Sophy Ridge on Sunday Interview with Tony Blair Former Prime Minister


SOPHY RIDGE: This week Jeremy Corbyn launched his party’s European election manifesto, calling on voters to move beyond the leave or remain labels but in an intervention this morning, the former Prime Minister Tony Blair hit out at what he describes as Labour’s destructive indecision on Brexit in a piece for the Observer. Mr Blair has also urged Labour supporters unhappy with the party’s position to back other remain party’s if they can’t vote for Labour because of their equivocation. Well Mr Blair joins us now in the studio, thank you very much for being on the programme this morning.

TONY BLAIR: Thank you Sophy.

SR: So it’s eleven days until the European elections, who will you be voting for?

TONY BLAIR: I’m going to vote Labour and I make the case in the article this morning as to why you can because in the end there are some great Labour candidates who are very staunchly pro-Remain, I think the basic soul of the party is with Remain but what I’m saying is, the important thing is to vote so I do come across a lot of Labour people who simply can’t vote for Labour at the moment in which case I say to them don’t stay at home, go and vote for one of the avowedly Remain parties because what will matter is that at the end of this election there’s going to be a totting up, there’s going to be a ledger and on one side of the ledger there will be Mr Farage and his fellow travellers like Boris Johnson in the Conservative party and on the other side there are going to be those that are anti-that position, anti-Farage, anti-Brexit and it’s important that it’s not so much the seats but the percentage of the votes, it’s important because MPs will then make their decision as to what they do in Parliament, it’s important that that anti-Brexit side of the ledger is stronger than the pro-Farage side of the ledger.

SR: I am just trying to work out how you can put Labour on the anti-Brexit side of the ledger when they have said that they will only support a second referendum to stop a Tory Brexit, when Jeremy Corbyn is in talks with Theresa May trying to get a deal through. Surely when people tot up the ledger they will put the Brexit party on one side and then they’ll put the Lib Dems, Change UK, the Green Party and the SNP on the other.

TONY BLAIR: Yes, well that’s a perfectly valid point but I think though it misses this point which is one of the reasons why if you listen to what Nigel Farage says, is very much saying that Labour is essentially a Remain party. It’s clear they are not Remain in an unequivocal sense but I think there is enough in the Labour case that allows you still to vote Labour and that’s why I can vote Labour in this election but the reason I’m saying what I’m saying today is that I understand there are a lot of people who will just say – and I’ve found this a lot talking to people – they’ll just say I’m sorry, Labour’s been hopeless on the question of Brexit, I’m not prepared to do that and what I say to them is well don’t stay at home because if you do then that pro-Farage hard or no-deal Brexit – and that’s what these guys are in, the people in the Conservative party like Boris Johnson are going for, that is a hard Brexit, or a no-deal Brexit, that is an extreme position that will do enormous damage to our country – if you care about stopping that, get on the other side of the ledger and I think Labour just gets there.

SR: This is almost as close as you can get to a former Labour Prime Minister to telling people to vote for other parties other than Labour isn’t it?

TONY BLAIR: Well look, it’s a one issue politics at the moment effectively and what we’ve got to understand is, if these people had their way with a hard Brexit or a no-deal Brexit, if people had their way, we are going to be doing nothing but Brexit for years to come. What we’ve got to realise is that Nigel Farage and the people associated with him, they are not the people to drain the swamp of British politics, they’re the people that created the swamp. They have literally created this issue of Brexit as if it was the answer to the country’s problems when it is literally the answer to nothing and we will be – we have been obsessed with Brexit for three years, we’re going to be obsessed with Brexit for years to come unless we come out and show equivocally that they do not speak for Britain. There are lots of people there who want us to get this Brexit thing resolved in a sensible way that allows us to stay within the European Union and get on with the real issues of the country – the health service, climate change, the economy, knife crime – all the issues that are presently absolutely relegated to the back burner because of Brexit.

SR: Some supporters of Nigel Farage would say actually the politicians who created the swamp are the establishment politicians of the last few decades such as yourself who have ignored people’s concerns on immigration, who have ignored people’s concerns on globalisation and that’s why we are in this situation now.

TONY BLAIR: That is exactly what they say, that’s why they have got to be taken head on because when you actually analyse what they’re saying, what does Brexit do for the National Health Service? The National Health Service’s future is decided in Britain, it’s not decided in Brussels. What does it say about our taxes? We can put our taxes up, down, do whatever we want with public spending, put it up, put it down – that is decided here in the UK, it’s not decided in the European Parliament. If you take the issues, for example any of the things that really concern people, the communities left behind, inequality, the decisions that will affect that are taken here. The whole of the Brexit case is based on a myth that we’re not in control of our own country and what Nigel Farage and his people want to do is to use this Brexit issue because they have their own agenda around the country, they want to use it to split the country over Brexit when it’s literally the answer to nothing. So yes, I agree of course what they want to do is to say there is an elite of people who are stopping you getting your way, but get our way to what? What is it that they believe that Brexit will offer us that allows us to take this country forward and if they get their way – because they’re in a no-deal position and let’s be clear, what do they say about no-deal? No-deal, no problem says Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. Just analyse that for a moment – we are going to change overnight with no-deal the trading terms for hundreds of billions of pounds worth of trade in the UK and there is going to be no problem? Not some problem that we can overcome but no problem? That is such an extreme position that it’s necessary now for people who are against that to rally together so yes I agree it is a very odd situation to be in when you’re fighting a European election campaign without really an effective leader and without one party to vote for, I agree it’s a very odd situation but it still matters.

SR: You described the Labour party position on Brexit as destructive indecision, what do you mean by that?

TONY BLAIR: Look I mean by that, why are the two main parties imploding over Brexit and are in a situation where both of them are losing support? Because there has been one fundamental strategic fallacy at the heart of both main party’s position on Brexit and that is to believe that there’s a compromised form of Brexit that will satisfy and bring together both sides of the country and I’m afraid it’s a fallacy because the soft Brexit that Theresa May has tried to articulate and in a sense the Labour party’s official position has been up to now, it won’t work and it won’t work for a very simple reason. Because actually the whole case of the Brexiteers is based on a myth, which is we don’t control our own laws, they have to target the laws of the single market because it’s true we’ve agreed collectively to agree those with the rest of Europe and therefore what happens is, if you end up with a Brexit compromise which is a soft Brexit, which is very well intentioned in its thinking but you end up in a situation where effectively you stay in the trading system of the European Union, abide by its rules but have lost your seat at the table. That soft Brexit is never going to command anything other than a tiny support because the people who want Brexit are gong to say it’s a betrayal and the people like myself who want to stay will say it’s completely pointless.

SR: Well let’s have a look at what people do want, we can have a look at the latest poll shall we of the European elections and you can see here, I mean the Brexit Party is absolutely topping the poll there, they have got more support than the Lib Dems, the Green Party and Change UK combined. I mean do you look at this and think, actually you’ve got it wrong, most people don’t want a second referendum?

TONY BLAIR: You know, if you look at the 34%, that is – and it could get higher than that – but I don’t believe the majority of people believe that Nigel Farage speaks for the country, I really don’t think that.

SR: But the question is, do the majority of people want a second referendum? If you look at these polls you have to say they don’t.

TONY BLAIR: What you have to say is the country is deeply divided. So here’s … sometimes when I say look, another referendum could be a healing process other people say, well how could that possibly be? You have to understand that the only Brexit that makes sense in the end is a Brexit that appeals to Brexiteers. Let’s agree there is absolutely no point in doing a Brexit that the people who have advocated Brexit say is a betrayal.

SR: But some people would say a Brexit at least is respecting the democracy of the referendum and also potentially of the European elections as well, two clear votes we’ve had on Europe.

TONY BLAIR: No, because what you’ve just pointed out that the party which is way ahead on Brexit is the Farage party, that’s a hard or no-deal Brexit. So there’s no point in thinking that you are going to have people saying, well you have respected the 2016 referendum if you do a Brexit that the very people who advocate Brexit say isn’t properly Brexit. This is why is say to you in the end a soft Brexit for reasons – and I completely understand why people are putting it forward, it looks like a smart sort of compromise but in the end it falls apart because it pleases no one. That’s why both main parties are in the difficulty they’re in. In my view, if Labour had taken a strong position right from the very beginning which is to say we accept the referendum result but we reserve the right once we see the outcome of the negotiations, we reserve the right to put it back to the people, it would have been in a hugely stronger position today because it would be hoovering up all those votes that are presently for the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, Change UK and you haven’t added in the SNP but I think that’s about 4%, which actually adds up to pretty much 30%. So the point is very, very simple, in the end what should happen, and this is what Theresa May should have been doing months ago but she could still do it even now, the government has got to grip this process in Parliament, it has got to set out the true options which are hard, soft or no-deal Brexit. It’s got to set them out, it’s got to make Parliament come to a decision and then Parliament will have to decide. Once it decides on what form of Brexit does it attach a confirmatory referendum to it and I think the moment you force people to decide whether you want hard, soft or no-deal Brexit, they will realise in Parliament the sensible thing is to share responsibility for that huge decision with the British people and in the course of that, by the way, then I think you can get a healing process because in the end you can properly explore the arguments in a much more informed way than we were able to do back in June 2016.

SR: Okay, I just want to have a look at something you said recently about the possibly of a second independence referendum in Scotland. You said: “I don't think we should have one unless there really is a big groundswell of opinion for it and I don’t see that. The last thing we need at the moment is another huge dose of constitutional uncertainty.” How can you think that about the Scottish referendum and yet be in favour of a second referendum when there doesn’t seem to be that decisive groundswell of support for it?

TONY BLAIR: Well I don't know that there isn’t a … there is a huge amount of support for a second referendum, whether it’s a majority or not, it’s absolutely clear that there is strong support for it.

SR: It’s important if there is a majority isn’t it?

TONY BLAIR: But how can you tell, you can’t tell ultimately if there’s a majority unless you put it to the people but I think the two things are completely different. Just imagine this scenario, supposing we now go down the … let’s be clear, I’m afraid Theresa May is not going to be the Conservative party leader for much longer and if there was a Conservative leadership election now you are going to get a competition in front of a small number of people as to which candidate can be more pro-Brexit than the other candidate.

SR: How long do you give Theresa May then?

TONY BLAIR: I don't know, I think if she set out the right set of options in the way I’ve described I think she can stay to the end of the process. I think if she refuses to do that, look, I’m not in charge of the Tory party but it is going to be very difficult for her but the point is this, that in the end when you look at the situation, you are going to have this fundamental division in the country. It’s not the same as the Scottish Independence referendum because right now we’re deciding whether to do Brexit or not and the truth is, if we end up doing a hard or no-deal Brexit – and I don’t believe you can really justify that by reference to the June 2016 referendum, particularly a no-deal Brexit – believe me, you’re going to get a revolution in British politics the other way. People talk about how you have to avoid those who feel strongly pro-Brexit, you have to avoid them rioting on the streets and these outbursts of populism – okay, I understand that and that’s why you have got to handle this issue, I agree, very, very carefully – but let me just tell you this, if we go ahead and tumble out of the European Union with a no-deal Brexit of the kind that Farage and Boris Johnson and these people want, you are going to get a silent revolution in this country as well. There are going to be people who are going to feel so strongly about this – and I just say this to both main political parties, they are going to sweep them away.

SR: It is interesting hearing you talk about this silent revolution, about the groundswell of huge feeling on both sides of the argument. It feels like to me when you go round and talk to people in different parts of the country, it’s the trust in politics and the frustration that is so intense. I mean are you actually concerned about when the dust has settled on what we do on Brexit, what are the long-term consequences going to be on the trust in politics and also potentially democracy as well?

TONY BLAIR: Well we have divided our country in a very deep way and I don't think you can reconcile the country over Brexit per se. I think what you could do is get to a situation where, as I hope we still escape Brexit, you have to deal with those issues around immigration, around communities and people who feel they are casualties of globalisation and not beneficiaries of it, you have to deal with those issues. That’s why I am not in the position of saying look, the concerns that underlay Brexit are irrelevant concerns or they don’t matter, I am still absolutely in the position of saying no, it’s …

SR: Did you make some mistakes then? Because you are talking there about the people who are casualties of globalisation, really when you were Prime Minister you were the great advocate of globalisation weren’t you, of multiculturalism?

TONY BLAIR: Yes and I still am a big advocate of globalisation but you have to make sure that those people who do not feel that they have got the same opportunities as those happy with the process of globalisation are looked after, what it’s …

SR: And did you do that enough?

TONY BLAIR: We put the biggest and largest investment into public services this country had seen since the Second World War. We introduced for the first time a minimum wage in the country, we made massive investments in the inner city and by the way …

SR: When you search your soul, did you do enough to try and address people’s concerns on these issues?

TONY BLAIR: Well, you know, the easy thing for me to say is no, I think we should have done more and so on but frankly when I left office in 2007, this country in terms of its public realm and in terms of the investment and change we were putting into communities, it was huge. Now had I still been in office – and people often say about immigration, yes, but you let the European migrants come in in 2004 when these countries joined the European Union – okay, we could have a debate about that but when people say for example, you weren’t concerned with immigration, that’s just rewriting history. We had legislation on reducing the numbers of asylum seekers, I actually left office with a whole process in place around Identity Cards necessary to keep a strong check on people who came into the country who shouldn’t have come into the country which were never done …

SR: So why is it that Nigel Farage is the politician who has managed to tap into people’s concerns on globalisation, on the mistrust in the establishment, why is it him who has managed to address those concerns and not politicians from the centre ground such as yourself?

TONY BLAIR: Well that’s a really good question and the answer is, because we stopped addressing those questions and all the way through, if you want to win from the centre ground you’ve got to address the underlying anxieties that people have and that’s why I say to you, if we end up – because Brexit is the answer to none of the problems in constituencies like mine the north of England – if you end up changing Brexit, you’ve got to combine that with measures that deal with their underlying concerns. And by the way, there is a much better chance of dealing with those concerns in Europe as a whole today because if you take something like freedom of movement for people, there is a huge concern across the whole of Europe today, it’s not just a British problem, on immigration it is clear it is upending European politics. The reason why we are in this position is the centre ground stopped dealing with the concerns that the people had and if you don’t deal with those concerns, they then are prey to the type of populist rhetoric that people like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson pursue, when actually the politics that people that Nigel Farage represent offer nothing to these people. If you are in the north of England and are worried about your community being left behind, what’s Brexit going to do for you? It’s just going to make your problems worse.

SR: It sounds like a very convincing argument for the centre ground and the strength of the centre ground but I just wonder if you analysis is ten years out of date. I mean has politics changed, it’s identity politics now isn’t it?

TONY BLAIR: The thing about politics is that it doesn’t stay in one place and you’ve got to give people leadership. Look, identity politics, of course your sense of identity matters but the fact is, what is driving globalisation – just to turn to that for a moment – what’s driving globalisation is the real world, it’s not governments that are driving it. It’s technology, it’s travel, it’s mass migration which is happening all over the world. The question is not how you stop globalisation because it’s not possible to stop it, it’s how you make sense of it and make it work for people and let’s be clear, if for example the world embarks on a new system of protectionism, it becomes anti-free trade, supposing we withdraw from the single market – that’s not going to help.

SR; If you look at the world, putting aside whether it’s right or wrong, that is happening. We are getting nationalist, populist, strong men leaders across the world. Do you think that Donald Trump understands the 21st century better than you do?

TONY BLAIR: No, what I think he understands is there is a big opportunity in exploiting that division and what I understand is, unless you deal with the underlying causes of division you won’t defeat that populism but you can defeat it. And by the way, you’re right, the Democrats in the US face exactly the same choices as the Labour party here. If you go off to the left and you stop talking to people in the centre then most people in the centre can then gravitate towards the right because as I always say to people, if you end up with a populist left fighting a populist right, the populist right will win.

SR: Change UK tried a broader politics from the centre and they’ve had some teething problems to say the least, their polling is poor, they are [inaudible] standing a candidate in Peterborough, are you talking to Change UK?

TONY BLAIR: I’ve talked to the people who are in Change UK a lot, yes, and a lot of what they say I sympathise with but leave aside whether they have got support or they don’t have support, you have also got to look at the position of the Labour party today. We just had local elections, any opposition party can win local elections. In the 30, 40 years I’ve been in politics, no matter how difficult the position of an opposition party is, when you go into local elections you can be pretty sure of winning those. We didn’t even win them, so Labour has got an awful lot of thinking to do about where it places itself, whether it is has got an agenda that actually meets the challenges of the future.

SR: And does it?

TONY BLAIR: No, I think at the moment it doesn’t. I mean the single biggest challenge that we are going to face as a country, the world is facing at the moment, is the technological revolution. It is literally the 21st century equivalent of the 19th century industrial revolution and how we deal with that, how we access its opportunities, mitigate its problems and its displacement of jobs and so on, that is the central question of politics. When I am talking about that in the UK today, this is what is so frustrating and depressing about Brexit, it is not just the destructive impact, it’s the distractive impact. It’s the fact that when these huge challenges are coming down the line you’ve got the entire political energy sucked into Brexit.

SR: Okay, Tony Blair, we’re out of time, thank you very much for being on the programme today.