Tony Blair is back on the pitch, but he and his fellow centrists are still playing last season’s game

February 27, 2017

This article was also featured in The Telegraph.

Among the many things that Tony Blair once did with consummate skill was to keep a football in the air in a game of head tennis with Kevin Keegan in 1995. Like politicians, footballers have a hard time maintaining their match-readiness after stepping out of the fold, even temporarily. Those who are tempted to return after a few years’ sabbatical, as managers or players, often testify that the game moves much faster than they remembered. It is a feeling that Keegan experienced on more than one occasion, and to which his old juggling partner, Tony Blair, was exposed after his recent speech bemoaning the result of the EU referendum.

Now that David Miliband is reported to be considering a political comeback into British politics, it begs a question that grows more pressing as Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party flounders: what do yesterday’s “centrists” – particularly those associated with New Labour – have to say about a world that is much changed since they last held the reins of power in 2010?

It is of no benefit to the quality of British political debate that life at the top is nasty, brutish and short; and it was not always thus. In a sixty-year career, William Gladstone served in government for the Conservatives, was the Liberal Prime Minister four times, resigned from the frontline only to return on at least five occasions, and split his party irreparably over Irish Home Rule, before finally bowing out at the ripe old age of 84. For longevity, durability and the capacity for reincarnation, David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill are perhaps the only twentieth century equivalents.

Of post-war premiers, by contrast, only Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair have managed to stay at the top for a decade. Gordon Brown had less than three years as Prime Minister, while David Cameron managed a respectable six. In this day and age, it seems one punch can be all it takes to knock you out. Successful rehabilitations are few and far between. One could say that Jeremy Corbyn emerged from the Trotsykite “dustbin of history” to lead the Labour Party but the difference is that he wilfully climbed into it in the first place, before – like Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street – he got an unexpected knock on the lid from the kids on the street.

On both right and left, the anti-Blair hysteria is often overdone. The response to his latest remarks on Brexit was predictably bilious. And yet, for such a master craftsman, his speech was curiously perfunctory and absent of vision. This is because Blair was performing a role for which he was never designed: the reluctant counter-revolutionary. And Blair the Burkean doesn’t quite have the same zing to it. In his prime, Blair’s genius was to talk beyond the glacial assumptions of Westminster and strike a chord with non-tribal but politically literate socio-economic interest groups (remember the C2s?). But the appeal to aspiration has been replaced by a newfound angst about the fact that history is not playing out as expected. Without the familiar sure-footedness on social issues, his turn of phrase sounded more hollow than before.

Although he clearly had one eye trained on the forthcoming by-elections, there was nothing in Blair’s view of Brexit that would have resonated with those who voted in Stoke Central or Copeland; the places, in other words, where today’s real political battles are being fought. Contrition may not have won him any new friends. But there is more substance to concerns about immigration, for example, than people misunderstanding the statistics; and those “left behind” by globalisation have had nods in their direction, and pats on the head many times before.

The real question – and one which David Miliband will also be forced to confront should he decide to return – is whether the architects of yesterday’s order have a viable script for the new world in which events have landed them, one in which the nation state has made an emphatic comeback as the definitive actor in international affairs.

Since 2010, for better or worse, there has been a turning at the historical wheel. Anyone who wants to get their hands on the tiller must acknowledge that first. It is fashionable to snort at famous Blair soundbites such as “the hand of history”, at the time of the Good Friday Agreement, or his observation, shortly after 9/11, that the “kaleidoscope has been shaken”. In fact, these are memorable precisely because Blair had an intuitive gift for identifying moments of historical significance, and riding the waves that followed the tremors.

Blair’s Bloomberg speech, by contrast, may have been less saccharine than past offerings. But it failed to make any sense of the Zeitgeist. If it is to be remembered, it will not be as the curtain raiser on a new political movement. Instead, it was more of a place marker, in two respects. First, it was the most eloquent statement of the “I told you so” position, should Theresa May’s Brexit strategy go badly wrong. Second, it was a warning to Labour, based on an informed guess ahead of the by-elections in Stoke and Copeland, about the inadequacies of Corbyn’s leadership. As a blue print for the future, or an attempt to feel the national pulse, however, it failed to deliver.

The idea of a people’s rebellion against Brexit is a non-starter, if, as according to the latest ICM poll, 68% of the population agree with the statement that the government should “get on with implementing the result of the referendum … and in doing so take back control of our borders, laws, money and trade.” If guerrilla warfare against Brexit in the House of Lords – as called for by Lord Mandelson – is the opening salvo in the new struggle, then the attempt to revive the “centre ground” as the beating heart of British politics will not go very far.

If the Blair/Miliband worldview simply becomes a cypher for Remain sentiment, which is not on an upwards trajectory, this is unlikely to be a winning scenario for either cause. It also means that the more interesting aspects of Blair’s experience will remain submerged in the fuss that always seems to follow him. How much more valuable it would have been for the former Prime Minister to have offered his thoughts on the challenges faced by his heirs (including a crucial constituency: those who did not want Brexit but are determined to make it work): how to navigate the Transatlantic alliance in the age of Trump; or how Britain might craft a new relationship with Europe in this altered world. These are the challenges that Miliband will also have to confront should he seek a return to the frontline. His response may be all the more interesting as he was never a fully committed Blairite when it came to foreign policy.

The most over-quoted poem of the last year is W.B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming”, with its memorable line that “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold … The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” But the problem with the centre ground is not a lack of conviction but a failure of imagination – and repeated underestimation of forces over which they thought they had triumphed.

In one of Blair’s more overrated speeches, delivered at the 1999 Labour Party conference, he declared that the twenty-first century “will not be about the battle between capitalism and socialism but between the forces of progress and the forces of conservatism.” In the determination to sweep away the “old order”, too much was invested in the idea that modernisation, multi-culturalism and multi-lateralism was the terrain on which victory would be built. The double irony is that it is now Blair who finds himself defending an “old order” today. The self-styled saviours of centrism will need to offer more than counter-revolution if they are to make any dent on national politics. A simple restatement of progressive internationalism will not be enough. Above all, to an extent that they had not been prepared for, they must learn to love the nation state again.

Join our mailing list