Tony Blair’s Speech at the Niskanen Center

Tony Blair’s Speech at the Niskanen Center

Tony Blair’s Speech at the Niskanen Center

Commentary

8 min read

First, let me congratulate you on your bravery. You’re celebrating ‘moderate’ politics? Wow! Moderation—that’s so brilliantly uncool. It’s like talking to my teenage son about the time before mobile phones (Dad—people really lived like that?), or the virtues of the long playing record, flared trousers and polite conversation.

Back home, certainly in my politics, the term centrist is now used as an insult and the word moderate indicative of some form of political malfunction.

A word of definition: moderation for me does not mean 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 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.

Everywhere in Europe, traditional parties of centre-left or centre-right are under siege. In Germany the combined total of poll ratings for the CDU and 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, have combined support of 20 per cent, the far right and far left almost 50 per cent, with President Macron around 30 per cent. Support for populist parties in Europe has risen from 8 per cent in 2000 to over 30 per cent today. In Hungary and Poland right-wing populists are in government openly advocating illiberal democracy.

And in the USA, well you know the position here. The context 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 are enemies.

Parties are being taken over and changed. Those running for office become squeezed between appeasing the activists and appealing to the public. 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 grievance, but 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 must face political reality. Immigration without adequate controls causes anxiety and for understandable reasons. European politics for sure won’t recover unless the issue is dealt with—sensibly of course and consistent with our values—but nonetheless dealt with. There are communities and people who are casualties of globalisation and who feel neglected and forgotten. Their concerns are heartfelt and need redress. The tax system is outdated and often unfair in its distributional impact. It needs fixing. Disparities in wealth and privilege provoke a sense of injustice. Climate change is now plain to all but the ideologically blinkered.

You can’t attack populism without confronting the genuine issues driving it. The questions the populists raise, are often right. The trouble is they’re more interested in finding scapegoats than solutions.   

The context 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

Second, the challenge is then to provide the solutions and enlarge the policy debate. 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 matter if the policy is unworkable; in fact, that is an advantage. 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.

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 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 19th-century Industrial Revolution. This is the big challenge facing governments, the economy and society over the coming two decades. It 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. Populism has no desire to grapple with the complexity of this challenge and is more likely to make it a target.

We should master this issue, champion it, put it where it belongs at the centre of the political debate.

Yet, presently, even within conventional politics, the implications of this revolution are poorly understood, and there is gulf of misunderstanding between change-makers and policymakers. We must bridge it.

And then across a swathe of policy from housing to climate to tax reform, we should adopt policy approaches which establish the broadest possible basis of consensus but match the weight of the problem.

Third, populists are often indifferent if not scornful of democratic institutions. We should take this head on, obliged to argue the case for democracy from first principles. We cannot take anything for granted. It all needs explaining again: 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. Why those politicians tampering with these things undermine not some abstruse political theory but our prosperity and our safety.

We are at the beginning of a technological revolution as far reaching in its effects as the Industrial Revolution. This is the big challenge facing governments, the economy and society over the coming two decades.

Fourth, we must recognise 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. Traditional left voters voting right on immigration and against so-called political correctness. Traditional right voters voting left against globalisation and big business.

As the main parties shift and accommodate these developments, another group is emerging. This group supports market-based economies but with strong social provision, is open-minded and socially liberal, sees patriotism as consistent with international engagement, wants evidence-based policymaking and embraces moderation as a core value.

This group has representation in both big parties but is on the defensive. Some 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. But both share values and perspectives in common.

They, we, need to be mobilised. Moderate can’t mean passive. It doesn’t need to be 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 analyse the world objectively, and our way of life has brought success in ways our forebears would find unimaginable. The proof? Most Western countries are more troubled by immigration than emigration. 

The populists of right and left are organised and vocal. Good ideas need good organisation. We don’t presently have it, and we need it.

Fifth, despite it all, we should have confidence. The populism will eventually decline. The first thing you learn when you come into government is how much easier it was to be in opposition. In the end, the populists will disillusion and fade. The risk is in the consequences of their actions before this occurs.

I still believe that 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.

There are instructive lessons in all of this, from contemporary Britain, where with Brexit we are in the throes of an unparalleled political crisis. 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 polarised 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’s membership is in thrall to a populism of the left. The 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.

Both manifestations of populism exult in savage denunciation of those who disagree, especially within their own ranks. Meanwhile the true issues facing the country are largely ignored.

[This is where politics becomes a kind of bizarre competition to see whose country’s politics are in the worse state. Believe me, right now, we’re way ahead!]

But the point is, the fight is not lost. The fightback is under way within the two main parties and outside of them, where last week several MPs defected to form a new political grouping.

Elsewhere in Europe, there are the first signs of a waning of the populist surge.

I still believe that 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: these are new times. We need despite our moderation to embrace the spirit of insurgency. We need new ideas and thinking on policy. Above all, we need to wake up, gird up, stand up and summon up the strength and intelligence to prevail.

The struggle can be won. But the complacency must end.

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