Why Is Tony Blair’s Influence So Diminished These Days?

Why Is Tony Blair’s Influence So Diminished These Days?

In recent weeks, as this dreadful Coronavirus pandemic has paralysed societies around the world, over-stretched governments have never been in greater need of wise counsel from respected elder statesmen and women. The willingness of governments to seek help from or even give a hearing to such figures is another matter, but if ideas and recommendations from respected former leaders gain traction outside the formal corridors of power, they still have the potential to influence and help shape events.

Since departing 10 Downing Street in 2007, Tony Blair, through his “Institute for Global Change”, his work for a number of governments and inter-governmental organisations around the world, and his media output, has sought to remain a global “player” and to influence and help shape the path of history. Although still more highly thought of overseas, the Blair “brand” has lost much of its lustre since the heady days of New Labour, and the former Prime Minister now seems a marginalised, diminished figure.

To an extent a dramatic loss of influence is an almost inevitable outcome of a departure from the highest office of state, something that is reinforced in many countries by conventions that require former leaders not to “interfere” or to publicly criticise their successors. That said, Barack Obama remains a figure of significant influence in the US and beyond, and in the UK John Major, so heavily trounced by Blair in 1997, is an increasingly respected contributor to contemporary political debate on major issues.

Where then, has it all gone so wrong for Tony Blair? A year ago, still fascinated by this flawed political genius, I attended a Guardian Live event at The Barbican Centre at which the former Prime-Minister was interviewed by Paul Lewis. Below are my reflections on that evening, which took place at a time when Britain was tearing itself apart over Brexit, and re-reading them twelve months on I feel the same sense of regret that in this new, existential crisis we find ourselves in, Blair remains a marginal figure unable to lend his experience and insights in order to help navigate a path through it.

20 May 2019 — Reflections on Tony Blair’s Guardian Gig

A pariah on the left he may be these days, but Tony Blair still knows how to tickle the erogenous zones of a certain type of metropolitan liberal. At a sold-out Guardian Live event last Monday, Mr. Blair demonstrated that his formidable arsenal of political skills remains intact, and the sense of loss from the enthusiastic, at times cheering audience was palpable.

As Britain remains gripped by Brexit paralysis and Nigel Farage’s new party looks set to take the forthcoming European elections by storm, the seeming collapse of the centre ground in British politics has engendered such levels of fear and uncertainty in some middle class quarters that Blair’s disastrous Iraq adventure now seems almost forgiven if not forgotten.

Interviewed by Paul Lewis, editor of the Guardian’s project on populism, Blair skilfully combined humour, passion and self-deprecation as he articulated both a defence of his “third way” leadership and a prescription for how its core tenets should be used to fight the rising tide of populism around the world.

Fearing a cosy, fireside style chat, it was re-assuring that Paul Lewis addressed the former Prime Minister as Mr. Blair throughout the discussion, and the questions put, including a number submitted by members of the audience, were mostly challenging enough. The problem for me, however, was that interesting as it still is to listen to a serial winner and the most successful (at least in electoral terms) Labour politician in UK history, what we got was essentially a performance of the sort that Tony Blair can give several times a day while on auto-pilot.

Blair has always exhibited theatrical, chameleon like qualities, and his anxiety to please has too often led to his trying to be all things to all people, but to deny that he has core principles and beliefs would be wrong. The problem, rather, lies with the increasingly messianic conviction with which Blair states his case, and his almost total blindness to the failings of his own Prime-Ministership (there were undoubtedly significant successes which do not get the recognition they deserve) and the consequences of these in terms of where we find ourselves today.

As such, and I write this as someone who laments the ineptitude as well as the cynicism of Jeremy Corbyn, Tony Blair and his ideology, as much as his toxic legacy, remain very much part of the problem, and for all that his message played well at The Barbican Centre, it is unlikely to resonate and positively influence events more widely at this critical juncture in our history.

In particular (and here I wish the questions had been more probing and the responses followed up more forensically) Tony Blair continues to downplay the link between the laissez-faire, de-regulatory economic policies he championed in tandem with Bill Clinton, and later George W Bush, and the almighty economic crash of 2007-’08, the flawed responses to which have greatly contributed to the increasing polarization of so many societies, and to the rise of the far right within them.

It was Peter, now Lord Mandelson who best seemed to encapsulate Labour’s Faustian pact with capitalism when in 1998 he told a US industrialist in California that New Labour was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes”. Whilst Lord Mandelson, however, confronted with the irrefutable evidence of rising inequality and stagnating middle class incomes, has since expressed regret over his remark and the complacent philosophy that it reflected, Tony Blair seemingly loses no sleep at night over his government’s pursuit of neo-liberal economic policies advanced with a minimum of oversight.

It was illuminating that when Mr. Blair was asked for his thoughts on Donald Trump’s election victory in November 2016, a few short months after the UK referendum, he was staunch in his defence of Hilary Clinton’s campaign, stuffed as her manifesto had been with the same neo-liberal, third way economic policies that had characterised her husband’s two terms in office, and that offered “more of the same” to huge swathes of the increasingly insecure and angry middle and working classes of America.

As a number of writers have observed, there was always a moral ambiguity at the heart of the New Labour project. In policy terms this manifested itself, for example, in early deals with moguls such as Rupert Murdoch and Bernie Ecclestone, and in personal terms it was reflected in the obvious enjoyment, shared by a number of the leading architects of New Labour, in rubbing shoulders with and sometimes accepting “hospitality” from the rich, powerful and famous. This latter trait, exemplified by Tony Blair’s acceptance of so many exotic holidays courtesy of Italian Dukes and Prime Ministers, Egyptian Ministers and even Cliff Richard, has undoubtedly contributed to the worrying levels of contempt in which politicians are now held, and the widespread perception that they are “in it for themselves”.

The only point during the evening when Blair’s veneer of relaxed confidence and certitude was penetrated was when he was questioned about his somewhat opaque income generating activities since leaving 10 Downing Street, activities that have made him and his family very wealthy. Then, for the first and only time in the evening, Blair appeared uncomfortable, went on the defensive, and responded tetchily.

When Paul Lewis drew attention to some of the dubious regimes, companies and individuals that Blair has been very well remunerated for advising, as well as the large sums he receives for speaking at corporate events, our ex Prime Minister was impatiently dismissive, and wanted to focus instead on how much of his time is spent on charitable, pro bono work trying to make the world a better place. The implied message seemed to be that the former was necessary for facilitating the latter, leaving a sense that this was Blair’s post-Prime Ministerial Faustian pact, a counterpart to his embrace of laissez-faire capitalism while in office.

I still remember clearly when, following the untimely death of John Smith in 1994, Tony Blair assumed the Labour leadership and began, with his shadow cabinet, to devastatingly hold John Major’s government to account and eviscerate the Conservative’s record in office. In particular, on that heady night on 2 May 1997, I rejoiced along with millions of others throughout Britain, hopeful that the politics of division would give way to the politics of consensus, and that a fairer, prosperous society would emerge, one that would emphasise social justice and fairness and be increasingly at ease with itself.

It was Enoch Powell who once remarked that “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure”. Whilst there is much truth in Powell’s observation, it is equally true that the consequences of political failure vary greatly. Tony Blair was one of the most formidable political leaders in British history, elected as Prime Minister in a landslide victory and with a fund of goodwill that could have enabled him to shape and influence the destiny of Britain for generations to come.

Instead, for all the successes in office, the platform of 1997 was squandered, most of the achievements of New Labour proved ephemeral, and the principal architect, for all his political genius, proved to be a deeply flawed leader who lost his way and was increasingly blind to his own mistakes. It is something of a tragedy that, at a critical moment in our history when Tony Blair still has much to say that is worth listening to, this elder statesman now finds himself a prophet in a wilderness of his own creation.

Ex secondary school teacher and Headteacher.