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SOPHY RIDGE: Now the campaign for a second referendum took a big blow this week when Jeremy Corbyn set out his proposals for Brexit, so when I sat down with Tony Blair yesterday, one of the faces of the People’s Vote campaign, I started by asking if this was the week that his dream of a second Brexit referendum died?
TONY BLAIR: No, I think the question of where we go in the future now is very open. I actually thought his letter was helpful in one sense because the underlying point of his letter was you have to decide what type of Brexit you want before you leave and this to me is the absolute clear thing. I never thought that you would get to another referendum going directly to it, you’ll get to it when people see what the true Brexit alternatives are and the truth is there are two: you can have a soft Brexit which is really what Jeremy Corbyn is suggesting or you can have the hard Brexit that Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage and other people want. What I have really been saying all the way through this process is you have got to decide which of those Brexits you want before you leave otherwise you are going to leave without clarity and if you leave without clarity, no clarity no closure. The argument just goes on and by then you’ll have left, you’ll have paid your money up front, you’ll have given up your negotiating leverage and for the country to do that, as Theresa May wants to do, to leave without knowing what Brexit you get, that would be in my view an incredibly foolish thing for the country to do. It’s got to know where we’re heading before we leave.
SR: I just don’t understand how you get to a second referendum because you can’t get to there without the support of the Leader of the Opposition, I can’t see how that happens and if you look at what he’s saying in this letter, ‘Our first priority must be a deal that’s best for jobs and living standards’ and he is talking about the aim of securing a sensible agreement and this does not sound like a man who is about to back a second referendum. That sounds like a man who wants a Brexit deal to pass the House of Commons.
TONY BLAIR: Yes, I think you are absolutely right, that is what he wants, that is the thing. I think Theresa May will reject that letter, indeed in a sense already has, and the soft Brexit that he is proposing, once you start to focus on that … Okay, supposing Parliament, as it should do, puts before Parliament for a vote the different Brexit options – because you have essentially got two, you’ve got a soft Brexit option which is what Jeremy Corbyn is suggesting, and that keeps you more or less in a position like Norway is at the moment, or you have a harder Brexit option, you’ve got out of the trading system of the European Union and you have a free trade agreement like Canada – so you have got soft versus hard. Once you actually get to deciding which of those propositions you want, it’s at that point, my suspicion is ultimately there will be no support for either of them and then you get to another referendum and by the way, you may get to another referendum in order to say to the country now we have a firm Brexit deal, do you prefer that to staying?
SR: If we do leave on March 29th is that it or there a possibility that we might rejoin?
TONY BLAIR: I think, look there are some people who think you can leave on March 29th and you go into a long transition period, maybe you try and rejoin during that time – I think that is highly unlikely. I think what will happen once you leave is you’re out and that’ll be it for a generation at least.
SR: To coin a phrase from Donald Tusk, do you think there is a special place in hell for a Labour party that facilitates Brexit?
TONY BLAIR: Well I don't think it’s wise for the Labour party to facilitate Brexit because I don't think it’s in the interests of the country and one of the things that I find most curious at one level although I kind of get it at another level, is when I talk to Labour MPs in Leave constituencies who are backing Brexit and you will say to them, okay I know all the problems that you’ve got in your constituencies, high levels of unemployment, poor levels of education, poor infrastructure, lack of investment – how do you think Brexit is going to make these problems better? And they will usually say I don't think they are going to make them better but the people voted for it and therefore I feel I have got to vote for it too.
SR: Donald Tusk said this week that today there is no political force and no effective leadership for the main. He is right isn’t it? There’s a problem isn’t there that the face of the People’s Vote is yourself, it’s Chuka Umunna, it’s the PR boss Roland Rudd live from Davos, I mean you’re not really doing much to challenge the perception that this is a movement from the metropolitan liberal elite.
TONY BLAIR: You know, this is an argument we have just got to be really robust about. I mean 16 million people voted to Remain, I mean they are not all members of the metropolitan elite and by the way, there are members of the metropolitan elite on the other side of the debate and very wealthy people on the other side of the debate, this is a nonsense. The question is what’s in the interests of the country and the country voted to leave but it didn’t vote as to what form of Brexit and it’s a bit like having a general election where the question is ‘Do you like the government?’ If that was the question, very few governments would get re-elected. Governments get re-elected when it’s do you like the government or do you prefer the opposition and this is why what is important is before we leave we get the clarity and for the British people – and I am intensely aware from the conversations that I’ve had with people, there is a degree of alarm, boredom, resignation over Brexit. Most people probably think, look, we voted for it, just get on with it and this is of course where parliamentary democracy matters because really what’s happening is once Parliament studies it, it’s saying well hang on, it’s not just a question of getting on with it, do you want a soft Brexit or do you want a hard Brexit? And this essential dilemma is the thing that’s made this negotiation so extraordinary over the last 30 months because essentially the government, because the Cabinet can’t agree and the government can’t agree, they have never made that choice.
SR: I wanted to talk to you about Ireland as well because you of course were involved in the Good Friday Agreement, you understand more than most the sensitivities in Ireland and Northern Ireland so from your perspective, if we have a no-deal Brexit, will there be a hard border?
TONY BLAIR: Yes, for sure. If we have a no-deal Brexit, I mean no one could responsibly propose this, it would be economically very, very dangerous for Britain and for the peace process in Ireland it would potentially be devastating. You would have a hard border, a very hard border. A no-deal Brexit means a really hard border between north and south in Ireland, it is contrary to the Good Friday Agreement and it will cause an enormous fissure within the United Kingdom.
SR: What would the impact of that hard border be?
TONY BLAIR: Well the impact would be that the thing that has been in existence since almost 100 years of the Republic of Ireland’s creation as an independent state, that border that’s been open for that length of time, and when Britain and Ireland have always been in the same relationship to Europe as each other, that will end. You’ll end up with real problems at the border, huge economic problems south and north and a very, very bitter atmosphere. Nobody responsible could propose a no-deal Brexit and that’s why I think even if there isn’t a parliamentary majority at the moment for a particular form of Brexit or indeed for another referendum, there is definitely a parliamentary majority against no-deal and I really do believe there are people within the Cabinet who are sufficiently serious and responsible not to allow that to happen.
SR: Do you think some politicians are playing fast and loose then with the peace process?
TONY BLAIR: Well I think they’ve been playing fast and loose with it from the very beginning. Those people who cheerfully say that you can put the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland in a completely different relationship with Europe in trading terms and it make no difference to the economy of the north of Ireland, I mean I don't know on what basis they could possibly say that.
SR: I am keen to talk to you about the Labour party as well because several MPs have been expressing their unhappiness with the way the party has been dealing with allegations of anti-Semitism and this week Jennie Formby, the General Secretary, said it’s impossible to completely eradicate anti-Semitism from the party. Is she right and does the left have a blind spot when it comes to anti-Semitism?
TONY BLAIR: No and yes. Of course we should eradicate anti-Semitism from the Labour party. This is supposed to be a progressive political party, how can we say it’s terrible to have a certain level of anti-Semitism in the party? Would we say more generally it is tolerable to have a level of racism within the Labour party? No, we’d say of course we can’t have that and yes, there are parts of the left, not the whole of the left, but there are parts of the left that do have a problem with anti-Semitism and you see this in their attitudes to the State of Israel. You can make all sorts of criticisms of the state of Israel but their continual focusing on Israel all the time, over a long period you are left with the feeling that they are in a sense targeting it because it is a Jewish state.
SR: Have the leadership been robust enough on this?
TONY BLAIR: No, it’s not been robust enough on it and the fact that someone like Luciana Berger who is a smart, capable, active member of Parliament, doing her best for her constituents, the fact that she should even be subject to a no-confidence motion with this type of allegation swirling around is shameful from the Labour party.
SR: Should that constituency Labour party be suspended, as Tom Watson has called for?
TONY BLAIR: Well I think what Tom is saying is absolutely right, I back him 100% on it. Look, can you imagine when I was leader of the Labour party having a conversation with me about whether anti-Semitism was in the Labour party or not? I would have thought … we wouldn’t even have had that conversation and there is I’m afraid, there is a kind of nascent alliance between what I would call bits of the Islamist type of politics and the left and you can see this not just here in the UK, you can see it across Europe and yes, it gives rise to anti-Semitism. It is not your traditional anti-Semitism of the old kind of right wing nature of not wanting Jewish people in golf clubs and that type of thing but it is every bit as pernicious and to have a situation where you have got Labour MPs worried because they happen to be Jewish, I mean.
SR: If I can just talk to you about foreign affairs as well because it’s the anniversary of the Iranian revolution. How do you think the west should be dealing with Iran today?
TONY BLAIR: If you look at the 40 years of the Iranian revolution, what’s interesting and where my Institute expresses this, is that that ideology is still very powerful. I think it’s more sensible to view Iran as an ideology with a state than a state with an ideology and they have been exporting it around the region for 40 years. The policies of the Iranian regime I think are probably the single most destabilising, have the most destabilising consequence on the Middle East of anything that’s happening today and I think this issue of how we deal with Iran, we have kind of oscillated between containment and confrontation and what we need I think is a policy in the West today in dealing with Iran which accepts that the ideology hasn’t changed, which accepts the nature of the regime and where they are using hard power consents it and where they are using soft power contains it and exposes it.
SR: What does that mean though? How do we do that? Are you talking about keeping military intervention on the table, what do you want to see?
TONY BLAIR: I don't think you take any option off the table but obviously the best thing that could happen is that there is peaceful change within Iran because the Iranian people are educated people, they are people who want to be connected with the world. If there was a free and fair election in Iran I doubt very much whether the regime would stand any chance of winning it so that’s what we hope for but in the meantime you have got to push back. This is why I regret the decision the Americans took in relation to Syria, I think it’s extremely important that we support the new leadership in Iraq which basically wants to assert the independence of their country and should be …
SR: But some of this retreat, some of this isolationism is because both the UK and the US have been effectively scarred from Iraq?
TONY BLAIR: Well yes, of course it’s a question for us but we should also think today’s circumstances are completely different from what they were 15, 16 years ago and we should recognise that this power of Iran, whether you look at Syria, Yemen, Iraq, if you look at for example their support of the most extreme groups in Palestinian politics rather than support for a two-state solution and peace on both sides, this is the nature of the regime. Now really what I am saying is 40 years on from the revolution we have got to be clear about how we view this …
SR: But being worried about this as well though is recognising that if we’re serious about trying to tackle Iran then we are effectively siding with their rivals in the region, Saudi Arabia. Some of our viewers as well, it’s in the public domain, may be questioning the fact that the Tony Blair Institute has received money from a group called Media Investment Ltd, close to the Saudi regime. They may think that is partly why you are talking out about it.
TONY BLAIR: Yes, but it’s not. The reason why I speak about these things, and I’ve spoken about the power of Iran for a long period of time, is because it is nothing to do with backing Saudi versus Iran. I also think by the way that looking at this thing in the prism of Shi’a versus Sunni is also wrong, the fact is there is one big struggle across the Middle East today, it is can the societies in the Middle East where religion has been abused for a long period of time, Sunni and Shi’a, can those societies become religiously tolerant, can their economies become rule based? That’s the central question and it is not about whether you back the Sunni side versus the Shi’a side, in fact most of these countries for example in the Gulf have got significant Shi’a minority populations, the question is that Islamist ideology, whether it’s of the Sunni version, Muslim Brotherhood through to Isis, the Shi’a version represented by the Islamic State of Iran – the question is, how do you defeat that and end up with a region in which people are educated to be open minded, connected with the world and where their economies can function on the basis of rules and not corruption or cronyism.
SR: Now just before we end the interview there was one question that I was quite keen to ask you while I’ve got you with us. In your memoir you wrote, I’ve always been more interested in religion that politics – that is quite an astonishing thing for a former Prime Minister to say, what did you mean by that?
TONY BLAIR: Well I wasn’t expecting that question!
SR: It’s something that I’ve been wanting to ask you.
TONY BLAIR: I think the place of faith in societies is really important and I think the challenge – I am really interested in religion, I am interested in studying different religions and I’m interested in whether it is possible to reconcile faith with the modern world. Now I think it is but not on the basis of a religion that is doctrinal or exclusivist and I think if faith departs from society, if we say look, that is just part of the old fashioned way of looking at the world, I think it would be, if you lose the concept of faith from society it is tragic but I don't think you can … I think religion has no future unless it understands that it has got to be rooted in the modern world and the risk is faith operates in two different ways in the world today. One is as a source of compassion and a stimulus for progress and humanity and the other is, this is my faith and if you are not like me then you’re my enemy. So these are the two challenges and I see this in the Middle East all the time of course so I am fascinated by religion. I am also interested in politics, by the way!
SR: Well we’ve got that. And do you think there is something in common with Facebook and Twitter … [inaudible] …
TONY BLAIR: Well I guess people who are of faith are all having a problem with each other … And by the way, one of the things that I think is really important about politics, and this is not necessarily to do with religion, you know you should be able to disagree with someone in politics without considering them either badly motivated, evil or people you want nothing to do with and so when I am in complete disagreement with Theresa May over Brexit, it doesn’t mean to say I think she is a bad person or badly motivated.
SR: Have you spoken to her since she became Prime Minister?
TONY BLAIR: I have spoken to her but not about Brexit. I would be perfectly happy to by the way but I think we’ve probably …
SR: What about then?
TONY BLAIR: About Brexit?
SR: No, what have you spoken to her about?
TONY BLAIR: I think that should remain between us but it wasn’t about Brexit.