The best thing Tony Blair can do for Brexit and the Labour Party is to stay as far away as possible.
- By Tom WhymanTom Whyman is an academic philosopher and freelance writer from the UK.
Tony Blair is returning to front-line politics. We know this because, in an interview with the Daily Mirror published April 30, he announced that he was doing so. Of course, it’s unclear what exactly Blair means by this, since — despite there being a general election in the U.K. scheduled for June 8 — he has ruled out standing as a member of Parliament. Rather, he’ll be getting his “hands dirty” in some nonspecific way, helping “shape the policy debate” by “reconnecting” with voters.
Tony Blair is returning to front-line politics — but then again, he always is or is just about to. The Mirror interview was hardly a bolt from the blue; over the past few years, Blair has been spewing essentially the same line to some rag, I’d wager, at least once every few months, “taking a break” from his various, ever-shifting network of charitable foundations to tease a return (examples include this one from 2016 and this one from way back in 2012). These interviews are typically accompanied by photos of Blair sprawled out on the couch, mug in hand, his body language projecting comforting vibes of “daddy’s home,” but those wild eyes and that messianic turn of phrase making sure that we know he is telling us: “I am Him, returned. Soon my saving light will shine forth onto the world” — saving the U.K. from Brexit; saving the Labour Party from the supposedly electorally toxic evil of providing a robust left-wing alternative to neoliberalism.
But just where is the front line Blair is returning to supposed to be drawn? If members of Parliament and prime ministers are at the front line of politics, then where are those directly impacted by their policies? What about the pensioners dying in the crumbling hospitals front-line politicians are responsible for overseeing or the new graduates saddled with dwindling employment prospects to go with their massive debt? Are they just standing at the back somewhere, the direct nature of the pain that politics causes them leaving them somehow ignorant compared with those in power? Was Blair back with them, until a few days ago? Presumably not, since he now says he wants to reconnect with them. But where was he in the intervening years? Some uncanny nether region? Some vampire’s castle?
Perhaps. Certainly, in order to fully appreciate the significance of Blair’s return to “front-line politics,” one needs to understand the deeply uncanny position Blair occupies within the British psyche. Twenty years ago this month, Blair was elected prime minister in a landslide. Selling his party under the “New Labour” moniker, Blair’s glossy third-way centrism brought 18 years of Conservative rule to an end and unleashed a wave of “Cool Britannia” optimism. Blair’s victory was sound-tracked by the bouncy synth-pop of D:Ream’s “Things Can Only Get Better,” and I remember — as a child — genuinely thinking that they would. As an adult, of course, I now realize that the statement “things can only get better” is also resignedly pessimistic, at least to the extent that it permits low expectations. A more honest message for the third way has perhaps never been put forward: Vote for us! We’re the only realistic alternative to something too horrible to contemplate!
But despite D:Ream’s promises, things ended up going rather badly wrong. Blair’s government introduced a few progressive policies, for sure. It instigated a minimum wage, started funding schools and hospitals properly, and founded Sure Start centers to assist early-years care and reduce child poverty. But as a centrist, Blair’s comfortableness with neoliberal capitalism left him uninterested in reforming the deep apparatus of the state that Margaret Thatcher had created — and so these gains have been easily reversed by his Tory successors.
Still worse, post-9/11 Blair’s attitude toward civil liberties became increasingly draconian, and he completely disregarded mass protests against his support for George W. Bush’s disastrous war in Iraq. This latter venture, in particular, poisoned the public’s perception of Blair such that the initial optimism surrounding his premiership now seems distinctly strange, like the memory of someone you fell in love with in a dream. Since leaving office, Blair’s sleazy globe-trotting business dealings, most notably with the authoritarian President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, have only compounded his unpopularity. Blair remains largely hated by the electorate; indeed, recent polling suggests that more than half of voters believe Blair’s actions on Iraq are literally unforgivable, placing him beyond the moral pale of humanity itself.
And yet, amid all this, he still has his fans. Plenty of people within the Labour Party, and writing on behalf of the “moderate left” in the British press, feel nostalgic for the days when Blair had them on top and beating the Tories, when he finally seemed to have stolen the cheat codes for winning elections from whatever vast country estate the right was hiding them in. In Blair, they see a figure whom — in the golden days — voters genuinely liked and trusted, who was a dynamic public speaker with the right mix of socially progressive and “business-friendly” economic policies, and who seemed able to speak for Britain on the world stage. In the current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, they see an out-of-touch fuddy-duddy more interested in tending his allotment and making jam than speaking to the press, electorally poisoned if not by his open hostility to neoliberalism then by his long-standing friendliness toward groups such as Hamas and the Irish Republican Army. They blame the Brexit result on Corbyn’s lack of appeal to swing voters and the lack of passion he displayed toward the European Union and toward the referendum campaign. They think that if a “strong,” devotedly Europhile leader such as Blair were to return, then the whole sorry farce might still be prevented.
Given the profound ambivalence with which the U.K. perceives Blair, it is perhaps no surprise that reactions to his return lend themselves to Freudian theorizing. To Angus Harrison, writing in Vice, Blair is “our estranged father,” elected as “the country’s cool new dad” but now descended into “delusion.” “Like all bad dads, even after all the shit he’s put us through, he still thinks he knows best.”
Sam Kriss goes still further. To him, Blair is an ancient monster, “a gremlin, an incubus, very strange and very cruel and very foreign to our world,” whose true nature we have tried collectively to repress. Blair was no mere politician: Rather Blair, or what he stands for, has always been with humanity — but he will never die, never leave us alone, because he was never truly alive. No wonder, then, that Blair is always returning to front-line politics or just about to. What we repress comes back with fangs.
Blair, of course, says he is returning because he wants to help fight Brexit, preventing it if possible. If anything, this just shows how out-of-touch he is. It is perhaps true that there is room, in the U.K., for stronger anti-Brexit voices. But what’s crucial here is how such voices make their arguments. In the upcoming general election, Corbyn’s Labour Party will almost certainly lose badly. But what’s striking about this apparently inevitable loss is that the public, when asked, typically agrees with most of his policies. The trouble for Labour is really that the political conversation at the moment is not about schools, hospitals, or public transport; it is about Brexit. The public sees delivering Brexit as of the utmost national importance, and Theresa May is the politician they trust most to deliver it. So, if Labour wants to start winning elections again, realistically, its best bet is probably to get the whole process over with as quickly as possible and hope the Tories don’t find a way of shifting the blame onto them after it proves a disaster.
For this reason, if a Labour figure like Blair is going to make anti-Brexit arguments, they need to do it very carefully: It can’t be about preventing Brexit — it has to be about contesting May’s version of Brexit, steering the U.K. back toward a “soft” Brexit in which the country remains within the common market. This goal is perhaps a realistic one (which incidentally is good news for Labour supporters, since Corbyn’s party — admittedly with plenty of moaning from the backbenches — seems to have adopted it). If May continues to falter in talks with the European Union’s remaining countries, anti-Brexiteers could conceivably find some way of preventing her from shifting the blame onto Brussels and manage to discredit her as a leader instead. But let’s face it, given Blair’s unpopularity, it would help enormously if none of the people making this argument were Tony Blair. It is high time for Blair to realize that, whenever he comes out in support of anything, the vast majority of British people will find themselves on some level inclined to oppose it. If he really wants to help, perhaps he ought to do an interview declaring that Theresa May has his full support.
On a more serious note, though, there is this: The Brexit result was, among other things, the product of decades of alienation between voters and the political classes. More than any other individual, Blair accelerated this process of alienation — in particular as a result of his cynical, ultimately incredibly destructive handling of the Iraq War. He therefore bears a great weight of responsibility for the Brexit result himself. Perhaps if he really wants to “help,” Blair ought to start by acknowledging this moral burden, just as he did, following the Chilcot Inquiry, over the torturous mess he made of Iraq.
Tony Blair is returning to front-line politics. But he never really left it. Both in the U.K. and abroad, Blair’s damaging legacy has remained with us ever since he departed office a decade ago. Let this latest comeback remind us, then, of just how urgent it still is to expel him properly and not simply repress his memory.
Photo credit: Hannah Peters/Getty Images