Scottish independence debate: Unionists need a modern-day Tony Blair, a charismatic centrist, to make their case – John McLellan

From Bambi to Bliar, with Teflon Tony along the way until the Iraq War wrecked his reputation, Tony Blair craves a relevance he hasn’t had since his resignation in 2007.

But with an estimated net worth of just under £50m and an annual income of around £4m, without having to worry about a declaration of interests, political obscurity has its compensations.

Perhaps obscurity is too strong, politically powerless certainly, because there he was on Thursday, being interviewed in the prime 8.10am slot on Radio 4’s Today programme giving the nation in general, and Sir Keir Starmer in particular, the benefit of his wisdom ahead of his grandly titled “Future of Britain” conference featuring luminaries of the political middle ground.

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Those no longer in elected office tend not to get the same kind of abrasive grilling from the presenters as active politicians punting a policy or atoning for wrong-doing, so some allowance has to be made for an easier ride, but the old confidence, self-assurance and unquestionable charisma which delivered three consecutive General Election wins for the only time in Labour’s history was on full display.

Scottish election results while Tony Blair was Prime Minister have a message for unionists (Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)Scottish election results while Tony Blair was Prime Minister have a message for unionists (Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Scottish election results while Tony Blair was Prime Minister have a message for unionists (Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

In a week in which First Minister Nicola Sturgeon unilaterally declared the next General Election would be a “de facto” independence referendum, it’s worth looking back at the Scottish results while TB, as his acolytes in the “sofa” cabinet knew him, was in charge.

The 56 seats in 1997 with 45.6 per cent of the vote, 56 again in 2001 from 43.9 and 41 seats in 2005 from 39.5 seem like ancient history compared to its miserable returns in the last three UK elections.

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With only 21.6 of the constituency vote in last year’s Scottish Parliament elections, the scale of the challenge facing both Sir Keir and his Scottish leader Anas Sarwar remains obvious. Such is the SNP’s grip on so many Scottish voters, it’s easy to forget that with Mr Blair in Labour’s saddle, the SNP vote fell from 22.1 and 20.1 per cent in 1997 to 17.7 per cent in 2005.

There are many reasons for the flip in SNP and Scottish Labour’s electoral fortunes ─ not least the roller-coaster Lib Dem vote, plunging from 18.9 in 2010 to 7.5 in 2015 ─ but one was Scottish Labour spending the preceding 18 years of Conservative government complaining Scotland didn’t get the government it elected, effectively making the SNP’s case and ignoring what should have been the clear danger of demoralising their supporters if it happened again, as it did in 2010.

From the SNP’s paltry 18.8 per cent in that election, the 2011 Holyrood elections produced an absolute Nationalist majority the proportionate system was supposed to prevent.

But above all there is leadership, the ability to persuade or inspire people to follow your path, or at least understand, in the words made famous by American comedian George Burns (or French dramatist Jean Giraudoux) that, “the key to success is sincerity. If you can fake that you've got it made”.

Whatever it took, Tony Blair had it, and the record shows that when Labour was led by a credible leader commanding the middle ground of British politics, the SNP couldn’t win a quarter of the vote. Similarly, is it a coincidence the slump in SNP support from 49.9 per cent in 2015 to 2017’s 36.9 coincided with Ruth Davidson’s coming of age as a charismatic and consensual centre-ground figure? And indeed, there she was being cheered at Mr Blair’s conference.

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However, a plausible manner is not enough and he is keen to emphasise the need for a solid policy platform to build a genuine Labour revival. “If we want to win, it’s going to be on the basis that people are absolutely clear what Labour is and what it stands for,” he said.

He later claimed Boris Johnson’s Conservatives had become more centrist, with which many Tories would agree but not positively, and when even members struggle to understand what Mr Johnson represents apart from himself, the point about clarity applies to all sides.

While big on presentation, the Blair administrations were not just triumphs of style over substance, and having inherited a healthy economy, Labour’s massive expansion of the state was only possible because they accepted Margaret Thatcher’s economic transformation was necessary and, even if only to milk it dry, a confident private sector was essential.

In that vein, this week his institute published a health reform paper which many will regard as heresy. “The NHS is a service, not a religion,” it said, and changes should “include the ability to enter into partnerships with the private or voluntary sectors”, which makes sense as demand for ongoing care soars.

Contrast this with another paper published this week, Reform Scotland’s “Taxing Times” by former civil servant Heather McCauley, a depressingly anti-competitive call for more raids on our money which exposes the challenges an increasingly centralised, state-driven, sluggish Scotland faces, and the narrow “solutions” it produces.

Conversely, the Blair paper bluntly states that “more money alone will not lead to a sustainable and modern health-care system”. Here, that sort of talk will get you burnt at the stake, but someone with Mr Blair’s ability could make people believe it, just as hundreds of thousands swallow Nicola Sturgeon’s vision of independence as a land of milk and honey, not one of austerity to make current privations seem like a free, all-inclusive holiday.

He may have been a one-in-a-generation leader, but if either of the big two UK parties were led by someone with anything like the Blair flair then the dynamics, if not the arguments, of the independence debate would be radically different.

No-one in their right mind would vote for £15bn-worth of tax rises (unless you’re Heather McCauley) or cuts, currency uncertainty, or a hard trade border with England, unless they believe the person who’s pushing it.

Right now, as it did throughout the lacklustre 2014 campaign, the Union case has a Blair-shaped hole.



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