact that the gentrified London borough of Hackney had one of the highest levels of bicycle usage in the country. “Well done, Hackney!” they roared to whoops and applause. Another speaker said part of the solution to climate change was to herd the public like sheep.

During lunch, Blair’s acolytes swarmed around discussing The Future. One person told me about the need to introduce a law to prosecute politicians for making misleading claims in public. People queued up to take photos with Tony.

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Back in the auditorium, the global financial elites were invited on stage to deliver us into the 21st century. Tech billionaire Larry Ellison meandered on and on about how Tesla produces batteries as well as cars. “The cars themselves have to be robots!” he cried. There was no discussion about the rising threat of China, but we did receive a lecture from a Taiwanese businessman on why the UK should adopt the Chinese Communist Party’s “techno-utilitarian” policies. The CEO of Snapchat was asked to give his views on how social media should be regulated. The line between politics and global capital became so blurred I thought Nick Clegg would drop from the ceiling at any moment. I found myself laughing when no one else was.

This was a celebration of science, an affirmation that technology and the private sector would solve all our problems. One speaker said satellite imaging of the war in Ukraine allows Vladimir Putin to be held to account for atrocities. No one mentioned that, notwithstanding the satellite pictures, Putin continued to bomb civilians. 

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The conference was called the Future of Britain but it could have taken place anywhere. At times it felt like an away day for venture capitalists, not progressive politics. Elon Musk was mentioned more times than the NHS. It was as if the past 15 years of British politics never happened.

It came as a surprise, then, that it was Nick Clegg’s former staffer, Polly Mackenzie, who burst this hubristic balloon:

“We have had this amazing conversation today,” she said on one panel. But it was “based on a flawed premise that there is a technical solution to the problems that we face”. The very people “who have votes, and choices and agency and power, and for whom this is all supposed to be in service, we occasionally hear them talked about as if they’re sheep. And that assumption, that what you need is a bunch of clever people to get together in the Tony Blair Institute or the think tank I used to run, Demos, and just figure it out… is profoundly, profoundly harmful to democracy.”

To which Sopel made a joke about Mackenzie needing a strong glass of wine after the Lib Dems’ 2015 general election losses.

***

As Blair mounted the stage to deliver his closing remarks, Andrew Adonis sat on the floor towards the back of the room, gazing up at the stage forlornly. Journalists crowded around the television cameras. Blair wanted to address what Mackenzie had said.

“I agree that politics can’t be technocratic,” he began. But he added: “You can have the best politician in the world, but if you’ve got the wrong answer it’s not much use. The technical part of it does actually matter,” Blair said. “And one of the things that’s important is for the politicians to be able to take those technically correct answers and make sense of them for people.”

I went to speak with Blair afterwards. He asked for my opinion. I expressed some misgivings about the tone of the event. He looked annoyed. The smile left his face – his eyes blue against his thinning grey hair – and he said if the policy isn’t right then the messaging doesn’t matter. But didn’t he say ten minutes ago that the role of politicians is to convince the public to support those policies? “It’s all about the policy,” he repeated before his team whisked him away.

What was this form of the radical centre? Its claim to be radical seems confined by its snug relationship with the rich elite. The liberal consensus that contributed to the 2008 financial crisis and the poverty it unleashed was never under debate. Where were the discussions of belonging? Of lessons learned? Of the causes of Brexit?

Nonetheless, the conference deserves credit for its ambition and for turning to face the issues hurtling towards us. As a consequence, it threw the paucity of ideas in both major parties into sharp relief. Labour is set to announce its policy programme in the coming months. As for the Conservatives, the party is bereft after “getting Brexit done”. Levelling up has been exposed as vacuous. As someone involved in its concoction in 2019 recently told me, the policy was “no more than a slogan”.

But that does not mean Blair’s project has the answers. Values weren’t up for discussion at the Future of Britain conference; they were taken for granted. Intelligent people will, it was assumed, eventually come to accept the “reasonable” position. As John Gray has written in these pages, “The core centrist belief is that all reasonable people share the same values.” Simply look at the evidence and you’ll know what to do. There’s a reason business elites and liberal internationalists often sound the same: because for both, the premise is never up for debate. The question is simply how to achieve the most efficient outcome.

For business, that’s because they’re motivated by profit. But for politicians, this is a sleight of hand. The politics of competence is a facade for the efficient implementation of one set of values over another. This facade gave Blair cover to enact a massive redistribution of money from the rich to the poor. David Cameron was able to impose a punitive programme of austerity. Both knew that appeals to competence would make their policies appear as faits accomplis.

But the past 15 years of British politics did happen. And people did get sick of experts. Blair may want the experts to return to power, but why does he think people will respond any differently?

[See also: Tony Blair’s technophilia is a dead end for the left]

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