Tony Blair Says the Left Has Lost Its Way
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NEW YORK—Tony Blair thinks Americans are way too worried about Donald Trump—and not enough about Bernie Sanders.
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The former British prime minister, a perennial lightning rod for controversy across on both sides of the Atlantic, has in recent months chosen to return to the political fray, warning of the “destiny-changing” dangers of the British exit from the European Union and insisting—how, he’s not exactly sure—that last year’s “Brexit” vote can and should still be undone before it’s too late.
In a new interview for The Global Politico, our weekly podcast on global affairs, he tells me that he’s sure “the same feelings that gave rise to Brexit gave rise to the election of Donald Trump”—but that the left-wing populism peddled by Sanders and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in Britain are not the answer, either.
Blair, the onetime wunderkind of British politics who led the Labour Party and the country for 10 years from 1997 to 2007 preaching a Clintonian centrism he called the “Third Way” only to see his tenure end amid recriminations over his support for Republican George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, still punches hardest when he’s hitting to his left. In our conversation, he bashed today’s liberal leaders in both countries for “solutions that look back to the ‘60s or ‘70s” and for preaching a form of feel-good “identity politics” that will flop as an answer to Trumpism.
“You can go for what are very good-sounding things like, we’re going to abolish tuition fees, or we’re going to give you this for free, or that for free,” he says, calling out both America’s Democrats and Britain’s Labourites. “In today’s world, and in particular, in the absence of a vigorous change-making center, that’s very attractive. But I don’t think it’s answer, and I’m not sure it would win an election. Maybe it would, but even if it did, it would worry me. Because in the end, I think a lot of these solutions aren’t really progressive. And they don’t correspond to what the problem of the modern world is.”
But it’s Blair’s comments about Trump as much as his disdain for Sanders and Corbyn that are likely to infuriate many U.S liberals.
Just a few months ago, Blair stirred outrage when he told his former communications chief Alastair Campbell in a British GQ interview that Democrats “just go mental with you” at even the suggestion of working with Trump and that the divisive U.S. president who has spoken of the mainstream press as “enemies of the people” may have a point about his “polarized and partisan” media coverage.
Blair did not back away from that in our interview, saying it’s a mistake “just to go in flat-out opposition” to Trump, that the American president may well end up as a traditional Republican at least on foreign policy and arguing Trump has “actually been helpful” in the Middle East, where Blair has served as a mediator for the quartet of Western powers trying to achieve a long-elusive peace settlement.
Trump, he says, has correctly identified “an extraordinary and one-off opportunity” to move toward a deal between Israel and Arab states that may finally be willing to “move on” from the Palestinian issue. “I do think there’s a big opportunity there, and I think that the White House understands that,” Blair tells me, voicing an optimism that few other peace-process veterans share.
“I can’t afford to be in a position of just treating President Trump as if he’s part of a sort of interesting comedy show,” Blair says.
Still only 64 even after a full decade out of power, Blair retains the sheen of global political celebrity, at least on this side of the Atlantic. He is polished and trim, and seems ready to spar with anyone in his current signature outfit of sharp navy suit and bright pink tie, not so much a retiree as a political exile who has ventured back into the fray at a time when the fray hasn’t exactly welcomed him.