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Tony Blair: autocracies are fine with ‘smart’ leaders

Oh Tony, Tony, Tony. Credit: Getty

April 21, 2024 - 6:05pm

Oh Tony, you don’t make it easy for the Blairite defence. “The problem with countries that aren’t democracies,” the former prime minister claimed in a profile published today in the Sunday Times, “is they’re fine if you happen to have really smart people running them, but if you don’t, there’s a problem.”

No, that is not the problem with autocracies. They are not fine, so long as their leaders have figured out a way to ensure they are run by the enlightened. Democracy has value in and of itself. Yes, this does not mean that democracy alone is all that matters. Order, liberty, peace, security all matter too. But politics cannot be reduced solely to dry Benthamite measurement. Life itself should not be defined in this way.

Blair’s argument is revealing, nevertheless. He has long defined politics in terms of pragmatism: what matters is what works. But in his early years he wrapped such ideas in distinctly populist language. New Labour was the “political wing of the British people”, he liked to claim. Blair seemed to be able to convene directly with the British public for a while and would often declare this or that policy had more support in the country than in Parliament: from ID cards, to anti-social behaviour, law and order, and “reform” more generally.

In his pomp, Blair claimed to know both what “the people” wanted and how to deliver it. What mattered was what worked. Immigration increased because the really smart people running the system had looked at the numbers and concluded that it was good for the economy. Devolution was smart because it would kill Scottish nationalism stone dead. Open, liberal, global markets were smart because they worked.

Blairism in essence, then, was technocratic populism. Since leaving office, however, Blair seems to have largely forgotten the populism bit, retaining only the technocracy. In one sense, this is understandable, given the failures of the old political consensus which he came to embody. Iraq, after all, did not work, nor did Afghanistan. But more importantly, nor had the global financial system which underpinned the entire New Labour settlement. Smart people created a system which failed.

Today, Blair almost seems to see the need to retain popular support as a barrier to good government. “Democracy can deliver,” he insisted in his interview with the Sunday Times, “but it’s got a problem today because it is an old-fashioned politics trying to deal with a very new-fashioned world.” Putting aside the awfulness of this particular soundbite, what does he see as “old-fashioned”? On the one hand, it is “nationalism” and on the other “identity politics”.

Another way of looking at this, though, is that identity politics is the result of a breakdown in nationalism, at least of the sort needed to bind people together. Historically speaking, nationalism has been a necessary condition for democracy to flourish: for the demos to rule, there has to be a demos to begin with.

But the thing about nationalism is that it cannot be proved by clever people. It is all made up. What are nations but “imagined communities” as Benedict Anderson once put it? Technocracy, which sees the people as barriers to sensible reform, cannot inspire the sense of collective loyalty necessary for good policies and institutions to flourish. The Labour government of 1945 was nationalist to its core — as was its National Health Service.

The thing with Blair is that I also do not believe, at heart, he is a mere Benthamite either. In his Sunday Times interview, he complained that people always wanted to ascribe “some sort of malign, or let’s say benign but psychological motive” to his actions. Perhaps this is my ego speaking, but I felt this was an answer to my profile of him last year, in which I concluded that what mattered for him was power: “The power is the point.” Blair’s own account of this is that he came into politics “to make a difference”, and merely still wants to.

But this doesn’t answer the why. Why does he want to make a difference? In the end, Blair, like all of us, is a complicated man driven by many things: ego, money, status, mortality. In Blair’s case he is also a man of deep religious conviction. And he is not a Catholic because Catholicism works but because he thinks it is true.

Democracy too matters beyond its mere utility, much like many of the things ordinary people place value upon. Democratic politics is the peaceful resolution of the competing values, interests and ideas within a given group of people. Blair was once the master of this populist game and should remember the value in it, because the greatest irony of all is that if there’s one thing that doesn’t work, it’s not democracy, but technocracy.


Tom McTague is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.

TomMcTague

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UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

He is an evil man. His speech is corrupt and should not be given airtime without a warning

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 month ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

He’s worse than that.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 month ago

I’ve argued that we all live in Tony Blair World now. Whether deliberately or accidentally his changes as Prime Minister (such as Devolution and the Supreme Court) mean that later Governments were (or chose to be) bound by the technocratic and legalistic world view and treaties that makes real change either impossible or long and drawn out.
Look at the ‘lawfare’ invoked every time a pressure group wants to stop something. Look at the bureaucracy that buries change under a blanket of potential difficulties. Look at Net Zero being created as binding law.
So, in modern times, I don’t believe Rishi Sunak can ‘stop the boats’ as there is too much resistance from those that ‘know better’. Similarly after the election I expect Keir Starmer to finagle closer ties with the EU because he and his mates ‘know better’.
Well, that’s the Gordian Knot. Where is our Alexander?

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 month ago
Reply to  AC Harper

By breaking the link between housing costs and interest rate policy this utterly useless man and his desperately incompetent cronies ushered in the fastest widening of the country’s class divide in history. His foreign policy resulted in death and destruction on an apocalyptic scale. Yet people pay him for advice and we’re about to elect his proxies to another spell in government, during which they will continue his work of pauperising working people, enriching the rent-seekers, dismantling the family, destroying education and wrecking what few vestiges of democracy we have left. God help us.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
21 days ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Chill out Hugh, were the 6th richest nation in the world. People are coming from all over the world to live here coz its such a good place.

Andrew R
Andrew R
1 month ago

Technocrats know better, even after thirty two years of incompetence and failure, they know better.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago

The question I’ve always wanted to ask Tony Blair:
“How did you know that Colonel Gaddafi was a good dictator who we should talk to and deal with [as he did] and that Saddam Hussein was a bad dictator ?”.
Apparently, Gaddafi was competent and on the top of his game and Saddam was an incompetent !
But hang on a moment – weren’t the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq also about bringing “freedom and democracy” to those countries ?
Blair can say what he likes. I’m not buying a word of it. Nor the “deep religious conviction” of a man who so clearly also worships Mammon and is happy sponging off autocrats and dictators.
Only one point of agreement – if he came into politics “to make a difference”, then he succeeded. He made pretty much everything worse.

Caro
Caro
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

So nationalism niet, democracy niet. A former UN M.E.Quartet Peace Envoy, now a techno-feudalist, puppet-master recommending ‘lavender’ ‘where’s daddy’ et al perhaps?

Neiltoo .
Neiltoo .
1 month ago

“ Blair seems to have largely forgotten the populism bit,”

He no longer needs the populism bit therefore it no longer matters to him.

Well meaning or not, I can’t think of anyone in the modern era who has done more damage to the UK than Mr Blair.

Somewhat off topic: I have read mention in the comments of some changes to the comment section a few months ago. Could someone tell me how it changed please, I’m new here.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
1 month ago
Reply to  Neiltoo .

How about G Osborne, D Cameron, T May, G Brown and alas, because he seemed full of promise B Johnson. Oh and R Sunak? Blair was a paragon of competence compared with that lot.

Red Reynard
Red Reynard
29 days ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

Yep; just as the Totenkopf were more competent than the Werhmact – neither of which you want running things, eh.

j watson
j watson
1 month ago

Not been a great week for the Right – Truss Book and reminders of ineptitude, one Tory sleaze scandal after another, surge in Boats with a calm channel, panic about Local elections, and across the pond MAGA failure in the House.
And so UnHerd recognises a bit of pain relief desperately needed. Usually an Article about the perversions of the Guardian, or maybe something malign about Alastair Campbell would be the ‘go-to’. No this weekend called for something more given how dire things are. ‘Right we need the A Card, let’s pull an Anti-Blair article out for our base, Tom can you get it done? He may be Yesterdays man but we need to feel better’.

Andrew R
Andrew R
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

It was an interview he gave to The Sunday Times, you clown.

R Wright
R Wright
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

You’re becoming the next Champagne Socialist in terms of contrarianism.

Rob N
Rob N
1 month ago
Reply to  R Wright

Could well be CS and, like CS, he should be ignored as neither make honest points.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

Tories Right? Hmmm…

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

The distinction between the ‘Right’ and the left in this country’s political establishment that you constantly try to make is meaningless. Both parties are advocates of the neo-liberal technocracy pioneered by Clinton and Blair. In most ways Labour is even more in hock to the rent-seeking class than the Tories.

This boomer liberalism made you rich, hence your almost fanatical defence of it, but sooner or later you’ll have to recognise that it has been an apocalyptic disaster for pretty much everyone else, not just in the UK, but everywhere in the West.

Btw: surely, surely even you are not going to defend Alistair Campbell. That really is carrying partisanship too far.

0 0
0 0
1 month ago

He is a war criminal imco. 1m dead for false reasons. Never mind his incessant views on digital ids to check for jabbing. Unimpressed.

0 0
0 0
24 days ago
Reply to  0 0

Why r all the counts on comments reset?

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 month ago

Tony Blair seems to be an ambassador for ideas on the opposing side every time he opens his mouth.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
1 month ago

“he is not a Catholic because Catholicism works but because he thinks it is true”

How on earth do you know?

David Morley
David Morley
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

I honestly thought he was going for a double whammy and intended to become pope! I guess there’s time yet.

Richard Pinch
Richard Pinch
1 month ago

Ancient Rome from 96 to 180AD was run by five really smart autocrats: the emperors Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. So they were fine, according to this theory. Slavery, for example: fine. Religious persecution: fine. Conquest and colonisation: fine.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
1 month ago
Reply to  Richard Pinch

I think what Tone meant, was that if you must have dictatorship, then competent dictators are better than the other kind. Which applies to the gentlemen named above; better than the others

David Morley
David Morley
1 month ago
Reply to  Richard Pinch

Though Hadrian blotted his copy book by building the wall.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
29 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

What, not high enough to keep the noisy neighbours at bay?

Andrew F
Andrew F
29 days ago
Reply to  Richard Pinch

Since we had slavery in the West till 1860s and worse for Jews and Slavs under Nazis,
Catholics were not full citizens in uk well into 19th century,
religious persecution? (Remember 30 years war and communism?),
conquest and colonisation? Again guy with bad haircut comes to mind,
then Belgians in Congo and lovely Germans in Namibia.
So no, these Roman Emperors were cultured and reasonable people in comparison to many nearly two millenia later.
Plus Romans incorporated local elites into Roman order as near equals.
Did Europeans do that in colonial times?

Gregory Toews
Gregory Toews
25 days ago
Reply to  Andrew F

“reasonable people in comparison to many”. Oh? If we’re going to make useful comparisons, let’s remember these “reasonable people” held parades celebrating the very values and behaviors you criticize.

Gerry Quinn
Gerry Quinn
1 month ago

I think I prefer Moldbug.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
21 days ago
Reply to  Gerry Quinn

Or Sauron.

Kasandra H
Kasandra H
1 month ago

Power does stick, doesn’t it? He is the epitome of longevity. X

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 month ago

This made me think of an article in The Times by Matthew Syed which was published over the weekend. The piece was about the crackdown on sick note culture, but spun out into a general consideration of how this is part of a wider societal phenomenon, indicative of the end of the easy, abundant times for said society. Syed wrote that the claims being made (and granted) from the social system have become totally uncoupled from the realities of the means available to finance it and that the British need to recut their moral cloth according to the resources actually available.
Reading this, one might say the same about Blair. Once upon a time, he was able to take the pulse of the British people, knew how they were thinking, what they wanted, what would work – and then saw to it that the available technocratic instruments were employed to achieve those ends.
But, over time, as McTague says, the technocratic ability separated itself off from the listening to the people. Now, technocratic instruments and skills are no longer things to be deployed to achieve ends desired by the demos, as articulted in voting behaviour, but things used to tell the demos what is right for them, regardless of voting behaviour.
This is precisely why, in these last ten years, the endless discussions about populism threatening democracy have annoyed me so much. What is derided as “populism” is actually what we used to call democracy and it is trying to regain its superiority over the technocracy which has run wild since the 1990s, thinking it is democracy.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Matthew Syed is always worth reading – one of the very few remaining reasons to consider reading a newspaper these days. Because he actually thinks for himself and isn’t boringly predictable or pushing an agenda.
The sick note culture is as much a result of the prioritisation of feelings over facts as anything else. Something which Tony Blair enabled and amplified (though there’s more than enough responsibility to go round on this). As with every other genuine grievance or condition these days, there’s a core group (usually a minority these days) of genuine sufferers who need help and a usually larger group of “self-identified victims” who attach themselves to siphon off resources and attention for themselves. It is statistically impossible that the number of sick and disabled people has increased so dramatically over only a few years. The facts haven’t change that much, but the measuring stick has.

David Morley
David Morley
1 month ago

I guess the problem with democracy for Tony is that it stops smart people like Tony fixing the world on out behalf. For the rest of us it at least gives us a means of getting rid of the Tonies when they prove not to be quite as smart as they thought they were. Sadly that does not fix the mess they left behind. Which, in the mind of Tony, only someone like Tony could do.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 month ago
Reply to  David Morley

Absolutely. It’s the sheer conceit and absolute absence of even a shred of self awareness that’s most terrifying.

David Brown
David Brown
29 days ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

perhaps the self awareness would itself have been too terrifying for Tone

John Tyler
John Tyler
1 month ago

To Blair, as with so many of our political and highly-educated elite, ‘smart’ is synonymous with ‘agrees with my libertarian agenda’. All those who disagree are either ignorant or bigoted.

Rob C
Rob C
29 days ago
Reply to  John Tyler

Libertarian?

George Venning
George Venning
1 month ago

McTague was right the first time. For Tony Blair, “The power is the point”.
How else to explain such a long profile in the ST in which so much is made of Blair’s on-going influence, his inter-connectedness, his reach into dozens of national Governments – in other words, (his means), with almost no discussion whatsoever of what he was trying to do (his ends).

Mark epperson
Mark epperson
29 days ago

Is anyone surprised? “They” are all much smarter, prettier, and really know what we need, even though that is not what we need or want. Like all of the “theys” they sold out for MONEY a long, long time ago.
The only question is will “They” win?

Nick G
Nick G
29 days ago

The average ten year old could tell you that benign dictatorship is the best form of government. Unfortunately the ten year old couldn’t tell you how to keep him (it’s usually a him) benign. Blair doesn’t even appear to recognise the problem.

Andrew Nellestyn
Andrew Nellestyn
27 days ago

I really don’t have time nor interest in reading more of Blair’s drivel! Smart he certainly isn’t! He is a self-serving, misguided walking disaster. Enough said.

Gordon Arta
Gordon Arta
24 days ago

‘Democratic politics is the peaceful resolution of the competing values, interests and ideas within a given group of people.’ But that ‘given group’ needs a shared identity, cultural  connections, unifying institutions, administrations, and legal systems, and the inclination of a significant proportion of its people to put the longer term interests of the whole ahead of the short term gratification of a faction. Those requirements simply don’t exist across much of the undeveloped world, and are becoming increasingly fragile in democracies. The ME, for example, is a pressure cooker of antagonistic sects, tribes, factions, and clans whose only, temporary, unifying factor is a common enemy, and the only leaders who can keep the lid on such pressure cookers are utterly ruthless autocratic b tards; if we’re going to remove one we don’t like – Saddam, Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad – then we have to replace him with one we do. Any other is a sure-fire recipe for chaos and civil war. The rest of the world is not like us, but we’re becoming like the rest of the world.