John McTernan: Labour should learn from Tony Blair

Tony Blair's critics bring everything down to one word ' Iraq. Picture: Getty

Tony Blair's critics bring everything down to one word ' Iraq. Picture: Getty

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The former PM’s critics all too easily forget the positive aspects of his legacy, including the fact that he was – and is – usually right, says John McTernan

WHAT is a former prime minister to do? This question is prompted by Tony Blair’s much-misinterpreted interview with the Economist. It is boring to have to say it, but a man who is a Labour Party member, who was a Labour MP for 24 years and who won three elections in a row for Labour is going to be a pretty solid backer of Labour at the next general election. In Alastair Campbell’s phrase, the reported split between Blair and Ed Miliband is “froth”, but the question remains – what should a former prime minister do? Particularly one who left office in his prime.

It’s never been easy. Former Conservative PM Edward Heath sat on the back-benches and was spectacularly grumpy all through Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. Thatcher herself needed to say little: her legacy endured in the fundamental ideological split within the Tory party. Sir John Major has grown in stature – becoming far more distinguished as a former prime minister than he ever was when resident in No 10.

Labour has, by and large, done it better. Harold Wilson resigned quickly and Jim Callaghan retired quietly and happily. But both of them had been in politics for decades and had reached retirement age.

Modern politics is different. MPs become leader and, if successful as prime minister, younger than their predecessors and leave office younger too. Retirement isn’t an option. There’s a quietist path – a seat in the Lords, a few lectures, a few more directorships. Or there is the next big job – this can be important and successful, as Helen Clarke, former New Zealand prime minister, has shown in running the United Nations Development Programme. It’s what a smarter PM would have announced on the morning after the referendum result – not English votes for English laws, but the governor-generalship of Canada for Alex Salmond. Finally, there is the Bill Clinton approach – the charitable foundation that does good around the world.

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Faced with this choice, Blair ignored the obvious and did not enter the Lords – in fact, he had no resignation honours list at all. Instead, he chose both the international job and the charitable foundation – or, in his case, foundations. He is the Quartet’s representative in the Middle East. Not, note, a “peace envoy”, but someone who works on the ground representing Russia, the US, the UN and the EU. The core task? To regenerate the Palestinian economy so that when there are two states, they are both prosperous and economically vibrant.

This is pro bono work – and fundamentally important too. It is not for Blair to broker a peace deal – that has to be done by Israel and Palestine. The tragedy, as Blair observes, is that there is a deal to be done – one that could be recognised on both sides – but it has always depended on whether Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was a big enough politician to seal it. He hasn’t been. Meanwhile, in hundreds of visits to the region – including more visits to Gaza than the current UK Cabinet combined – Tony Blair, carefully and painstakingly, continues to create the conditions for peace. As for the foundations, his sports foundation is active in the north-east of England – giving back to the region he represented in parliament. And his faith foundation is now one of the best sources of accurate information on religion and geo-politics. Want to know more about the Islamic State’s strategy, al-Shaabab’s ideology or religious conflict in Pakistan? The Tony Blair Faith Foundation website should be your first port of call.

But the biggest deal and, until the Save the Children Fund award to Blair, the least well-known area of his work, is in Africa through the African Governance Initiative (AGI). One story stands for all their work. When Ebola struck in West Africa – a region where AGI does a lot of work – the organisation thought to pull out their staff in order to protect them. But after a passionate internal discussion, they decided not just to stay in West Africa but to draft in both London-based head office staff and some former staffers to work with governments in Sierra Leone and Rwanda. Blair himself visited the work in the autumn. Not flashy, not fashionable, not boasted about, but changing the world from the bottom up.

Few of his critics pause for a moment to consider any of this. They justify almost all rejection of his legacy, whether in electoral or policy terms, with one word: Iraq. To listen to some of them you’d think that everything in the Middle East is Blair’s fault. Now, of course, that’s not true. Indeed, it was under Margaret Thatcher that Iran tried to have a British author – Salman Rushdie – killed and it wasn’t until a Labour foreign minister that this murderous totalitarian threat to free speech was addressed properly by the UK. And it was in John Major’s time that Saddam Hussein committed genocide against the Kurds. As the Kurdish Peshmerga fight back successfully against the forces of Isis, they do not forget that they were liberated by Blair’s actions.

But in a way this is all beside the point. What is it that gets under the skin of so many when Tony Blair speaks? It’s that he’s normally right. A “traditionally left-wing” Labour party does not defeat a “traditionally right-wing” Tory party – that’s what the 1980s proved. And if it needed to be verified, the Liberal Democrats re-proved it by trying to out-left Labour in 2005 and 2010, losing seats to the Tories as a consequence.

The irony is that, currently, it is not social democratic parties that are learning from Blair – it’s Conservative parties. Whether it is Tony Abbott in Australia, John Key in New Zealand, Stephen Harper in Canada or David Cameron in the UK – they campaign as centrists, only coming unstuck if they try to introduce ideologically right-wing ideas. Indeed, the Third Way is alive and well in Scotland in the SNP’s time-worn triangulation. If his opponents steal his ideas, maybe Labour should listen to Blair. After all, he’s one of their own.

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