The former PM's summit was eagerly attended, but how radical are his ideas?
Park Plaza Hotel, Central London
“Have you come to Church this morning?” a friend messaged as I arrived at the Tony Blair Institute’s “Future of Britain” summit in central London. “He is Risen!” He had indeed risen and was standing there before me in the flesh, addressing his disciples — those poor, huddled centrist masses yearning to be freed. Emily Maitlis and Jon Sopel, Deborah Meaden and Jamie Oliver, Ed Vaizey and Anne Milton: all there to hear from the master. Even l’empereur des centristes himself, Emmanuel Macron, turned up digitally to give his Jupiteran blessing to the event from afar.
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For a second, down in the depths of the Park Plaza Hotel, it felt for a moment as if they really were back in charge. You can just imagine the bromance that might have existed had Tony and Emmanuel been in power at the same time. Even now, Blair has the quality of somehow looking like he’s Prime Minister: all power and presence, tailored suits and security guards. And then, suddenly, you remember he’s not Prime Minister and hasn’t been for 16 years; that he’s 70 and no longer the future, as David Cameron once put it, even if he still delivers prophecies about the coming world with a certainty far more intense than anyone else in power today. It felt like a New Labour conference from 2002, only slicker and with lots more money, as if America were doing British politics for a day and we were rich again.
And so up he came, the master of proceedings. After a few jokes, Blair hit his stride. “The British state is unsustainable,” he declared. “We are spending more than ever before in British history except in times of crisis or war. And taxing more. With poor outcomes.” Few could argue with any of that. But what about the solutions? Blair called for the complete reimagining of the British state, making people more free and governments more efficient. He called for digital IDs, national health records online, real-time data made available for hospitals and more health monitoring from “wearables”. Adapt or die: that was his message.
Britain needs to be radical but also sensible, Blair declared. This is the chorus his followers love to hear. “The perennial bind of progressive politics is that very often the radical people aren’t sensible and the sensible people aren’t radical,” he concluded to laughter. It was hard to hear this and not think of Sir Keir Starmer, the ultimate sensible, also speaking at the conference alongside Blair.
Blair left it to an aide to set out the four policies his institute believes are both radical and sensible. The first is to reform planning laws; the second to reform pensions. Both sensible perhaps, but hardly radical — the Government itself has tried to do both. Blair’s third and fourth policy ideas are a little more controversial: to allow more immigration from the EU and for Britain to unilaterally align with EU rules. It is easy to see why he thinks such policies are sensible economically, but what about politically? Would he be pursuing them if he were Starmer? And even if he were, can such policies really form the “basis of a new consensus”, as Blair suggested? Both were part of the very consensus he embodied as Prime Minister and which was shattered by the Brexit referendum only seven years ago.
This is the disjuncture at the heart of Blair’s sermon. The sensible policies do not seem particularly radical, and the radical ones not particularly sensible. To reform planning law is one thing — even to loosen immigration rules for those from the EU — but a complete overhaul of the British state and its health infrastructure? To give every citizen, hospital and government access to digital IDs, health records and the like? The British state has not even managed to build a border to check goods coming in at Dover.
Watching Blair today it is hard to conclude how much of his lasting political appeal is radical futurism and how much is centrist nostalgia. He is the most naturally gifted British politician still alive; a man who still has much of Westminster hanging on his every word. He is persuasive and optimistic about the future, clearly more on top of the great, transformative changes taking place in the world than almost anyone in government today — too busy as they are concentrating on whatever crisis is happening right in front of their noses to be able to look up for more than a split second.
Blair has created the slickest, most interesting political conference in Britain, with ready-made programmes for any aspiring technocratic prime minister. And yet, in a sense, it remains the same-old radical centrism he has always preached, only now with a magic sprinkling of technology.