This is the keynote address by Tony Blair during our conference, entitled “Beyond Left and Right: Reviving Moderation in an Era of Crisis and Extremism,” held on February 25, 2019 in Washington, D.C.
Introduction of Former Prime Minister Tony Blair by Jerry Taylor
It seems to me that in the last panel we talked a lot about the theory of moderation. Now it’s time to talk about the practice of moderation. Our keynote speaker this afternoon has more than a bit of experience wrestling with the issues that we’ve been discussing here at this conference. Tony Blair entered Parliament in 1983 and found himself in a party in the iron grip of ideologues and extremists. He undertook the seemingly impossible task of transforming that party, but transform it he did, and he was elected its leader in July 1994. Under his leadership, the party was rebranded as “New Labour” in order to move it toward the political center and to emphasize its differences from the party’s historical commitment to socialism.
In May 1997, the Labour Party won its largest general election victory ever, beating a dogmatic Conservative Party running on the spent fumes of Thatcherism. Mr. Blair became the youngest Prime Minister since Lord Liverpool in 1812. Prime Minister Blair saw his approval rating soar as high as 93 percent, and the Labour Party won two more general elections under his leadership — so he knows something about moderate governance and moderate politics. He is credited with having overseen a period of strong economic growth, improved outcomes in public services (particularly health and education), integration with Europe, and peace in Northern Ireland. However, his popularity fell in the wake of his support for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which he later described as “the hardest, most momentous, most agonizing decision I took in my ten years as British prime minister.”
Following his resignation as Prime Minister in 2007, Mr. Blair served as the official Special Envoy of the Quartet on the Middle East until 2015. The following year, he launched the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, with a mission of strengthening the political center and helping to make globalization work for the many, and not for the few. Niskanen has had the privilege of working with the Tony Blair Institute here in DC, and I can tell you that they are a tremendous organization and a wonderful partner in our joint fight to protect, defend, and make the case for the open society.
So how does one revive moderation in an age of extremes? What lessons might we learn from “Third Way” moderation of the 1990s and 2000s? And what might moderation look like today under new and challenging circumstances? I can think of no one better to address these questions than our keynote speaker. It is my great honor, therefore, to introduce to you the former Prime Minister of the U.K., the Right Honorable Tony Blair. [applause]
Keynote Address from Former Prime Minister Tony Blair
Thank you. Thank you very much indeed. The 93 percent didn’t last, by the way. [laughter] I will say that the journey of being Prime Minister is that you start at your least capable and most popular, and you end at your most capable and least popular. [laughter] So it’s a delight to be here at the Niskanen Center. Thanks very much, Jerry.
And first of all, let me congratulate you and the Center on your bravery. You’re celebrating “moderate” politics? I mean, wow! Moderation — that’s so brilliantly uncool. It reminds me of talking to my teenage son about the days before mobile phones (“Dad – did people really live like that?”) or the virtues of flared trousers, Long Playing records, polite conversation — all those things of the past. [laughter] Back home, certainly in my politics today, the term “centrist” is now used as an insult and the word “moderate” indicative of some form of political malfunction.
But a word of definition before we go any further: “moderation” for me has never meant mild, or lacking in passion; but rational, respectful of due process, willing to listen. And “centrism” has never been splitting the difference between left and right; but rather forward-looking, ideas and ideals before ideology.
But even so defined, there is no doubt: “moderation” is out of fashion. Is this a ridiculous state of affairs? Yes. But everywhere in Europe traditional parties of center-left or center-right are under siege. In Germany, the combined total of poll ratings for the CDU and the SDP are lower than at any time since their modern creation. Italy — pretty much the same. In France, the right and left traditional parties, winners of the 2007 and 2012 elections, today have combined support of just under 20 percent. The far right and the far left have almost 50 percent, with President Macron around 30 percent. Support for populist parties in Europe has risen from roughly eight percent at the turn of the century to over 30 percent today. In Hungary and Poland, right-wing populists are in government, openly advocating what they call “illiberal democracy.” And in the USA, well, you know the position here.
The context for all of this I think is clear. There is a deep sense of grievance amongst a significant part of the population. They see a world that is changing fast and apparently beyond their control. The financial crisis and the fight against terrorism post-9/11 eroded confidence in conventional policymakers. And social media provides an extraordinary new platform for political campaigning of the most visceral nature, where conspiracies abound and opponents quickly become enemies.
Parties are being taken over and changed. Those running for office become squeezed between appeasing the activists and appealing to the public. Traditional fixed points of political reference are in flux. Ordinary career politicians stagger between confusion and courage. And in the name of ridding politics of “liars and frauds,” the most proficient of each flourish.
So, what to do?
First, the populists exploit grievances, but they don’t invent them; the grievances are real. So, whether you’re Republican or Democrat, Conservative or Labour, if you want to defeat the populism of the other side — or indeed of your own side — you have to face political reality. For example, immigration without adequate controls causes anxiety, and for understandable reasons. European politics for sure won’t recover unless the issue is dealt with — sensibly and consistent with our values, but nonetheless dealt with. There are communities and people who are casualties of globalization and who feel neglected and left behind. Their concerns are heartfelt and they need redress. The tax system is outdated, often unfair in its distributional impact, and it needs fixing. Disparities in wealth and privilege do provoke a sense of injustice. And climate change is now plain to all but the ideologically blinkered.
So, you can’t attack populism without confronting the genuine issues that drive it, in my view. The questions the populists raise are often right. The trouble is, they’re more interested in finding scapegoats than solutions.
Second, the challenge is then to provide the solutions and enlarge the policy debate. Let me say what I mean by that. The modus operandi of the populist is to take an issue and make a completely outsize policy proposal around it — something which sounds transformative and off-the-scale. It doesn’t actually matter if the policy is unworkable; in fact, it’s an advantage for them. Because it’s so far out, it sucks the air out of the rest of the political space. “Moderate” politics, by contrast, looks boring and over-complicated.
So “moderate” politics must also do “radical.” This is an era where people want change. They want big solutions not timid ones, not increments but quantum leaps forward. We need to show how we will rekindle the generational promise that the next generation can expect to do better than the present. The rupture of that promise has created a politics of pessimism, and populism thrives in an atmosphere of pessimism.
Central to this renewal is an understanding of the future and how it can be governed. For example, we are at the beginning of a technological revolution as far-reaching in its effects as the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution. This is the big challenge facing governments, the economy, and society over the coming two decades. The revolution offers enormous opportunities but also means displacement of jobs, changes in working and living, and has a series of profound impacts on the privacy of the citizen. Now, populism has no desire to grapple with the complexity of this challenge. Actually, they’re more likely to make technology a target. But we from the center should master this issue, champion it, put it where it belongs at the center of the political debate, and make it work for people.
Yet presently, even within conventional politics (certainly our way), the implications of this revolution are poorly understood, and there is gulf of misunderstanding between change-makers and policy-makers, and we have to bridge it. And then, across a swath of policy from housing to climate to tax reform, we have to adopt policy approaches which establish the broadest possible basis of consensus but in a way which matches the weight of the problem.
Third, populists are often indifferent if not scornful of democratic institutions. This is one we have to take head-on, obliged to argue the case for democracy from first principles. We can’t take anything for granted. It all needs explaining again: the rule of law, independent media, free enterprise, social safety nets and social solidarity, even democracy as a superior political system. Why it all matters. Why it is the best way to live and be governed. How all the different component elements fit. And why those politicians tampering with these democratic institutions undermine not some abstruse political theory but our prosperity and our safety.
Fourth, we must recognize Western politics is fragmenting. Our media is reflecting the fragmentation and itself becoming partisan. Two tribes are being formed to the left and to the right. At points they coincide, and for sure feed off each other. The aim is not to engage the other side in dialogue but in battle. But they didn’t come out of nowhere. They built their support in the terrain of our complacency.
However, the sociology of politics is also changing, disrupting the rhythm of the dominant party machines. New coalitions of voters are arising whose origins are both cultural and economic. So you have traditional left voters voting right on immigration and against so-called political correctness. And you have traditional right voters prepared to vote left against globalisation and big business.
As the main parties shift and accommodate these developments, another group is emerging. This group supports market-based economics but with strong social provision, is open-minded and socially liberal, sees patriotism as consistent with international engagement, wants evidence-based policy-making, and embraces moderation as a core value. This group has representation in both the main parties but is on the defensive. Some parts of it are focused on how they take their parties back. Others, particularly in the less structured party systems of Europe, are seeking new alliances in new parties. And if you look at Europe today, these new parties are springing up literally all over the European political system.
But both share values and perspectives in common. They — we — need to be mobilised. Moderate can’t mean passive. It doesn’t need to mean aggressive, but it should stand tall. It can’t be perpetually apologetic. The policies of the past decades have had their failures. But take a step back and analyze the world objectively, and our way of life has brought increases in success in ways our forebears would find unimaginable. The proof? Well, it’s a great test of a country: are most people trying to get into it or out of it? And most Western countries are more troubled by immigration than emigration. The populists of right and left are organized and vocal. And one of the first lessons you learn in politics is that good ideas need good organization. We don’t presently have it, and we need it.
Fifth, despite all of this, we should have confidence. The populism will eventually decline. One of the things you learn when you come into government is how much easier it was to be in opposition. And in the end, the populists will disillusion and they’ll fade. The risk is in the consequences of their actions before this happens.
Now, this is a short introductory speech and I don’t want to go too much into the details. But there are instructive lessons in all of this from contemporary Britain, where with Brexit we are in the throes of an unparalleled political crisis. How did it come about? The grievances mounted and lay inadequately addressed. The referendum provided the opportunity to protest. Populists who had long campaigned for their cause of leaving Europe combined their cause with those grievances. Their victory then polarized politics around national identity in a bitter divide.
The Conservative Party membership is now morphing into something nationalistic and ideologically anti-Europe. The Labour Party membership is in thrall to a populism of the left. Our running sore of the past two years has been the row over anti-Semitism, with Jewish Labour MPs coming under sustained attack — a truly mind-boggling circumstance for a supposedly progressive political party to find itself in. But both manifestations of this populism exult in savage denunciation of those who disagree, especially within their own ranks. Meanwhile, the true issues facing the country are largely ignored.
Now, this is where, if you’re not careful, politics becomes a kind of bizarre international competition to see whose politics are in a worse state. Believe me right now, we’re way ahead. I’m sorry… [laughter] I know you may not think that here, but we really are. We’re excelling at it. The point is, however, the fight’s not lost. So if you look at our situation, the fightback is underway within the two main parties and outside of them, where last week several members of Parliament defected to form a new political grouping. And elsewhere in Europe, there are the first signs of a waning of the populist surge. I’m not saying it’s over; it’s not over by any means. But I still believe there is a majority for a politics which guides our nations to the future in ways which will broaden our prosperity, protect our security, and preserve, enhance, and spread our values.
But we should acknowledge, as indeed this conference does, these are new times. We need, despite our moderation, to embrace the spirit of insurgency.We need new ideas and thinking on policy. And above all, we need to wake up, gird up, stand up, and summon up the strength and intelligence to prevail. The complacency has to end. This is a battle now. It’s going to be tough to fight it, but it’s absolutely necessary to fight it. And the sooner we find the ideas and the organization to do it, the better for your country, for my country, for the Western way of life. Thank you. [applause]
A Conversation Between Jerry Taylor and Tony Blair
Jerry Taylor: Mr. Prime Minister, it seemed in 1997 that with your election and with the earlier election of Bill Clinton, that the Third Way politics that you’re so identified with had found the formula for success for the ages: a modernized center-right political/economic agenda along with a moderate center-left social agenda. It looked like “the end of history” in a lot of different ways. You and President Clinton were dominant political forces of your time, scrambling the right. And now in the present, your party is under the grips of a radical socialist in Jeremy Corbyn — and, until recently anyway, was institutionally agnostic about Brexit, if not cheering it on. Whereas in the United States, Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, who was not even a member of the Democratic Party, is now a dominant player. And in 2016, he nearly beat Bill Clinton’s wife for the nomination of the party. So, looking back, how did it all fall apart? [laughter] There were a lot of successes, but the successes seemed to be less stable than they certainly appeared at the time. What went wrong?
Tony Blair: I think what has changed… Did I switch the mic on? Do I have to give the whole speech again now? [laughter] You heard the speech, right?.
Jerry Taylor: The Russians, I’m sure, have it. [laughter]
Tony Blair: What went wrong? See, the curious thing is … I mean, obviously you can say the financial crisis, post-9/11 policy, and all of that. But I often say to people in Britain… When they say, “Well, how come now this centrist politics is being rejected?” I say it’s actually not on offer. I mean, David Cameron, by the way. This is the extraordinary thing: David Cameron fought in an election in 2015 in a centrist position from the Conservative Party and won an outright majority. Then the referendum, of course, has changed British politics completely. I mean, we won three general election victories from the center-left position, and I believe if we carried on offering that position, we would have probably carried on… Obviously all governments get put out of power at a certain place, but at least we’d be much more competitive than we are today. So, I think what has happened is there are objective factors — economic stagnation for a part of the population, a real feeling that the world is changing beyond people’s control — and I think you’ve got to address those. The policies that I would have today would be very different from the policies back in 1997, or even 2007. But the approach is still, in my view, basically the correct approach.
Jerry Taylor: Before we move to the policies that we might want to consider for the present, I’m wondering if there are any policies from the past that were part of the bundle of Third Way politics that you regret now? You mentioned that populists manifest grievances, that these are often legitimately held grievances and need to be addressed. Were there any instances during your term of leadership where you would have changed policies in retrospect, or where you have regrets for not having addressed some of the emergence of these grievances that now rampage across the political landscape?
Tony Blair: No, it was all perfect. [laughter] Of course. But I think that in domestic policy… I mean, obviously foreign policy post-9/11 and so on, that’s a whole dimension of political debate, but it’s not really what the issue is now in Britain. The difference between the two main parties is that there’s really a kind of nationalistic right wing that thinks the answer to Britain’s problems is Brexit, when Brexit is literally the answer to nothing. But it has become the vehicle in which people express their dissatisfaction across a range of issues. So, if I was back in government today, I would have to deal with those issues coming at us from the right, in particular the immigration question. Now, I did face that. I fought my last election, actually, on immigration. The Conservative Party raised it then. And I had a set of policies to deal with how you controlled immigration while still arguing that immigration, properly controlled, was good for the country. And I just think it’s all about how you…
Tony Blair: Look, in politics, you play defense and offense. At a certain level, you’ve got to block off your opponent’s charge against you by making sure that you take account of the concerns that people have — for example on the issue of immigration — and then you’re able to move on to the areas where you may be able to play attack. So if I was, as I say, back in politics today, I would be dealing with immigration, I would be dealing with those communities that feel left behind. But then I would be developing a policy agenda that really had this technological revolution at the heart of it and across all of the policy debates saying, “How do we get policy solutions that are radical but sensible?”
Tony Blair: And you can see this… It’s like if you debate climate change today. I mean, it’s obvious that we need some radical solutions, but they’ve got to be sensible. And what you find is that parts of the right will just ignore the issue, and parts of the left want solutions that aren’t frankly realistic. So what this requires is… I always say about centrism that to win, it’s got to be muscular. It’s got to be strong enough to go out with a clear policy agenda, block off the points of attack, and then move on to the points where you’re strong and your opponents are weak. And part of it has got to be switching the conversation. If the debate in Britain is all about immigration, these guys will win. It has got to be broadened out from that. You’ve got to deal with the issue, but then broaden the debate out.
Jerry Taylor: Let’s talk about that for a minute. I think that while there is a great deal of talk about what went wrong during the Third Way politics of the 1990s and 2000s, it’s often forgotten what went right, at least as far as the politics are concerned. I mean, when you were elected in 1997, I believe the Labour Party set a record with 418 seats. You were able to politically succeed with an embrace of moderation, which in this country (as I’m sure elsewhere) is often hand-waved off as a kind of phlegmatic, unprincipled, milquetoast approach to offend the fewest people possible. But you were able to marshal it not only in an intellectually compelling way but also in a politically powerful way. So where have moderates gone wrong, before and after? What was the secret that you understood about selling a muscular, vigorous, moderation that is so often elusive to politicians who likewise try that game?
Tony Blair: I think we’re in danger of becoming guardians of the status quo and not change-makers, and this is in era in which people want change. So, look… My government was the first Labour government to win three consecutive full terms — the first Labour government to win two consecutive full terms! In fact, we governed for twice as long as the previous Labour government. I remember realizing what our problem the day after I was elected leader of the Labour Party in 1994. I went to a big meeting of all the party activists, and someone got up — you know, we’d been out of power for eighteen years — and said to me, “Look, Tony. The British people have now voted against us four times in a row. What on earth is wrong with them?” [laughter] And that was when I realized, this is going to be a big challenge.
Tony Blair: But the thing is, what I would say… How did we manage to make change? Let give you two very specific examples, because I think this is where moderation as a concept is important. So, for a hundred years, Labour had been campaigning for a minimum wage, and for a hundred years we hadn’t succeeded. The Conservatives were hugely opposed to the minimum wage, and in the 1992 election that was a big part of their platform against us: “It’s going to wreck business, it’s going to make us uncompetitive, blah blah blah.” Okay. We had the policy commitment to introduce a minimum wage, but I wanted to introduce it in a way that made business feel comfortable with it. So we set up a pay commission, and we put businesses as well as trade unions on it. And out of that evolved a proposal for the minimum wage: the way it was to be introduced, the way it was to be done. And today in British politics, no one would stand for election saying, “We’re going to get rid of the minimum wage.”
Tony Blair: Or another example, around gay rights… Back in the ‘80s, the Conservatives used to fight and win elections in opposition to all this stuff. And we constructed a dialogue where we just dealt with the arguments of it. And we did so in a way where people who found it difficult, we didn’t regard them as people who needed a finger jabbed in their chest: “Why aren’t you more liberal-minded?” We tried to bring people with us. So really what I’m saying, Jerry, is that I don’t think that basic way of approaching things has failed. I just think it’s not on offer at the moment. What definitely would change, of course, is the context in which you are applying it. Because today, you’ve got these major challenges and you have to deal with them probably by much more radical policy prescriptions than you would have back then.
Tony Blair: Back then in respect of climate change, for example, you might have had some quite moderate prescriptions. Today, I think — and I know this is the debate here in the U.S. — you might be able to get support for a carbon tax kind of approach, while a few years back, people would have said, “Oh my God, no. This is going to wreck the economy.” So I think it’s all about the context. But it’s that approach of trying to bring people with you. If I was a Democrat in the U.S. at the moment, the first question I’d ask is, “Why did they vote for Trump?” and try to get my head around that. I don’t mean the people who stand up at rallies and shout daft things and all of that, I mean people who should have been prepared to come with the Democrats but didn’t.
Jerry Taylor: Let me ask you about that. In this country, there’s a lot of debate about whether the Trump vote came from economic anguish in rural America — trade disruption or technological change, which has been misunderstood as a manifestation of trade disruption — or whether they were racially motivated voters, whether racial resentment explains a lot of this. And for those who have made the economic argument for the Trump vote, they usually run aground when we look at populist insurgencies in Europe where economic dislocation did not play out but the populist insurgency did — largely around resentment with regard to immigration and Islam and social/cultural issues that are cousins of the racial resentment arguments that played out here in 2016. So, if you’re asking the question, “Where did this vote come from? And then how do we talk to those voters?” Were you a moderate politician today, given these tensions, how would you think about it?
Tony Blair: Well, one thing I’ve discovered in America in the last couple of years is that it’s quite hard to have a rational discussion about President Trump, so I won’t attempt it. [laughter] But the same phenomenon is all over Europe. You see, there are people who are worried about immigration who are prejudiced — but not all people worried about immigration are prejudiced, right? So, in my view you will have… It’s like I say to people about Brexit: If you want to deal with Brexit, you’ve got to deal with the underlying issues. Now, for 35 or 40 percent of the population, they’re going to be in favor of Brexit whatever happens, for whatever reason. I don’t fully appreciate all elements of it, but that’s their thing. But the question is, How did they get the next twelve percent? And there you’ve got to deal with the underlying questions.
Tony Blair: So if you’re in Europe at the moment… And this is where I think the debate has shifted enormously in Europe, and why actually there is a huge opportunity, if there was a strong centrist set of policymakers in Britain today, to say, “Britain will think again and Europe should think again.” Because actually the issues that underlay Brexit in Britain are European-wide issues; they’re not just restricted to the Brits. And we had the referendum, but you could have had this anywhere in Europe and had a similar type of result. So if you’re talking about Italian politics at the moment without dealing with the immigration question, forget it — you’re not going to get a hearing. So this is where I think you’ve got to go to, and it’s our task to provide reasonable solutions to these things.
Tony Blair: Again, if you’ve got immigration coming from majority Muslim countries, there is an anxiety in parts of our community back home as to whether people who come in share our values, and are there security issues that come with that? You’ve got to confront those honestly. It doesn’t mean you say, “There’s a big problem with the Muslim community.” It means you do have to say, “There is a real issue of anxiety and we’ve got to make sure we deal with it, and deal with it in a way that actually protects the cultural integration of the country and does not end up in a situation where people feel that they’re threatened, either within the Muslim community or from outside it.” You see what I mean? It’s an attitude of mind, and that’s what’s lacking at the moment, I think. There’s the absence of creativity around how we do our politics, of the sort which allows us to deal with issues in a sensible and evidence-based way and seeks to build bridges between people who disagree with each other.
Jerry Taylor: I have one more question, and then I’ll open it up to the audience. When you talk about evidence-based public policy, that reminds me that it’s important for us to be able to deal at the granular level with regard to a policy agenda that is compelling and addresses the concerns of voters in a courageous fashion. But for moderates at a more elevated level, the concern is that for those who are identified with the Third Way politics of the 1990s and 2000s — or their heirs today, even though their set of answers and policies would be far different because contingencies are different — there is a conflation between moderation and globalism, which is on its heels right now even though we might not call it globalism. I’d call it “moderation in an open society,” which is likewise on its heels right now for many of the same reasons. And the same with technocracy, the technocratic elites, whom populists feel have let the country down and erred and made mistakes — not only in the financial crisis and the Iraq War, but in various other circumstances in the United States going all the way back to the Vietnam War.
Jerry Taylor: And so when you talk about moderation and evidence-based policy, for a lot of voters in the United States (and I think probably elsewhere), what they’re hearing is “Davos technocratic elites and globalism.” And that’s about the hardest brand to sell in American politics — or probably Western politics — today. On the other hand, Emmanuel Macron won with a forthright defense of all of these matters, so maybe he knows some way of selling that agenda that has escaped us. But I’m curious… Do you think that the identification of moderation with globalism and technocratic elitism is fair? And how would you suggest wrestling with that? Because if I had to choose things to go campaign on, this would not be in my top five choices right now.
Tony Blair: You see, this is where we’ve got to be much stronger in defense of what we’re doing. The whole point about globalization is that it’s a fact — not a policy of government — that’s driven by people and technology and migration and travel. The world is going to open up. And has it been a benefit to the world? Of course. Why has China lifted more people out of poverty than any other country in human history? Because it opened up. If it hadn’t opened up, it wouldn’t be where it is today. Likewise, what was the beginning of India getting on its feet economically? The reforms made in the early ‘90s, which opened the economy up. How are these two countries going to get to the next level of development? By opening up and reforming still further.
Tony Blair: So it’s not globalization that’s the problem, it’s making it work (as we say in the title of our Institute) for the many, not the few. In a fast-changing world, how do you empower people, protect them, help them to make sense of that change? That’s why I think this technological revolution is so important. It doesn’t really form part of the political debate, at least in my country. The one person who isusing it, by the way, in political debate is Macron. And the fact is that it’s going to change everything. It’s going to change healthcare and education and the way we work. It can change law and order. I had a policy presentation given to me on defense from people from the U.S. a few weeks back which was all about technology. This is going to change the world. So how do we make sense of it? We’ve got to go out there and explain to people… Of course we’re going to deal with these other issues, but we have to explain to people, “Here is something as powerful as the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution that’s going to happen to us.”
Tony Blair: Some ofthese guys think that hammering business is the answer, and the other guys think that hammering immigrants is the answer. That’s not the answer to either of these two things. Yes, there are problems with the way business operates — deal with them. Yes, there are problems with immigration — deal with them. But then focus on what is going to be the big challenge of the future. And you always win in politics when you’re able to give people a sense of how you can make the future work for them. That’s also essential to recreating optimism. I always say this to people who want to be political leaders: You’ve got to be optimistic. If you get on an airplane, the last thing you want to see is a depressed pilot, to look at the pilot and think, “I wonder if that guy has something to live for.” [laughter] If you want to get people in that optimistic frame of mind, you’ve got to go out and explain the world to them, to say how it’s changing, and that you can deal with their issues. But you can deal with them without then slipping into a situation where you disrespect their anxieties, which is part of what the left does around things like immigration. People are anxious about it, and you’ve got to deal with it. Or on the right, they just have these sort of ideological blinkers that come down. And if you want to deal with populism, you have to deal with it in the way I described: partly by dealing with the grievances, but then getting on to the conversation about the future, where actually these populists don’t really have anything to say.
Jerry Taylor: Before we go to questions, just one last thing… You talked about how in politics you must be able to project a degree of optimism. I think that’s excellent advice, particularly for moderates. But to be fair … I know you don’t want to talk about Donald Trump, but he’s about the least optimistic man I’ve ever seen on a political stage. He is always angry. He is always upset. He is always marshalling grievances. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him smile, unless somebody has taken a horrible fall in front of him or something else where he gets to mock the person. I mean, this is not a man who sells optimism. This is a man who sells darkness, strife, struggle, and conflict. And he has done it very well. I mean, I’m sure there’s an asymmetry involved here where moderates can’t do that sort of thing. But if you would have told me in 2015 that a candidate who looked like that would be able to win a general election in the United States, I would have said, “No way.”
Tony Blair: Well, you’re obviously not very keen on him. [laughter] I mean, my advice is to focus on what we should be doing right. And I think it’s really important, when institutions come under attack, that you defend them very strongly. That’s why I don’t think moderation means passivity. But it’s like I feel in my own political situation today in Britain, because it’s very similar, and when I speak to European politicians, it’s the same thing. You can go on about all the iniquities of the person you’re fighting. But in the end, the starting point of an effective fight back is to chart the right strategy to win. And it’s a good idea to win, because if you don’t win, you just…
Tony Blair: Part of the trouble, for example, with the Labour Party in the U.K. at the moment is that it has become a party that’s a protest movement. But protest movements and governments are different things. I always say to people that if you want to go into government, you’ve got to recognize that you’re not the person who’s going to be holding the placard outside the building; you’re going to be the person whose face is on the placard with a great cross through it. [laughter] That’s the difference between government and protest. So you can make the protests against what you think President Trump is doing wrong and so on and so forth. But if I was a Democrat today, I would be thinking all the time about how I can get the right winning strategy that’s going to pull some of those people that voted for President Trump over towards me, and how to give the country a sense that there’s just a different way and a better way of moving forward. But if you get mired in a kind of trench warfare battle — President Trump seems pretty good at that — I would do it differently.
Jerry Taylor: We’ll now allow the audience to ask a few questions. Wait for me to call on you, and if you’re so lucky that I do call on you, identify who you are and try not to give a speech but ask questions — unless it’s a pretty darn good speech. [laughter] I’m going to start with Avik Roy. And wait for the microphone, please.
Avik Roy: Thanks. My name is Avik Roy. I’m the president of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, a think tank in Austin, Texas. Thanks for being here. You mentioned both in the context of Brexit and other populist movements that there are legitimate grievances that moderates have to address. Other than just acknowledging the pain, feeling the pain, what are some of the objective economic data or criteria you see in Britain or elsewhere that you feel that moderates of both parties need to do a better job of addressing in terms of economic policy?
Tony Blair: I think with the economy that I’d fit it into three categories… First of all, what is the right macroeconomic position? In the U.K., we developed a politics around austerity that, in the end, I think put too deep a squeeze on people. That’s a very powerful counter-case to be made. But I always say to people that if you want to be more expansive in your macro policy, you’ve got to make sure that you have the business community well on your side. In other words, if you start sending signals that you’re going to be having an expansionary macro policy, you need to make sure that you’re protecting yourself against the argument that you’re just going to spend money and not use it properly. So this is why an expansionary macro policy with strong public service reform and pro-business, pro-enterprise policy is the one that works. I don’t think it works otherwise. Secondly, I would be addressing this whole question of digitization of industry, because it’s going to be a huge thing and it’s going to make an enormous difference. And thirdly, I think education has got to come out of the box it’s in at the moment and become an economic imperative for a modern nation. I don’t know about here, but back home, although we did make significant strides in education when we were in office, I think that the necessity of high-quality education throughout life — from early years right the way through — is now a bigger priority today than it would have been back then. Actually, it’s a central priority.
Tony Blair: So I would be arguing for a set of policies that allow the economy to grow, that empower people and help them, and support them through this process of change. And then one final thing is that I think the communities that have very specific issues where they have been left behind by globalization — communities that have lost stable industries and those that feel completely marginalized — I think you need special measures to deal with those. You need to go in, and you shouldn’t be apologetic about it. You should go and actually help those communities, work out a proper policy of industrial renaissance for them. And I think it’s perfectly easy to do that. So those are the types of things I would be looking at if I was back in making policy today.
Jerry Taylor: One of the reasons I asked you about whether there were any policies that were part of your agenda that you have regrets over, or that you thought you might want to have discussed more if you could rewind the clock… I remember talking to somebody from the Obama administration a year or two ago… Actually, no, it was the Clinton administration, and they found their job in the Obama administration later. And their point was that we knew that globalization and free trade would be a tremendous boom to the United States economy, but we also knew there would be trade disruption in local communities, and we downplayed that. We should have done more. We found Republican opposition to doing as much as we would have liked, and in response to that we sort of hand-waved it and dismissed it as insignificant policy concern. And we’re now riding the tiger because of that.
Tony Blair: You’ve got to adapt as policy changes. I mean, just to answer one point, by the way, on immigration… I’m not in favor of just feeling their pain. There are three things that have to happen. One, we need a proper system. I would have a system of electronic identity in the U.K., because actually our biggest problem is people being in the U.K. who are there illegally. Secondly, I think freedom of movement within Europe is a good principle, but it has been used in certain circumstances to undercut wages, and there’s actually now a strong desire in Europe to address that problem. And thirdly, we need to secure the external borders of Europe, because even though Britain is not part of the European system of migration, once people are in Europe they can come to the U.K. So, no, I think we’ve got to… Empathizing is not enough. You’ve got to have policy to deal with it. All I’m saying is that in the end, you’re not going to win an election with a better immigration policy in the U.K. from the Labour Party’s side — but you could prevent yourself losing on that basis by having that. You’re going to win when you paint a different picture of the future.
Jerry Taylor: Next question. Here in the front.
Kevin Moss: Kevin Moss from the World Resources Institute. Thank you very much for all your remarks. On climate, you said it’s obvious we need radical solutions, but they must be sensible. If sensible means not stupid, there’s obviously a lot of common ground. But “sensible” is also often used to stop us pursuing radical solutions. Certainly we’ve seen a lot of U.S. trade associations use that. Can you talk a little bit more about the balance between radical and sensible?
Tony Blair: I think that’s a really good point. I think ultimately the solution on climate change will be in the development of the science and technology, and what I’m in favor of is anything that incentivizes the acceleration of that and that gives people strong incentives to diminish their carbon footprints. So you can have a range of different policies around that. I think they should be as radical as the political market will bear. If you’re in practical politics, you have to make a judgment about that, but I think you’re able to do things of a more radical nature today than you were before. You might decide, for example, that you are going to take quite radical action on carbon — but if it raises taxes, use some of the revenue to help lower-income families as a counterweight to the difficulties they may have if the cost of fuel goes up. This is always a balancing act, but I think you can get to a more radical position today than before. I think if we really went all-in on the development of some of the technology, it would be much easier to do. Now, I realize that this is unpopular in certain quarters — in fact, quite a lot of quarters — but I personally think nuclear power has got to be part of the mix. But that’s an area where a moderate may say, “No.” If you look at the evidence, it really should be part of the mix, but other people may challenge that from quite a non-ideological position. These are the difficult questions of politics. But I think if you frame it as radical but sensible — provided you’re prepared to be truly radical — I think that’s a better way of framing it than just making a claim that you’re going to transform the economy overnight, which most people will find not credible.
Jerry Taylor: Mona.
Mona Charen: I’m Mona Charen from the Ethics and Public Policy Center here in DC. One aspect of this populist, nationalist movement is that there’s a reevaluation in this country about America’s role in the world, and specifically about our role in NATO in Europe. What would be your response to the argument that is heard widely on the right now, including from the President, that our commitment to Europe was completely one-sided, that we got nothing from it, and it was pure give and no take? And how do you see a world that will have less and less American leadership — specifically about NATO?
Tony Blair: I would say that we have to explain to people why the world is changing. The rise of China is the single biggest geopolitical fact of my children’s lifetimes. I think we still don’t really understand the full implications of it, but it’s of enormous significance. And then you’ve got a resurgent Russian nationalism at the same time. The transatlantic alliance is an absolutely essential part of protecting our way of life, our values, and our security. And the President’s not wrong, by the way, to say that the Europeans should spend more in defense, but it should be done within the framework of a solid understanding of why NATO matters, why it’s important to have security, and why engagement with the world is enlightened self-interest. That’s the most important thing to explain to people. I heard a pretty staggering thing the other day that was said to me by someone — I won’t say who, because it was a private meeting, but they were very well-placed to give a commentary on Syria. There were whole lot of Europeans and Americans around the table, and they said, “America doesn’t really count. Europe doesn’t really count. This will be decided by Russia and Iran.” Okay, that’s fine if we wanted to take the view that we want to be out of that equation. I understand all the reasons for that, having gone through the post-9/11 world. But is it sensible for the West? No. If we’re not engaged with the world, then our ability to affect things that ultimately will come to our own shores is constrained. I think we’ve just got to make these arguments and make people understand that, in the end.
Tony Blair: This is an argument that I have with people on the right here in politics. Some people say to me that they are pro-Brexit, and they think that Brexit is going to trigger a whole lot of exits across the European Union. And I say to them, “Number one, that is the myth that has sustained these Brexiteers for the last thirty years. It’s never happening. It isn’t going to happen. No one else is leaving Europe.” Right now, in fact, other countries are still lining up to join. So, the first thing is that it isn’t going to happen. The second thing is that if you break up the European Union, China will just pick individual countries off. I mean, the world is developing… The way I look at the world today is that you’re going to have three giants: you’re going to have America, you’re going to have China, and you’re probably going to have India. And then you’re going to have some tall countries, but these tall countries will be much smaller than the giants: Mexico, Indonesia, Brazil — these are larger-population countries, with a couple hundred million people. Japan, obviously. These will be important. But the gap between the three top economies and the number four economy is going to be large. And then you’ve got medium-size countries like Britain, France, Germany, Italy. We need to stick together. This is why the European Union matters today. If we don’t stick together, we’re going to get flattened by the giants. Now, I would like us to be at the top table along with the country that shares our values and way of life most clearly, which is the United States of America. We should be encouraging India to develop as a strong democracy, and hoping that in time we can reach an accommodation with a rising China that’s peaceful. But I sure as hell know we in the West are more likely to get a peaceful accommodation with China if we are strong than if we’re weak.
Tony Blair: So this is the argument. We’ve got to go out and make it to people. And this sort of isolationism, by the way, which is echoed on the left and right — it’s interesting to see where the right and the left meet each other — is contrary to our self-interest. So, I don’t say “Let’s be part of NATO” because I want to be nice to other countries. I don’t say “Britain should be part of the European Union” because I’ve got some love of Europe above Britain. I say it because it’s in the British national interest to be part of Europe. It’s in Britain’s interest to be in NATO. It’s in America’s interest to have that strong NATO alliance. That’s what we have got to argue with people. And actually, in the end, this is the opportunity for the Democrats. If they were to argue that in a strong way, they would actually get traction, because there must be people who are traditional Republican voters who support that analysis.
Jerry Taylor: One last question before we wind up events. Is that Arnold Kling back there with his hand up?
Arnold Kling: You made it sound as though Third Way politics could really be articulated successfully, but they’re not. So is the problem that the current politicians are incompetent, or is there any structural reason why Third Way politics doesn’t have strong support now?
Tony Blair: Well,first of all, it’s amazing how wise you get after you leave office. [laughter] I say this with complete humility, because I know what it’s like to be in government — it’s extremely difficult. Everything I am saying is what I passionately believe, but I also know it’s quite hard to do. But why is that? Well, I think there is a different atmosphere in political debate that has been brought about by social media. I know it may sound slightly obsessive to say this, but I do think it’s a revolutionary phenomenon. And I think politics hasn’t yet understood how to grapple with having a political debate when social media pretty much is an exchange of headlines — and often, frankly, an exchange of abuse rather than argument. I think that’s one reason. The context is different.
Tony Blair: But I think the issue is also that you’ve got a situation where, for the reasons that Jerry was giving, sensible politics, moderation, came to have a kind of bad name. And in an era where people want change… If you think, “I’m not sure that my children are going to do better than me, and I want that changed,” and someone who comes along and says, “These people have been temporizing and fiddling and compromising, but I’m going to turn the whole system over” — that’s a very powerful message. One of the things I notice in today’s politics is that in this era of social media and heightened political debate, the moderate guys kind of get buffeted. They get blown around. And the curious paradox of it is that, at the same time as you have people trying to push politicians into positions, funnily enough the politician who says, “Here’s where I stand. I don’t care what anyone says, I’m just going to do it” — actually gets traction. So this is why I say that centrism, if it’s to revive, has got to be quite muscular.
Tony Blair: One of the things I found really weird, until I started to analyse it and talk to people about it, is why in parts of European politics (including Britain) President Putin and his style of politics has admirers on both left and right. And I came to the conclusion, in the end, that it’s because Putin doesn’t care what anyone thinks. He just does what he does. We don’t want to emulate that, but today’s conventional politicians are in a defensive crouch, and that’s why they’re getting overridden by the other guys.
Tony Blair: One of the things that used to really irritate me in office was when people would say, “You should listen to the people.” And I’d say, “You know what? I’m listening to them. But it’s a curious thing, because they’re saying different things to me. So asking me to listen to them doesn’t really help me, because on any issue some people are in favor of it and some people are against it. My job is to make decisions, and you can like them or not like them.” And on the moderate part of politics, that approach has gone right out of fashion. I had a European leader say to me the other day, “I think I’m going to have to shift policy on this, because I’ve had a hundred thousand people criticizing me on Twitter.” And I said to them, “Is that a hundred thousand representing 10 million? Is that a hundred thousand representing one million? Is that a hundred thousand representing about a hundred and one thousand?”
Jerry Taylor: Or are they bots from Saint Petersburg?
Tony Blair: Right, exactly. Who knows? I think the conventional politicians haven’t yet learned how to work in this new world. But the one thing I’m absolutely certain of is that what we’re describing today — beyond left and right, reviving moderation — doesn’t work unless you get leadership that is strong, prepared to listen but prepared to lead at the same time. And that’s really what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to get out there. We’ve got to deconstruct the arguments of our opponents. We’ve got to set out a new policy agenda. We’ve got to mobilize people. We’ve got to get organized. I mean, these left and right populists are well organized. They’re linked together. They join hands together. All of the things you’re discussing today, you could have this debate in any European country today and people will recognize exactly what you’re talking about. So we’ve got to get busy and organized.
Tony Blair: I have said that I’m optimistic. I never know whether this is just part of my nature or whether it’s based on any realistic analysis, but I am optimistic. But I do think that if this populism carries on over a ten-year period, it could in the end fundamentally damage democracy. Because if you end up with two tribes of people who don’t listen to each other, talk to each other, or even like each other, at some point people say, “You know what? They shouldn’t be in government. It’s not a question of who wins — they shouldn’t be there. And if I win, they shouldn’t come back.” That’s when it gets dangerous. So we’ve got a big challenge on our hands. But what we’re saying — if we say it in the right way and do it in the right way, we’ll get the following and we’ll win. But there’s a strength that we need to exhibit, and an urgency and a determination that has to arise pretty fast, in my opinion.
Jerry Taylor: Well, thank you, Mr. Prime Minister. I completely agree with you. My own sense is that while moderation may not be in political or intellectual vogue right now, it is the necessary lubricant for a free and open society to keep us from tearing each other’s throats out. And even though the economy is strong, and the nation by most objective metrics is in better shape than we might have imagined prior to the election of Donald Trump, the reality is that large numbers of Americans — absolute majorities — believe this country is on the wrong track. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that there is an absolute foreboding, I believe, on both sides of the aisle, even amongst those who are more ideological than I am, that we are moving in a terribly dangerous direction where this country cannot live in a united sense. It is too divided. It is too divisive. It is too fierce. And it is one where the forces that are driving us apart will eventually lead into horrifically dangerous places. I think this leaves a pregnant opportunity for moderates to fill the breach. In other words, the worse this has become, the more likely I believe is the hope for a moderate revanche, at least in the United States. Or so I hope. But thank you so much for joining us today.
Tony Blair: Thank you very much. Thank you. [applause]