Euan McColm: Don’t close your minds to Blair’s comeback

Blair's analysis of the present climate of debate is astute. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty
Blair's analysis of the present climate of debate is astute. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty
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It’s fashionable these days to denounce Tony Blair as a war criminal, isn’t it? All the cool kids are doing it; they hate him and their hatred is so righteous it becomes part of their identities. How do you know someone thinks Tony Blair should be on trial at The Hague over the UK’s involvement in the second Iraq war? They don’t stop telling you.

These vocal Blair-haters share certain core beliefs about him: along with their certainty of his complicity in war crimes, they find him guilty of being a Tory and of almost succeeding in destroying their party.

Blair supporters pull hard in the opposite direction, and consider him a giant of modern politics.

As became the case with Margaret Thatcher, it’s very difficult to have a dispassionate conversation about Blair. His is a name to inflame passions.

Blair’s return from self-imposed political exile last week was an event of some significance. Were British politics a TV drama, Blair’s interview with the New Statesman would have been the series one finale. As chaos engulfs the political establishment, along comes one man – a hero or a villain, depending on your preference – to straighten things out.

Those who despise Blair most screamed loudest about the irrelevance of his intervention in UK politics. But while his attackers are certainly vocal, the fact remains that between 1997 and 2005, Blair led the Labour Party to three general election victories. We may take from this the hint that the former prime minister is not necessarily as deeply despised as his opponents might like to believe.

Blair has come back, he said, to help “millions of effectively politically homeless people”. Blair ruled out a return to frontline action (can you imagine?) but said he would try to create the space needed for “progressives” to find their place.

Blair spoke of his dismay at the state of western politics and suggested that Brexit could be halted if the British people were unhappy with its terms.

Whatever one’s view of Blair, this was a substantial intervention by a substantial politician. While Labour leader, he persuaded floating voters – including a great many to-be-on-the-safe-side Tories – that his party could be trusted with the economy. Blair made middle Britain feel comfortable and reassured.

As an ambitious young MP, Blair was a key figure in Labour’s shift from the left firmly on to the centre ground. He believes those voters who rallied to his party back then – or, at least, people who think like them – are out there.

This may be so, but the 1990s are a foreign country. When Blair promoted centrism in the 1990s, he attracted voters who felt that “traditional” politicians had failed them. He was, then, the outsider. Now, to voters tempted by more extreme candidates, Blair is symbolic of the “failed establishment”.

So, we’re agreed that Blair has set himself quite the task: he’s a divisive man speaking up for a politics rejected by a substantial number of voters.

Nonetheless, Blair, I think, is worth listening to.

The former PM identifies the contemporary political fault line as less about left and right and more about whether one is “open or closed”.

He’s correct. US President Elect Donald Trump and his chum, Nigel Farage of Ukip, have succeeded this year with a politics that’s inward looking; when it comes to whipping up anger against minorities, these men will stoop as low as they believe necessary. Their petty nationalist rhetoric fantasises about a happier, less racially diverse past, and swells the hearts of disappointed voters looking for someone to blame.

Yet when we look left to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, we see an equally isolationist view. Corbyn’s antipathy to the West is shared by many of his supporters. Long before Trump won the presidential election, Labour had made clear that under the current management it preferred greater distance between the UK and the US.

We find the new political battleground at the point where left and right bump into each other, where the motivation of participants comes from anger with the other.

Here, the fight is, as Blair says, between open and closed.

Just as the Scottish Independence referendum reshaped Scotland into a nation split between unionists and nationalists, so the EU referendum has established the new dividing line of politics in the rest of the UK.

If our experience in Scotland is anything to go by, future dealings between pro-Brexit and pro- Remain politicians will be ever more rancorous, more fully infected with mutual distrust.

A particularly disappointing effect of the preeminence of the constitutional battle in Scotland has been that scrutiny of the government’s domestic agenda has not been what it might have. Everything – every debate – comes back to the question of independence before long.

Voters across the rest of the UK are finding out how that feels.

Blair may not be the figurehead a new centrist movement requires but his analysis of the current political climate and the need for those who prefer an open, outward looking politics to organise themselves is correct.

Neither the election of Trump as US president nor victory for the Brexit campaign in June’s EU referendum will slow the rise of the “outsider” candidate. Dissatisfied voters have only just begun flexing their muscles. We should not be surprised if electorates around the world show increasingly nihilistic approaches to elections.

With Corbyn’s Labour Party failing to provide something even vaguely resembling an opposition to the Conservative government, and the Lib Dems reduced to a handful of political survivors, the centrist voice which until recently was heard loudly and clearly in our political debate has fallen silent. Now the world is described by ’kippers and Corbynistas who see it in the starkest black and white.

The politically homeless described by Blair need champions. They need politicians to articulate their preference for open rather than closed.

It’s good to have Tony Blair back.