‘Do you know why British politics is so acrimonious?’ I heard one man in a dark blue suit and pale blue open-necked shirt say to another, dressed just the same. ‘Because the stakes are so low.’ This was a somewhat heretical thing to say at an event that had been convened to remind us that the stakes have never been higher. The occasion was the Future of Britain conference, organised by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and presided over by the man himself. Its theme was that British politics is failing to meet the challenges or seize the opportunities of the 21st century. There were sessions on technological transformation, on climate, on the cost of living crisis, and on Britain’s place in a fast-changing world. Some of the talk was apocalyptic, some of it was euphoric. The options were invariably stark. No one seemed to think nothing was at stake.
Still, the men in blue had a point. We were meeting in the sleek conference room of a soulless Central London hotel. We could have been anywhere. Some of the speakers addressed us as though context was irrelevant; all that mattered was content flow. Evan Spiegel, the impossibly rich, impossibly young-looking co-founder and CEO of Snap Inc. (formerly Snapchat) was there in person. He talked about augmented reality and what his company was doing for young people’s mental health with the air of being barely present among us; he might as well have beamed in the good news from outer space. There was a film of Condoleezza Rice interviewing Larry Ellison about what could be learned from the vertically integrated corporate model being pioneered by Elon Musk at Tesla. Barring Blair’s, Musk’s was the name most cited on the day – sometimes mockingly, more often favourably. Does Elon Musk ever give a second thought to the future of British politics? I rather doubt it.
Nor was there much evidence of political acrimony. Blair commended Peter Kyle, an upwardly mobile member of the shadow cabinet, for attending, given that being seen in Blair’s company is no way to get ahead in the Labour Party these days (what happens behind the scenes is another matter). But for Kyle, and for other attendees from the world of politics, it must have seemed like a pretty cosy exercise in courage. No one was giving anyone else a hard time. The only note of bitterness I could detect came when Polly Mackenzie, policy director for Nick Clegg in the coalition government, suggested the whole thing had a whiff of technocracy about it. Blair bristled at that. How could he be called a technocrat when he had spent the best years of his life battling to win elections at the head of a party that seems to specialise in losing them? But otherwise, Blair watched the cavalcade of presentations with a mix of wry amusement and wide-eyed enthusiasm. He was like a kid in the candy store of progressive centrism.
The real tension on the platform wasn’t party political. It lay between the solutionists and the realists. Many of the speakers talked about technology, or education, or healthcare, or climate change, as though we all know what needs to be done – embrace, innovate, incentivise, reform – and it’s just a question of mustering the will to do it. Blair said in his concluding remarks that the aim of the day was not to establish a new political movement – let alone a new political party – but simply to elaborate a ‘strong policy agenda for reasonable people to adopt when they need it’. Ah, the reasonable people: where are they when we need them? But a few speakers struck a more sombre note. Larry Summers, one of the original architects of the third way, warned of some very difficult years ahead, as politicians grappled with an inflationary, war-torn, Covid-battered economic environment. Tough trade-offs were inevitable. The enthusiasts suggested that truly smart solutions could bypass the need for hard choices. But anyone engaged with the world as it looks in 2022 can see hard choices all around.
Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies summed up the state of Britain’s political economy in a single chart. For the best part of two generations healthcare spending had gone up while defence spending went down: battleships into hospitals. But now, with no sign of health getting any less expensive, the defence budget was about to rise too, at a time when the Treasury was maxxed out on its many post-Covid commitments. There are still potential solutions, of course: the tax system remains horribly inefficient, with too many subsidies on offer for the wrong things. The route to higher growth and productivity is also reasonably clear: money spent on education produces the best return; open trade with our nearest and richest trading partners generates the most wealth. But returns on education take a long time to come through, and even Blair accepts that the UK will not be rejoining the EU anytime soon. So, in the meanwhile, what remains? The nasty politics of tax rises and the even nastier politics of the people who refuse to countenance them.
On climate, the economist and hedge-fund manager Eric Lonergan, in other respects an exemplary solutionist, said he had taken inspiration from Extinction Rebellion regarding the politics of civil disobedience. He recommended a YouTube lecture by Roger Hallam, in which the XR co-founder explains that relatively small acts of protest can tip an entire society. Sometimes it just takes tens of thousands of people to refuse to comply with the status quo for tens of millions to reject it. (This is presumably a different lecture from the one in which Hallam insists that anyone serious about radical social change should not be afraid of Leninist coercion.) Earlier in the day Martin Lewis, the consumer champion and founder of MoneySavingExpert.com, also discussed the possibility of civil unrest. But Lewis was talking about a mass refusal to pay unaffordable energy bills. What’s more, he was talking about people whose choices on his surveys made clear that environmental issues mean nothing when it comes to meeting the cost of heating their homes.
It’s not impossible that XR-style protest and gilets jaunes-style resistance might join forces, even without a Lenin to bash their heads together. But it’s not easy to see how. They are such different kinds of politics: one has an intergenerational time horizon; the other is concerned with getting from this week to next. This gulf between the politics of the present – pinched, angry, insular – and the mooted politics of the future – collaborative, expansive, transformational – was barely discussed, never mind bridged. How do you get from here to there? Well, I wouldn’t start where we are now.
The only person who addressed this question with any real honesty was Blair. The day ended with a half-hour session in which the ex-PM gave us his learnings. He remains a compelling performer, intense, sincere, frequently funny, and more than a little strange. He reiterated his point that technocracy could not be the answer to the failings of democracy. But he conceded that some of the solutions on offer needed protecting from the whims of our current political masters. To rescue democracy from itself, the truly tricky stuff needed to be insulated from short-term political positioning and the incessant demands of the electoral cycle. Though there was much talk about what can be achieved when politicians of different parties work together, the biggest problems of our time are not amenable to consensus building. The environmentalist Steve Howard said we had seven or eight years to head off the worst of climate change. These are the same seven or eight years in which money is going to be tighter than ever, and electoral politics almost certainly more fractious as a result. Blair was acknowledging that no amount of talk about building a steely centre would square that circle.
Critics of the event said it was too redolent of the 1990s. Wasn’t Blair just trying to get the band back together? But that’s not the way it looked to me. Instead, like so much else at present, it had a whiff of the 1970s about it. That was the decade when a ‘crisis of democracy’ consensus – particularly among members of international organisations such as the Trilateral Commission – spawned a host of proposals to take the heat out of democracy by removing various institutions from its clutches, starting with the central banks. It was a decade of environmental doomsaying, inflationary terrors, repeated threats of civil disobedience and burgeoning tech utopianism. The result was Thatcherism, then New Labour, and the reassertion of electoral politics as the way to get everything back under control. It isn’t clear how many people believe that’s still possible. But Blair does believe it. His appetite for the cut and thrust of political argument remains impressively undimmed. After all, he doesn’t have to be doing this – sitting in an underground room being gawped at by people like me and listening to someone who once worked for Nick Clegg tell him he doesn’t understand what democracy really means. But there he was, looking both older and younger than his years.
He answered with patience the inevitable questions about whether he believed the Labour Party under Keir Starmer has what it takes to win the next election. He suggested that to seal the deal the party needs to reassure wavering Conservatives and Liberal Democrats that they had nothing to fear from a Labour government. To do that, the pitch to the voters had to be all about policy – the sorts of exciting ideas that had been bounced around at the Blair Institute and were being bandied about on the conference stage. It wasn’t enough not to be the other guy. Labour needed to rediscover itself as the party of fresh thinking.
But for any such policies to be believable, voters must also have confidence in the institutions that enact them. For all the talk at the Future of Britain conference about the possibilities of political change, there was next to nothing on offer about institutional renewal. Most notable by its absence was any discussion of whether Britain does actually have a future, given the looming possibility of another Scottish independence referendum and the growing divides between the constituent parts of the UK. Blair’s original calling card was his ability to join up the dots: he was the politician who wanted to show how it all fitted together, like his friend Bill Clinton, who once claimed to be in pursuit of ‘the unified field theory of politics’. Nothing felt joined up here. It was just a bunch of ideas looking for a home. And for anyone who currently feels politically homeless, there was no answer to the question of where to go.
Blair told his audience that what had struck him most forcibly since leaving office was how much he still had to learn. He was finding out new things all the time. Though he didn’t say it, there was a gentle irony in an event that spared nothing in its embrace of aspirational tech talk being hosted by a man who never once sent an email during his tenure in Downing Street. He didn’t know how. But in that sense, Blair is just like the rest of us. He has been discovering a whole world beyond what he thought he knew, opened up by the possibilities of 21st-century connectivity and fuelled by a fear that it is all getting out of control. Blair wants to channel his new knowledge back into domestic politics. But he couldn’t explain how it would possibly fit. You can’t put the world out there back into the world you once knew, the one that had left you ignorant of what was out there.
Blair was persuasive in arguing that there’s no point trying to start a new political party under current conditions. Likewise, there is little point in refighting Brexit. But nothing he said suggested that the existing political parties are suitable vehicles for the kinds of change he is after. British politics is for those who can’t imagine any other way of achieving their ends. In a different age – albeit not that long ago – that meant the people with the big ideas, including Blair himself. Not any more. And nothing that has happened in British politics in the week since Blair’s gathering, and will be happening in the weeks to come, is going to change that.
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