James Kirkup

Britain needs Blairite optimism - but it won’t come from Tony Blair

Britain needs Blairite optimism - but it won't come from Tony Blair
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We all have different ways of realising we're not as young as we were. I still remember the first time England named a cricket captain younger than me: Andrew Strauss (a man I still believe will one day serve as a Conservative parliamentarian incidentally).  

Passing that milestone didn't bother me much, but the relative youth of politicians is a bit harder to take. Put it this way: I'm 41 and the best I've managed to achieve professionally is to end up running a centrist think-tank. Emmanuel Macron, on course to run France as a centrist president, is 39. 

Macron gets called a lot of things, but many in Britain find it easiest to understand him as a Blairite.  The superficial similarities are obvious enough, and for ease of comparison, Blair himself is ever more visible these days, returning from lucrative global exile to involve himself in the Brexit debate.  

Good times for centrists then? A young star rises in France and the old master returns in Britain? I'm one of the people who should be celebrating that prospect: I've argued for a while that there's a Blair-shaped hole in the middle of British politics, one the man himself should fill.  

In fact, I'm only cheering for half of the dynamic duo, because I'm reached the sad conclusion that while Macron is getting it mostly right, Blair has lost his touch.

Yes, Macron is lucky in his enemies, but he's succeeded because he's given his centrism a cultural and patriotic foundation: he talks like someone who loves his country and believes in its better future. He's not the only liberal centrist type succeeding here: Justin Trudeau has done something similar in Canada.  This is thoroughly Blairite stuff: Cool Britannia and Things Can Only Get Better are easy to scoff at now, but Blair won because he put optimistic patriotism at the heart of the New Labour offer in 1997.  

The Tony Blair of 2017, by contrast, doesn't sound like a man who loves or even likes his country. He sounds like he thinks his country is mad and stupid and needs to be saved from itself. He's just about pulled back from urging popular resistance to Brexit, but he's still aligning himself with those who think they can still find a cunning wheeze to keep Britain in the EU. 

That's a gross misjudgment of the politics.  Brexit is inevitable:  the majority chose it in a referendum and soon we'll see a general election won by a party explicitly committed to leaving. Like it or not (declaration: I voted Remain), that means we’re leaving. End of story. All that remains is trying to make the best of Brexit.  

This is especially important for those of us outside the Leave-voting Right: we need to win people (including a certain Theresa May) back to the centre, and we won't do that until we understand and respect them, and share their love of their country.  To paraphrase Macron, to defeat nationalistic isolationists, we need to be patriotic globalists.

That’s an awful phrase that will mean nothing to most voters, but it captures an idea that seems to elude Blair but not Macron. He has promised to be 'the president of patriots' and framed his support for the EU and an open global economy as an expression of French values and confidence. 

What’s the British equivalent of Macron’s patriotic centrism? I'd suggest there’s a very British case to be made for a Brexit that's as far as it's possible to get from the self-harming isolationism of the No Deal diehards. 

 I'd suggest something like this: 

 'I did not choose to leave the European Union, but I respect the choice of those who did, because that is the British way - we play by the rules and we respect the result, win or lose. 

'And while I remain worried about what Brexit might mean, I believe that inside or outside the EU this country has a great future as a leading power in the world. The talent of our people, the strength of our character, the genius of our scientists and the drive of our businesses - none of these can be changed by politics or diplomacy. What Britain is, it will remain: open, diverse, enterprising.  

'This has always been an open, bold and adventurous nation and our values will endure. To be true to those values, to be truly British, we must remain open: open to trade, open to talent, open to co-operation. And that means seeking the closest possible ties with our friends in the EU - and doing that because it is the British thing to do.'

That, I humbly submit, is the sort of position that a 43-year-old Blair would be taking today.  That Blair grasped the importance of accepting the facts of life: New Labour was built on accepting Thatcher's economic settlement and adapting it to sensible ends, not overturning it.  

Brexit is the new Thatcherism, if you like, the ground beneath our feet.  Yet the 63-year-old Blair is not even trying to build a new future on that stony ground, he's trying to turn back the clock.  Oh well. 

Written byJames Kirkup

James Kirkup is the Director of the Social Market Foundation and a former political editor of The Scotsman and The Daily Telegraph

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