In a special edition of the Brainstorm, Tony Blair and Yascha Mounk discuss the Institute’s paper on EU migration and how societies can remain open, but also address people’s concerns around the issue. They talk about how, in order to reverse Brexit, its underlying causes and anxieties cannot be overlooked, as well as why it is ultimately a distraction to the challenges the UK faces, not a solution.

Listen via iTunes or SoundCloud



Yascha Mounk: Today we have a special edition of the Brainstorm with a special guest: Tony Blair. And we want to take the opportunity to talk a little bit about the first paper that the Institute has published under the authorship of Harvey Redgrave and a very interesting article that Tony has written around that. And it’s about the issue of immigration, in particular with respect to the European Union. So, one question I have to start off with is, you’ve spoken a lot in founding the Institute about the fact the politics is increasingly about open vs closed societies – and at the same time, you’re now saying that we have to take immigration seriously and that fears around it cannot be ignored. How are you thinking about the advocates of the open society taking on board those fears around immigration without going all the way to actually advocating a closed society?

Tony Blair: This is always the difficulty because what happens is that these arguments get very polarised almost immediately. So, you’re either in favour of immigration or you’re against it. I remember when I was in office introducing restrictions on asylum, because the system needed a lot of cleaning up. I fought the 2005 election really around immigration, because the Conservative Party campaign at the time was anti-immigration and I had a proposal for ID cards that formed the centrepiece of our campaign, which was to say: in the end, there is an issue around immigration, but on the whole, it is beneficial, so let’s work out how we can control it so we can access its benefits and minimise its downside risks. I still think that is where you can achieve a consensus. What I think is very difficult – especially when the world is changing so fast and people feel they’re losing control over their lives – is if you’re just indifferent to their anxiety.

Yascha Mounk: So, is it a matter, to some degree, of disaggregating the level of immigration from the feeling on control? That there are ways of ensuring that people feel the country has control of who comes in and goes out, has control of who lives where, but it actually is still open enough to immigration, to high-skilled immigrants, to people the country needs, and that’s a way of prying open the politic question.

Tony Blair: Absolutely, that’s what this whole thing is about – about finding that right balance, because in the end immigration, overall, has a very positive impact on a country. It provides energy and dynamism, it allows new talent to come in. If you look at any of the successful economies in the world, immigrants have played an enormous part. You look at Silicon Valley, this is an astonishing success intimately connected with immigration. You look at a country like Japan where there has been very low levels of immigration, they’ve found that over time their economy has had troubles because of that. So, whereas we used to look at the Japanese economy in the 1980s as the great model for Western business and economic development, you probably wouldn’t today.

That’s not to say there isn’t great Japanese companies and so on, but there is no doubt that the energy that comes from immigration is positive. But it’s perfectly reasonable for people to say, we need it because it’s changing the way society is, because there are cultural issues and issues of sensitivities in local communities, that we should be able to control it. So, that’s the balance that people are trying to strike – and, yes, you’ve got some people who are in favour of completely open borders and some who are anti-immigrant and some who even are racist, but the anxieties about immigration are not, in my view, from people who are predominantly racist, they’re just from people who feel this situation is changing beyond my control, and I want more control over it.

Yascha Mounk: So, I think there’s sort of a line there, right? On the one side, there’s straightforwardly practical concerns, where people say I’m worried about immigration because in my area there has been an inflow and I’ve seen the waiting lists for the NHS going up, I’ve seen our schools being over-burdened, class sizes have shot up – and I’m worried about immigration, not for any cultural reasons but because I want small class sizes and don’t want to wait two weeks to see my GP. Then there’s the other extreme, which is essentially, look, I think Britain is a country for white people descended from this island and I hate everybody else.

Then there’s a whole bunch of things in the middle, which seems to me to be a little bit more murky, where people perhaps do have a sense that, you know, I came to this country as a student and it struck me as a place that has a very strong sense of cultural references, much more so than other countries. In-joke, inflections of language; it’s an island.

So, people say, look, it’s just people flowing in who are not like us, sometimes it can have a racial element, sometimes just cultural, I’m concerned about that, I want us to remain as we are. I don’t know where to place that. I think there’s a category there that’s not racist, it’s not straightforward that these are bigots and let’s think about how we deal with them, but we don’t take it seriously, but it’s also not as simple as saying, well, let’s put more money into the NHS and then waiting lines won’t go up, and perhaps we have an emergency brake, so that deals with it.

Tony Blair: This is definitely true. So, I think you’ve got to disaggregate and unpack the concerns around immigration, because sometimes they’re very specific. For example, in relation to European migration, there is pressure on local pressure, there might be downward pressure on wages as a result of the influx on lower-cost labour, for example. Those are very specific concerns. And then you’ve got the broader cultural questions, which can fit in to two categories: one is where, for example – especially when migration is from more conservative Muslim backgrounds and people see women dressed in the burqa and they feel this not how I grow up, this is not my type of country, and they can have genuine concerns about cultural integration. We should be very honest about those issues and difficulties.

Then you just get people who feel, well, I remember how Britain was and I want it to be like that. I grew up in the 1960s, when you had black migration from the Caribbean and from the former British colonies and elsewhere and at the time, this was a huge issue. I grew up with this, and Enoch Powell and the “rivers of blood” because this migration would change the nature of the country. All of those predictions turned out to be wrong in the end and we have assimilated that migration relatively easily. I think all of these things are important to understand and to relate to, but the question is: where do you pitch policy?

What I’m trying to suggest is that you can pitch policy in a direction that takes account of legitimate concerns and anxieties and also make sure that migration is not conflicting with your essential values as a country, but which recognises, as you’ve just said, that there are people who come in that we need, both in the high skilled category and in the low-skilled professions as well. And, by the way, if we end up really pushing away European migration, we’re going to do terrible damage to ourselves. I’ve talked to several companies in different sectors in the last few weeks – in the finance sector, in technology and in the hotel trade here in London – and each of these employers has said we’re already finding difficulty recruiting high quality people, because people are saying does the country really want us, what does this all really mean post-Brexit. This would be really foolish for us as a country if we push away people we need. 

Yascha Mounk: Is there some amount of trade-off there between the need to invest a lot in to skilling up people who are already in Britain, especially those in the lower end of the skills scale, and bringing people in? I do think that even in living in London and going to a restaurant or a coffee shop, I can see why people might make the argument that it’s easy for a restaurateur, they don’t have to invest in skilling up somebody who perhaps comes from a less-advantaged background, a less academic background, whose 16 or 17 and it make take them a while to grow into the job. They can just import someone from Italy or Spain who has a university degree and isn’t finding work there because of a pretty disastrous labour market. Of course that’s going to be better for the restaurant and for the customers, but that’s going to be a problem for the country in the long-run. How do you make sure that on the one hand we stay open to the immigration we need, but we also don’t use it as a substitute for the kind of educational reforms and more forward looking policies we need within this country in order to actually skill people up for the workforce of the 21st C.

Tony Blair: I think this is absolutely the challenge and the reason why when I was Prime Minister and in government that we put such emphasis on education; it was precisely because we recognised this. But today one of the things that is very important the Institute does and that you and your colleagues are doing Yascha is to say: what is the right agenda for a developed country, at this stage of its development, to handle these vast challenges of change that are coming down the line at us. Particularly Artificial Intelligence, automation, Big Data. This is going to be revolutionary. You’ve got the fact that the whole of geopolitics in the world is changing, with the rise of China and so on. How do you make sense of this, and how do you develop the right policy agenda.

The tragedy of Brexit for me is: it’s a distraction, not a solution. Because all of these issues around education, apprenticeships, skills, training, infrastructure, why I would be doing if I was back in government would be saying what is the agenda that is going to revolutionise the way we look at these issues? I think the issue of infrastructure is dramatically important; we need to take an almost 19th Century view of infrastructure today. When the industrial revolution began and we built the extraordinary infrastructure, much of which is still with us today, so many years later, I think we need the same spirit back again today. Now, governments have kind of gone some ways towards this, then backed off a bit, then there’s public financing questions and so on, but really this is what we should be doing. And if we focussed on that and on really raising educational attainment and specifically on apprenticeships and skills, we would be much better placed to deal with these issues.

The other thing I think about the low-skilled workforce and that it is a difficult thing to say, but you go round most capital cities in the developed world and you will find a large amount of migrant labour in certain low-skilled categories – in cleaning, in hotels and hospitality. I’m a sceptic that if we stop these people coming here this is going to benefit someone outside of London who’s desperate for a job to get one. This is a much more complicated process and low-skilled migration has got a part to play, but obviously raising the attainment and skills level of the broader population is important. The trouble is – and this again the tragedy of Brexit – that people who are going to be most adversely affected by Brexit are going to be those in the very areas who voted for it. 

Yascha Mounk: And one reason, which I think is interesting, is simply the distraction of the political class. The kind of reforms that we would need to help the education system are not going to happen in next few years because no one is thinking about that.

Tony Blair: This is – and it’s really important to say this, because this is where the experience of being a Prime Minister and being in government – you know, there is no doubt in my mind that the distraction effect of Brexit is enormous on government. The government ministers and the senior ministers, in particular the Prime Minister, this is their first thought when they wake up, their last thought when they go to sleep and their waking thought during the day. It’s Brexit. And whatever people say, and they’ll give you all sorts of explanations, I know that when there is an issue that is literally as dominant as this – and at times during my premiership, for a few months you might have an issue that dominated, and it curtailed the bandwidth of the government at that point – this is going to be curtailing our bandwidth day in, day out, for years.

Yascha Mounk: So, one of the questions that has come up since the Institute published the paper is around the decisions of your government to allow people from new EU member states such as Poland to come into the country in 2004, rather than wait an extra 7 years, as we might have done otherwise. So the one question I have is to what degree is this a mea culpa and that actually that was wrong, but I also have a broader question, which is: to what degree should our view of where people are at in terms of immigration and in terms of some of those cultural concerns and where people are at in terms of their discontent with the economy of the 21st Century, to what degree have those things changed and how does that influence how we think about public policy, not just in terms of Brexit but over the next decades?

Tony Blair: First of all, in respect to 2004 and the decision then when Europe enlarged and brought in these eight countries from Eastern Europe. It’s very important to realise the context of this, because it explains a lot, and it’s not something that you’re able to do in an ordinary interview. The enlargement of the EU to the east was a huge cause of successive British governments, along with ironically the single market. The reason for that was very simple. We wanted to allow these former Soviet countries to be bound into the European family of nations. And they were desperate to do so. To join NATO and to join the EU. So, this is a big thing for the UK to have. We championed this cause (and there were people who were very uncertain about it within Europe). I think when you fast forward to today - thank goodness we brought those countries in. If you look at the situation today in Russia with a resurgent nationalism, if these countries had been left outside the EU, I think we’d have a very changed situation for our own security if they weren’t brought in. So, in a sense, Britain always had a position where we were the leading country for this enlargement of the EU.

Now, in 2004, the truth is, we were in a completely different set of circumstances. And in 2004 when they [former Soviet countries] joined the EU, freedom of movement (FOM), in other words to ability to move freely around Europe, was there. There was no transition around that. What you had was the ability at that point to prevent people working here for a transitional period of up to seven years. So, it would have meant that we could have prevented people coming here to work up until 2011, from those countries. But we couldn’t have prevented them actually coming. Now there’s been a lot of studies done on this – for example, Germany did put in place transitional arrangements. Ireland didn’t. Germany did. But what the Germans found was people were still coming, because freedom of movement was still there, and then they were often working illegally and that caused significant problems. So, I’m not sure, and I think it’s very important that people understand that from 2004 to today the majority even of European migration has come from outside of those countries. And what’s more, European migration is less than half of the total of migration. So, I’m not minimising it’s impact, but I think it’s important to contextualise it. And my answer to this is very simple - do I believe these people were a bad thing for our country? No. I don’t. But I do believe the times today are different. And in a way what I’m saying as part of the politics of what I’ve been writing about is that if we want to divert the country from Brexit, we’ve got to be sensitive to the concerns that led people to vote for Brexit. Now I’m not saying that immigration was the only concern. But I think it was a very important concern. And I think particularly, by the way, in amongst some of the older generation and particularly in relation to what I would say are Labour voters and in constituencies like the one I used to have. I think this was a big consideration. So, if you want to get people to look at this whole question of Brexit differently, you’ve got to be sensitive to that anxiety.

Yascha Mounk: So, that’s get into the core of the connection between immigration and the question of Brexit here. As you were saying, perhaps immigration wasn’t the only concern, perhaps it wasn’t the primary concern, but certainly a big concern, with relation to the EU. And I suppose what you’re saying in this intervention is that, actually, Brexit is not going to help deal with the immigration people are most concerned about, and even without Brexit, even with staying within the EU, there’s a lot more we can do in order to gain control over the kind of immigration we see. So, my first question is what would that look like in practice – how can we actually gain more control of immigration from the EU without giving up on some of the basic principles of FOM, and more broadly some of the principles of a welcoming country? And then I’ll have a couple of follow ups.

Tony Blair: Yeah, so if you look at the table of countries where EU migration has been strongest, I think it’s quite interesting, when you look at it. So, Germany has had more than us. Switzerland proportionately has had more than us, even though, by the way, not a member of EU but as part of the deal that Switzerland has got with the EU they allow this FOM. France, has got many fewer. So, one thing about this is, the truth is for years and years and years, British governments have prioritised the economy over migration. So, they’ve basically gone with the business case.

What is absolutely fascinating for example, is that although one of the principle things that’s said is a problem with EU migration is the undercutting of local wages by an influx of lower cost labour. The directive in the EU that is being designed the curb this, called the posted workers directive, championed particularly now by President Macron, the British Government has been opposing that. So, the British Government sort of opposed it because they’ve said “no, no, we’re going to put the interest of business first.” So, in a sense what I’m saying is look, I understand the business case for that, by the way, but if we’re going to respond to people’s anxieties, well then you’ve got to [work out] where you can switch that. But that’s within our own capability. We could introduce local controls, if we wanted to. We could say for example, in particular industries, like the construction industry, that we were going to deal through local legislation by dealing with this, if we wanted to. In addition, for example a country like Belgium, when people come in if they can’t show after three months that they’ve got the means to support themselves or they’re working, then the Belgium’s say to them “you’ve got to leave!”. I mean, we can do that. I personally believe that Europe would be prepared to make certain concessions. I can’t be sure of this, but for example, people say well David Cameron tried to get these concessions and he didn’t succeed so why should you succeed now, and the answer to that is very simple – because Brexit’s happened! And Europe knows that Brexit is a problem for Europe, not just for Britain. And it’s also that the tenor of the debate around migration in Europe is, you know, Britain voted for Brexit but immigration is an issue all over Europe.

Even EU migration, although it’s not as big an issue in other countries as it is here, is not an insignificant issue. All I’m saying is – if we really wanted to – the right and the sensible immigration policy is to say, in respect to European migration, there are things we can do as a country, there are things that Europe could do, there are things that we could do together – Britain and Europe. All of which would have the effect of exerting a much greater control, but wouldn’t have the detrimental effect of keeping out people we actually need. And then, frankly, you should concentrate on the immigration that’s completely within our control, and is the majority of immigration – which is outside of the EU. So, this is what we’re trying to do. And I agree by the way. Part of the trouble with this whole Brexit debate is that it’s often in exchange of slogans, and sort of Twitter stuff, when the detail really matters. You know, the detail in this instance really matters – what does European migration really do?

The great thing about Harvey’s paper, that the Institute published, is that it is the most comprehensive analysis. You can go and read it, you can see exactly how you break down the elements of the workers. And the irony is – the people who come [from] Europe, the majority of them we actually want here. We’re going to need to put in place provisions that mean we can still bring them here. So, the detail matters. The detail matters. It is the difference between the single market, the customs union, and a free trade agreement. And the detail also matters with the other thing that people feel, and they say very strongly, which is that we want control of our own laws in the UK.

Now, here’s the thing the detailed analysis tells us. In the vast array of different situations where Britain wants to do something, Europe doesn’t stop us. Every year in the UK, we have a Budget Statement and a Queen’s Speech. They are the two big set piece events of the year. One the PM speaks to, the other the Chancellor of the Exchequer speaks to. The two biggest figures in the government. I think you’d be hard pushed to find either the Budget Statement or the Queen’s Speech where they say “look, we’d really like the do this huge change for Britain, but unfortunately we can’t because of Europe.” We can make whatever laws we want in relation to healthcare, education, law and order. Subject at points to qualifications which are very specific to do with Europe, but in the broad mass of things – we can put our taxes up, we can take them down, we can spend more, we can spend less. So, the detail really matters. And one of the things I want to try and do in this Brexit debate is get across to people – this is the biggest decision we’re going to take as a country since the second world war, everyone agrees with that, whether you’re pro Brexit or anti Brexit – let’s look at the detail what it’s going to involve, let’s look at the detail of what really concerns us, and then, aren’t there different and better ways that we can deal with it?

Yascha Mounk: You know, I think there’s these very important questions about the detail of immigration, and there’s questions about what the actual rules should be, and what freedom to maneuver Britain has in that. There’s also a larger question about how that plays in to the sort of drivers of populism. Not just in the context of something like some of the tones of the Brexit debate, but in the election of Donald Trump, in the rise of parties like the Alternative for Germany and Le Pen in France. And there, I think, there is a much larger question where one set of drivers seem to be economic. That people feel really insecure about their future, they don’t feel like they’ve had as much of an improvement in their living standards as their parents might have done. And then there’s a broader set of cultural concerns where there’s a lot of control, part of which may be immigrants coming in and feeling a cultural loss of control. But part of it, much more broadly, is the speed of the social change and so on.

I guess I’d just like to hear from you how you’re thinking about this issue in the context of those broader things. What kind of policies do governments need to put in place today so that they’re not sort of playing catch up on those questions, they’re not being sort of reactive, they’re not always saying “oh look, actually there’s fears about that, perhaps we should of taken seriously, and here’s sort of a way of dealing with that”. But actually, put us in a kind of place where they feel more confident because they have better control over their lives in general.

Tony Blair: Yeah, this is the big question that obviously, the work of the Institute is going to do is to attempt to devise a policy agenda, in very simple terms can discover the politics of optimism, and the spirit of hope about the future. Because, I think, you’re absolutely right, we are in a situation where this generation feels they did better than the last but our worried that the next generation won’t do better than them. And this is a very novel feeling in the West. And if you can’t show people a way through these cultural and economic stresses of change we’re going to live with the populism of the left, or the right, and in my view neither provides an answer. So, the problem is, how do you devise that policy agenda that gives sufficient credibility to the fact that you can find a way through.

Because the chief characteristic of today’s world is this accelerating change. And it’s not going to stop. It’s going to intensify. And it’s driven often by people and not by governments. And what, I think is felt often, is that you need to exert control again over that process. But the risk is that you exert in ways that actually push you backwards and not forwards. And so, one way of exerting control is to say “look, if we stop immigration then that’s going to allow us to deal with this new world”, and of course it won’t. It will completely divert the energy of the nation. And the second way is to say “look, if the state exercises more control and power, that’s the way to deal with it”, and there are risks with that too, which is the sort of leftist element. Whereas, you’ve got to devise a completely new agenda really for the state, and for the way the economy will work, and this is the where the role of technology is going to become so important. And that can’t be separated out of the political debate as if it operates in a sort of separate sphere from public policy.

Again, if I was back in government today I would be focusing an enormous amount of attention on technology – on what it’s challenges are, and what it’s opportunities are. For government, for business, for the country. But, you know, you’re going to need a new philosophy in government in order to handle this, otherwise, I think you will end up in a situation where you have what you have today here and in the US – which is politics now profoundly polarised and increasingly devoted to a kind of populist sentiment that’s more an expression of anxiety than it is an articulation of policy.

Yascha Mounk: Thank you very much.

Tony Blair: Thank you.