Tony Blair is right on Brexit. Now he should get into the trenches or back off
TONY BLAIR’S speech on Brexit on the morning of February 17th attracted a predictable storm of derision. Today the former prime minister serves as a sort of Rorschach test for whatever irks the viewer: to the left he stands for free-market capitalism and war, to the right he stands for a hyper-metropolitan internationalism, to some of his former acolytes he stands for how not to secure one’s political legacy after leaving politics. In parts of Westminster and Fleet Street voicing nuanced opinions about Mr Blair meets with a mix of bafflement and distaste, like ordering veal at a vegan restaurant.
To be sure, some of the criticism is valid. Mr Blair presided over the build-up to Britain’s financial and economic crisis and the failure of the post-invasion period in Iraq. His globe-trotting, pro-globalisation breeziness clashes with the prevailing mood among electorates in much of the West. His business activities since leaving Downing Street (ten years ago this June, believe it or not) have done his domestic reputation significant harm.
Yet the shame of all this is that it detracts from the many things Mr Blair says that are worth heeding. He may have been out of British politics for a while—that mid-Atlantic accent does not lie—but he remains the most successful British politician of the past two decades. To read some of his critics you would think his record, leading a previously unelectable party to three strong election victories, was achieved by pure fluke or by casting some sort of spell on an electorate that would never ordinarily vote for him. Whisper it softly, but perhaps the former prime minister is a better strategist, a more expansive thinker and operator, than these infantile interpretations allow.
That came across in his speech this morning. You would not know it from the spasms of pearl-clutching Brexiteer apoplexy (“how DARE he?!”), but Mr Blair’s message was not anti-democratic. Quite the opposite. “Yes, the British people voted to leave Europe,” he acknowledged. “And I agree the will of the people should prevail. I accept that there is no widespread appetite to re-think.” To read this as denial or a call for the summary dismissal of the referendum result is strange indeed. Instead Mr Blair set out frankly, accurately and crisply the realities and contradictions that today’s political leaders prefer to sweep under the carpet, or refer to only opaquely: people did vote on Brexit “without knowledge of the full terms”; its execution will starve other public priorities, like the health service, of government capacity and cash; it will imperil the union. Voters may change their views; it is their right to do so; it is up to politicians, if they think the country is making a terrible mistake, to make that case.
Implicit in the fury these points have generated is the dismal notion, beloved of autocrats, that to try to change the electorate’s opinions through reasoned argument is to disregard its previous electoral judgments. “Erdogan was elected by the people, so to criticise him is to patronise and disrespect the people” say the Turkish president’s propagandists in Ankara; “Brexit was voted for by the people, so to criticise it is to patronise and disrespect the people” say the Brexit purists in London (funnily enough, the apposite vote-share in both cases was 52%). The correct response to the fallacy is always this: “If you really trust your arguments and the electorate’s judgment, why fume and fret when your opponents try to change minds?” This would have been just as true had the result of the referendum been different, which is why I argued before June 23rd that, if the Remain campaign won, it should live on to keep making and remaking its case to respond to fresh challenges. After all, referendums often intensify the debates they purport to settle.
The fairest opposition to Mr Blair’s gambit comes from keen Remainers who fear that such polarising interventions make it harder for them to win a hearing. It is easy enough to sympathise: if you want to be in a position to reverse or soften Brexit when, in a year or so, the public mood changes, you do not admit as much now; instead you align with voter opinion and let your public positions evolve in lockstep with it.
But the logic behind this—pro-European arguments must be modest, self-effacing and most of all passive to succeed—does not have a great record. It governed the backdrop to the referendum, the failed Remain campaign and subsequent efforts to nudge Britain towards a soft Brexit. David Cameron felt the only way to contain the Europe issue was to make semi-regular, stepwise concessions to Euroscepticism, rather than confronting it. That approach culminated in his referendum commitment in 2013 and begot a Remain campaign too timid to make the positive case for British engagement in Europe: the label “Project Fear” stuck for a reason. Since their defeat many pro-Europeans have kept conceding ground: no second referendum, an end to freedom of movement, prosperity and the future of the union as secondary priorities. The result has been not a Brexit that balances the views of the 48% and the 52% but the hardest of hard Brexits: “Brexit at all costs”, as Mr Blair rightly put it. After ten years in which this endlessly compromising, ground-giving brand of British pro-Europeanism has piled failure upon failure, it is hardly unreasonable of the former prime minister to suggest a change of strategy.
The question is: is Mr Blair the right figurehead? Here the despairing Remainers have a point. Fairly or not, he is a divisive figure. Moreover, he is a distant one. His speech was given in the slick, controlled environment of Bloomberg’s European headquarters; a strange backdrop for the launch of a campaign of persuasion aimed at voters far from the City of London, many of whom resent its glittering wealth. Mr Blair’s other recent interventions in British politics have been similar: speeches delivered in Britain between trips to far-flung parts of the globe, seemingly written at 40,000 feet and thus hampered, despite their perspicacious arguments, by an aura of detachment.
Which puts the former prime minister at a fork in the road. Either he can step back out of the political limelight, and let fresher, less freighted public figures take forward his call for voters to “rise up” against the costs and dislocations of Brexit. Or, if he really wants to bring his formidable experience and skill to the task, he can clamber into the trenches and become a full participant in Britain’s domestic political contest once more: joining the melee in such a way that he gradually remakes his public image, wins credit (however grudging) for re-engaging and builds the case for a change of course on Brexit, week-by-week, battle-by-battle. In practice that means going head to head with his critics: appearing on Question Time, hosting radio phone-ins, shooting from the hip in television interviews and on social media, appearing at town-hall events, travelling around the country meeting people who voted for Brexit. Resetting his relationship with the British public, in other words. Let’s be frank: he would take a tsunami of personal abuse and media scorn in the process. His approval ratings are subterranean and it is treated as a fact in Westminster that his reputation is unsalvageable. But some political “facts” are eroded by time and events: the unelectability of the Tories, the Liberal Democrats’ post-coalition doom, the impossibility of a vote for Brexit. Perhaps Mr Blair’s ostracism can go the same way.
I fear, however, that he will pick the third-best option: opting decisively for neither of these two approaches and instead trying to compromise between them. He will put lots of money into a glossy but slightly otherworldly political institute, give occasional speeches at stage-managed venues, write op-eds for broadsheet papers, perhaps even endorse political candidates. He will be sufficiently involved in politics to be a liability for other pro-Europeans and liberals, but will float too far above the fray to change public perceptions and perhaps become an asset to them. He can step back or step forward. But the old master of triangulation will have no luck in the middle.