Tony Blair: We Must Learn Again the Politics of Building Bridges

Tony Blair: We Must Learn Again the Politics of Building Bridges

Tony Blair: We Must Learn Again the Politics of Building Bridges

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5 min read

This prize is naturally a great honour. As I am sure with all recipients it is received with a pride tinged with some embarrassment. No one can claim Lincoln’s mantle – except possibly one more distinguished Brit than me, Churchill – and I don't pretend to. But I receive it in in the spirit in which it is intended – a realisation that political leadership is a tough business but a necessary one for the conduct of affairs, and should therefore occasionally be recognised. Politicians must combine the skills of the high-minded executive with those of the street fighter, navigate their way through petty politics in pursuit of noble principle and do it all whilst toiling in the environment of a hothouse whose temperature is regulated by today’s media. It isn't for the faint-hearted; but it should be for the big hearted.  

A big heart certainly describes Abraham Lincoln. I see three hallmarks of leadership in Lincoln. He came into politics driven primarily by passion for a cause rather than ambition for self-advancement. After one term as an Illinois congressman he had retired to law practice until Douglas’ sponsorship of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, which permitted the opening up of new lands to slavery, drew him back in.

He identified the challenge of the age for his nation and rose to meet it, with humane and even sympathetic understanding of his adversaries but with implacable resolution in the fulfilment of his objective.

And he had the capacity to inspire as well as govern, stimulating his people to listen to their better angels and providing the moral authority for a victory which was a defence of values and not simply a defeat of opponents.

These are timeless dimensions of statesmanship and all times need them.

This century is no exception. But one thing which characterised Lincoln’s era and until this century held good was the domination of Western civilisation. To be sure, as the two World Wars testify, we sometimes did little to deserve it. But for centuries Judeo- Christian values and first, European nations, and then the USA bestrode the world, wrote its history and shaped its future.

The 21st C marks a profound change. The rise of China and the threat of Radical Islamism are two new challenges unknown to the 20th C.

These are timeless dimensions of statesmanship and all times need them.

The turning of the religion of Islam into a totalitarian political ideology – something entirely alien to the true tradition of Islam – requires a level of commitment from the West, in alliance with moderate and modernising forces within Islam, to confront both the ideology and the violence it breeds. 

The shift of power to the East is the single biggest geo-political change of my lifetime. China leads the change but India is not far behind and by the middle of the century will have an economy several times the size of any European one. In addition, the relief at the fall of the Soviet Union has given way to anxiety about a resurgent Russian nationalism.

The population growth of this century will happen in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The world’s Muslim population is increasing at twice the rate of any other faith, including in Western countries.

The West must wake up, face unflinchingly the scale and complexity of these changes and the challenges they bring and unify to overcome them.

Instead, we are beset by doubt, riven with division, and more inclined to isolationism than openness to the world.

This is not a good time for such sentiments of pessimism, explicable though they are in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the onward march of technological change and the novel and profound security challenge which the 9/11 attack pre-figured.

At this moment we need strength, clarity and confidence in our values and the importance of upholding them. These values – which may loosely be called those of Liberal Democracy – have helped our countries to a stage of development hitherto unknown to humanity: Rule of Law, free and fair elections as to who governs us, an independent media, equality of all before the law, the freedom to speak our mind without fear. They remain the best and most true guide to our future development.

For a century or more our supremacy seemed to vindicate them. But, in truth, they were always more the product of ‘Right’ than ‘Might’. They were, as Lincoln taught us, an expression of the triumph of freedom over servitude.

Within our nations, we must learn again the politics of building bridges, of reaching out to those with whom we disagree and to seek common ground.

Now in this time, these values are at risk of corrosion from within our societies and going to be contested from outside them. Inside our politics falls prey to false populism. Abroad there is a new authoritarianism which looks at Western democracy and sees weakness and inadequacy. It offers a different, illiberal model of Government and argues that it can better deliver for the people.

This model will be buttressed by growing economic and military power. It will exploit the insecurities of Western electorates worried whether the next generation will do worse than this, unconvinced of the virtues of immigration and tending to view globalisation as a project of the elite not the people.

Many of these concerns are rational. But for none of them is the answer to turn in on ourselves, to replace the open mind with the closed one or to wallow in the polarisation of politics and lose sight of the need to unify our people behind a vision of the future which can work.

Within our nations, we must learn again the politics of building bridges, of reaching out to those with whom we disagree and to seek common ground.

As within a nation, so between nations. The Trans-Atlantic Alliance is not a relic of the 20th C. It stood for certain values then; it stands for them still today.

Europe should understand its vital role in being America’s partner irrespective of any differences with any one American policy or President; and the USA should see in the European Union – and I mean one united and - my hope - with Britain still in it – a vital supportive weight to help it counter those who challenge us.

In other words, now is the time to articulate our democratic values, champion them, celebrate them and fashion our politics so that we can preserve them.

That is a cause which should arouse our passion. It is surely correct to identify it as the challenge of our age. We must find the words and the leadership to inspire our nations to rise and meet it.

We revere Lincoln not only for what he did but for why he did it. That is why he merits a prize named after him; and why those of us of so much less merit, feel privileged to be awarded it.

Tony Blair: Opening Remarks to the EPP Meeting in Wicklow

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