Blair's call to mobilise against Brexit are the words of a street-by-street fighter
PUBLISHED: 12:26 28 October 2016 | UPDATED: 10:23 02 December 2016
The New European says: Tony Blair’s call to mobilise and organise against the stupidity of a headlong rush towards a blind Brexit is a searing broadside against both the dogma of Theresa May’s government and a Labour Party leadership too fixated on internal power struggles to be an effective opposition.
When he talks of Britain’s political choice being a return to the 1960s of a “Hard Brexit Tory Party and a Hard Left Labour Party”, the prospect is stark – a fundamental retardation of the progress we’ve made, as a nation, in the past 50 years. Economically, socially, culturally, politically.
Ironically, Blair makes the argument for Brexit much more clearly than anything we’ve heard to date – certainly more clearly than May and her Three Brexiteers have managed.
While they stumble about with their Orwellian slogans of “Brexit Means Brexit” and “The Will Of The Great British Public Cannot Be Ignored” (how easy it is to think of these painted on the side of the barn at Manor Farm?), Blair hands them their best shot at a coherent argument for leaving the EU.
The positive argument for Brexit could, he says, go that “Britain should free itself from all the constraints which Europe imposes and from its essential social democratic model and go for a new type of economy altogether ... defined in a sense by its very oppositon to that European model. It would be free market, free trading, light regulation, low tax, low social protection.”
Some type of European Hong Kong or Singapore, he writes. But he makes clear the flipside; that this possible success from Brexit would come at a huge cost to the things we hold dear – public services, the NHS, a fairer workplace. If it would work at all.
In other words, a Britain working for the few, not for all. A Brexit a million miles away from the Brexit many of the 52% thought they were voting for.
His solution? “We have to listen and learn. But then we have to lead ... We have to prise apart the alliance which gave us Brexit ... Build the centre in all political parties ... We are a sovereign people. We can make up our mind and we can change our mind.”
Nothing less than the rise of a new centre-ground force in British politics, building towards an opportunity for the nation to take stock and reconsider. A second vote.
But Blair is also clear about the principle obstacle to the realisation of this pragmatic path. Fear. Fear within the Conservatives of being labelled a subverter of democracy and treacherous from their own leadership.
Fear within the Labour Party of deselection or ostracism by the Momentum movement that has pushed the party further and further to the Hard Left.
Blair’s anecdote about the shrugging Labour MP is one this newspaper can vouch for many times over. A real fear has been at work in Parliament since Brexit with some things deemed unsayable for risk of being labelled unpatriotic and (in the ultimate irony when it comes to expressing an opinion in a free country) undemocratic.
This newspaper knows of many MPs who feel constrained to speak honestly about their concerns on Brexit for fear of the consequences from their leaders. They too are shrugging their shoulders, waiting, hoping for a different climate.
Thankfully, many others have been courageous and are standing up. But the fact remains that the environment for rational, pragmatic politics is currently toxic. And that this toxic environment has been cultivated directly by May and Corbyn.
(Interestingly, the only working politician who gets a namecheck in Blair’s article – Keir Starmer – is a case in point. A man who has demonstrated clarity of purpose in holding the government to account.)
Tony Blair’s views matter.
Nobody in the UK has more hands-on experience and understanding of the realities, challenges and opportunities within both politics here at home and in Europe than Tony Blair (he even, as revealed exclusively here in this newspaper, once came close to running for President of the European Parliament).
And here in this sweeping article he takes a broader view that than the current myopic frenzy in Westminster: “We have allies in Europe and many who fear – absolutely rightly – the corrosive impact of Britain’s departure on Europe’s ability to have weight and strength in the world… we should be working with them. Staying doesn’t necessarily mean staying in an unchanged Europe.”
At the same time, no other UK politician alive today can claim to have changed the trajectory of a political party on such a grand scale and, in changing it, succeeded in bringing it, and keeping it in power.
To achieve that he had to take on significant and long-rooted forces pitched against him, both inside and outside the Labour Party.
That took hardcore political smarts – which are still sharply evident in the language he chooses in this article. These are not the words of a grandee dreaming big visions from the cosy safety of a retirement fireside Chesterfield armchair.
These are the words of a street-by-street fighter.
His phrase “to build the capability to mobilise and organise” – is straight out of Chapter One of The Grassroots Political Organiser’s Handbook.
His use of the word “insurgents” – such a charged, loaded word – gives us a clue about his view on the tough nature of this struggle.
But the biggest question from his article that remains unanswered is who – exactly – is the “we”?
Who will mobilise? Who will organise? Perhaps his most chilling warning is that unless the real causes of that angry vote against the EU are not pacified by addressing the profound deficiencies in education (note specifically his blast at the damaging notion of May’s plan for grammar schools), skills, infrastructure and open trade, then “we will be prey for an even more foolish excursion into populism than the one experimented with so far”.
In other words, unless the root causes of that angry vote are dealt with then things can only get worse.
But if, just as Tony Blair’s article is, this idea of a new movement is characterised by respect for why people voted as they did, a commitment to deal in facts and solutions to people’s real problems, and a central belief that people are not driven by dogma handed down to them, but by pragmatism and by hope – hope for a more inclusive, more prosperous, fairer Britain – then there is a fighting chance of change.
And surely it is worth the fight. As he says, the stakes are high, across all of Europe.
Matt Kelly, Editor.
Tony Blair’s article was commissioned by The New European and he has not asked for, nor received, any payment.