SZ Interview with Tony Blair

„I don’t think it’s hard to fix Brexit“

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair talks to the Süddeutsche Zeitung about the challenges the United Kingdom is facing after a chaotic year, about Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak. And about „three revolutions“ a new generation of politicians will have to deal with.

December 18, 2022 - 10 min. reading time

Tony Blair, 69, was British Prime Minister from 1997 to 2007. He is the longest-serving Labour Prime Minister and the second-longest serving Prime Minister after Margaret Thatcher in modern history. In 2016, he founded the Tony Blair Institute für Global Change, a thinktank focussed on finding new policies, as well and answers to some of the challenges the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum has created for the country. „I was passionately against Brexit“, says Blair, as he welcomes the SZ in his London office for an exclusive interview, „but you can’t lay all the problems of Britain at the door of Brexit.“ Pragmatism is key to „calming things down“, says Blair. But this much will become abundantly clear in the following conversation: The political passion that swept him into office in 1997 is still there.

Süddeutsche Zeitung: Mr. Blair, after the Queen’s death there was a picture of you and five other former British Prime Ministers. Never before have so many PM’s been alive at the same time. Does that teach us about British politics in 2022?

Tony Blair: Yes! British politics has been a complete mess. I think it will stabilize now until the election, but it is an extraordinary, extraordinary period of time. Between 1979 and 2016, there were five Prime Ministers in almost 40 years, between 2016 and 2022 there’s been five in six years.

Tony Blair and five other former Prime Ministers: John Major, Theresa May, Gordon Brown, David Cameron und Boris Johnson.
Tony Blair and five other former Prime Ministers: John Major, Theresa May, Gordon Brown, David Cameron und Boris Johnson.

The year started with Boris Johnson and his scandals. „Partygate“ in particular went on for months.

In my view though, the real problem for Boris Johnson was less to do with all these scandals which ultimately precipitated the revolt by his party and cabinet. The fundamental problem was that he wasn’t able to lay out a clear vision for Britain after Brexit.

Do you think this chaotic year has damaged Britain’s image in the world?

Of course it has. We have taken a knock. I mean, when you end up with three Prime Ministers in two months... Look, the one thing the British are known for at their best throughout the world is the quality of common sense.

And the qualitiy of their sense of humor.

And, well, yes, a sense of humor, but in terms of being regarded as a serious country, we’re regarded as a country that has an attachment to common sense. And when you start engaging in a political churn like this: People will notice.

Were you relieved when Boris Johnson resigned?

I think, the problem was so much deeper and more fundamental than whether he remains or not, as we’ve seen from what happened afterwards. But, you know, Britain still has enormous strengths. It’s got sectors in which it’s still very strong – life sciences, financial services, and in terms of technology it’s probably ahead of most of the rest of Europe, still. It has got the English language, it’s got a very open, tolerant country, on the whole. But we are living through a period of three revolutions, two of which we share in common with the rest of the world, and one of which we put upon ourselves.

Boris Johnson delivers his final speech outside 10 Downing Street.
Boris Johnson delivers his final speech outside 10 Downing Street.

What are those three revolutions ?

We are trying to shift our economy to a clean energy economy, that’s a massive change. We are living through a technology revolution, that’s changing everything, and like every other country we’re way behind what we need to do in order to grasp these opportunities. And then we have Brexit, which is the thing we have inflicted on ourselves. And whether you agree with it or not, you need a plan to deal with it. My anxiety is that Britain – despite its strengths – has got the same challenges as countries like Germany, France, Italy, or other modern developed countries, and it has got an additional challenge.

Six years after the referendum, political parties still seem to struggle to find a way of dealing with Brexit. Isn’t it a bit strange that Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party, is now talking as if he wants to embrace Brexit? Labour’s slogan is „make Brexit work“.

The political difficulty for Labour is that it took a pretty strong position against Brexit. Now that Brexit has happened, people don’t want to revisit the argument. So it’s important that Labour blocks off an attack like: if Labour comes to power, it’s going to reopen the whole debate and attempt to rejoin the European Union. There’s no way in the immediate term to rejoin the European Union or even the Single Market or Customs Union. It’s just too complicated and too difficult to do. So, I understand why Labour is anxious to block off that line of attack. On the other hand, the country can’t get back on its feet properly until it fixes Brexit.

Keir Starmer speaking in the House of Commons.
Keir Starmer speaking in the House of Commons.

How can it be fixed?

Now that it’s clear that Brexit isn’t the first of a number of countries to do the same and you’re not going to have some domino effect, I think Europe feels frankly more confident about negotiating a reasonable relationship with the UK. And there are areas where British industry will not want to diverge from Europe. So, if you’re looking for a solution – same with the Northern Ireland protocol by the way – there will be one. And then you can rebuild relationships in other areas that are important, like security and energy, research and development and so on. I don’t think it’s hard to fix Brexit.

But do you really think it is smart for Starmer to even rule out very decisively the option of returning to the Single Market?

The problem is – and this is why it’s a very complicated question that should never have been left with a decision in the way we took it – if you do a soft Brexit, which means you leave the political structures but you stay in the Single Market and Customs Union, you literally are in a situation in which the hardline Brexiteers are right when they are saying: You’re the rule taker, not the rule maker. That is what I used to call the „pointless Brexit“. But of course if you leave the Single Market and Customs Union, that’s the painful Brexit, that’s the one we’ve done. And it is as painful as it was always going to be. Now, the difficulty is, if you say we’re going back into the Single Market, you’re just going back to the pointless Brexit, in which case you might as well reopen the whole question. And that’s why the Labour Party’s position on the Single Market is just inevitable.

Will Rishi Sunak’s government fix Brexit?

The Conservative Party could, and they probably will in respect of Northern Ireland. But their problem is they’re so divided, you have these people in the party who want an ideological battle with Europe. The Northern-Ireland-situation is extraordinary, their demands in the negotiation are completely unnegotiable. And they’re prepared to put the whole of the UK at risk, to put the Good Friday Agreement at risk in this ideological cult battle. Sunak is a perfectly practical, sensible enough guy, he’s going to be looking at all this and thinking, how do I navigate my way through the Conservative Party? But that’s the problem for Britain. We’re hostage to this group of people with a really quite strange view of the world.

And what does all that mean for Britain’s role in the future? At a time when, as you said, many countries face similar challenges and alliances are becoming even more important, it sometimes seems as if Britain is not always taking part in all the important conversations in Europe.

That’s why you have got to create the mechanisms of relationship and institutional cooperation again, because we should play a part in that. But the problem with European, if not Western politics is: 20th century political structures are still dominating a 21st century political debate. And part of the trouble is, people on the centre-left and centre-right have more in common with each other than they do with the fringes on either side. But the way parties are organized and have grown over the years, really revolving around the battle between „capitalism“ and „socialism“, they’ve created political structures which sensible people are trying to escape from. But they can’t. In the UK, the Labour Party and Conservative Party are just bolted into the political landscape. Elsewhere in Europe, with different political systems, you get new political parties forming, but still there is an incoherence around Western politics, which means that a large part of the debate is still around things that aren’t really material for the third decade of the 21st century. We need to understand that this is the 21st century technology revolution, the equivalent to the 19th century industrial revolution, and we need an agenda. And we don’t have that yet.

That sounds a bit abstract. Do you have an example?

If you are arguing about health care for example, the issue is how you shift the healthcare system through the use of technology and new advances in medical science to prevention. Otherwise, your system is just dealing with sick people the whole time, and the costs become unsustainable. If I was back in office today, I would completely change the way that we do healthcare.

In what way?

You should have the ability to absorb all your healthcare data and analyze it and use it to drive efficiency and change within the system. You need to be using all the new devices to help people track their health, to look after their own health, to engage with personal responsibility. You should be doing diagnostics completely differently over the next few years through genomic sequencing, you learn a lot more about individuals but also about the health of the nation This is a completely different approach. Likewise, with education, you should be able to personalize education today through technology. So for the Western world, this offers enormous opportunities, but some people look at technology as if it’s a problem. It is an opportunity! If you talk to any of your main industries in Germany about the technology revolution, they’ll get it completely. In fact, they’re doing it or trying to do it. But if you go to the world of politics, people scratch their heads and wonder what you’re talking about.

Why is that?

Look at how politics dealt with the 19th century industrial revolution. It took decades, people in Britain were having debates for years around things that were basically 18th century things, when all of the landscape around politics was changing, because they didn’t understand it. And you’ve got a generational problem. People from an older generation, they find they sort of get the technology, but they don’t understand its full implications. And therefore the job of a political leader should be to engage in this process. And reimagine the way government works. Because at the moment, government is not responding to the way the world is changing.

What do you mean?

All of our governments are basically like 20th century institutions. Civil servants and bureaucrats are not working in an environment where this revolution is impacting them. One of the huge problems today is that the change-makers, the people changing society, and the way we live and work and think through technology, are in a different room from the policymakers. How you join up the two, that is the challenge.

The Labour Party, which has not been in government since your successor in office, Gordon Brown, left, is hoping to be in a position to deal with these challenges at the very latest by the end of 2024, after the next election . They are decisively ahead in the polls now. Are you worried that momentum could be gone in two years?

I don’t think so. First of all, I think the public will want to punish the Conservatives for what they put the country through. And I think it would take a huge amount to dislodge that feeling. And secondly, I think Keir Starmer has done a really great job of pulling the Labour party together. He’s gripping it, he is in charge of the Labour Party. But it’s not clear to me that Rishi Sunak is really in charge of the Tory party. So I think Labour’s in a very good position. The challenge will come when it is in government, to really get ahead of the changes that are happening. To go back to where we started: to fix Brexit is precisely what you have to do, so you can concentrate on these other things. One thing you learn in government is: you need time and energy and intellectual focus to deal with problems. If your time and energy and intellectual focus are all about looking backwards, that’s a problem.

Text Michael Neudecker
Bildredaktion Jörg Buschmann