Tony Blair’s speech to Chatham House, 1pm Friday 15 January 2021
I campaigned so long and so passionately against Brexit because I believed it to be a strategic error not just of policy but of destiny. I haven't changed my mind about its wisdom. But reality is reality. We have done it. We must live with it. We should make the best of it. And as I have said recently, if a return to Europe is ever to be undertaken by a new generation, Britain should do it as a successful nation Europe is anxious to embrace, not as supplicant with no other options.
In any event, we should make a virtue of necessity and see in Brexit’s consequences, an opportunity and an obligation to renew our country and its place in the world.
To succeed post Brexit, Britain must make radical changes. It is no longer: ‘Leave or Remain’ but ‘Change or Decline’.
Brexit obliges this precisely because without such changes, Britain’s future is inevitably poorer and weaker.
Brexiteers balk at this stark statement, but this is where any sensible debate about the future must begin. Just as Brexit is a reality, so are the short term consequences of doing it. This is not to say that long term, these consequences cannot be reversed, and Britain’s future be bright. I believe it can be. But it is to recognise that if we leave the decision-making forum of the world’s most significant political Union and de-liberalise our trade with the world’s largest commercial market, both on our doorstep and on our continent, the immediate effect cannot seriously be other than to lose political power and face more difficult economic circumstances.
The right response therefore is to treat Brexit as a jolt, to act as a catalyst for change which is necessary even without Brexit and could have been done without doing Brexit, but which, by the challenge it poses, Brexit somehow enables.
So, in what is a short speech, here are some framing thoughts, though each would merit a long essay.
First, a country is more influential and powerful externally if it is successful internally. People will pay more attention to us, treat our views more considerately, be more willing to be our allies, if our economy is strong, our society cohesive, if people look at us and see a nation to emulate. Britain has core strengths: some world class companies including in new tech, a preeminent financial sector, our Universities as centres of innovation, the English language, a good geography and for all the divisions over Brexit, we are broadly a socially tolerant liberal democracy. Neither climate nor identity politics divide us with anything like the rancour of the USA.
We should take these strengths and build on them. The aim should be to put us at the forefront of technological innovation and make Britain the best place in the world to do business. We will need major reforms to our public services, welfare, our regions and our infrastructure as part of a big vision big plan for the economic and social renewal of Britain. Easy to say. Hard to do. Especially post Covid 19.
And we can't afford to lose any part of the UK in the process.
Second, we need to review and reshape our alliances. One thing I learnt in my 10 years as PM is that alliances only really solidify if you're prepared to spend political capital to secure them. Anyone can be ‘friends’ when the going is easy. It’s when your allies seeing you taking tough decisions to lock in the alliance that the respect and therefore leverage is earned.
So, we need to recreate points of connection and depth with our two key allies – Europe and the USA. Even after Brexit, there is plenty we can do with Europe: climate change and future pandemic preparedness; energy cooperation; aid; a common front on aspects of foreign policy and defence. With imagination, I could see us also cooperating with European countries in areas like the regulatory framework for big tech or in Research and Development.
I fear the unresolved issues after the Brexit deal will be a potential impediment.
Nonetheless, if we subordinate narrow nationalist politics to genuine national interest statecraft, we can work together in a productive alliance.
With the USA, the emphasis of the new Administration on climate gives us an immediate point of partnership with the Climate summit in Glasgow this December. Likewise, our G7 leadership should allow us to work closely with the USA over how we plug the yawning gaps in the Global Health System exposed by Covid 19.
Our alliance with America has deep roots in security, defence and economy. And we could add to them. We could, for example, become partners in development and building support for democratic values.
Power is shifting East and in a few decades the world’s geo-political power structure will look very different. India will eventually be a global giant. We should put enormous effort into that relationship. The last two decades have seen Britain forge a modern position within the continent of Africa, and this is a continent on the move and on the up.
We have huge relationships in the Gulf and Middle East; have developed a close relationship with Japan and South East Asia over time.
The point is we have a lot going for us; but we need to redouble the work to prove value.
Third, China is its own special issue. At present, Western countries are without a strategic framework for engagement, torn between seeming to appease a much more aggressive and powerful Chinese State and turning China into the 21st equivalent of the Soviet Union. Europe is going to be under heavy pressure from the USA to be allies in what is virtually the only bi-partisan area of foreign policy – confrontation of China.
The UK – with again some creativity – can help construct a bridge between these two positions, charting a path to ensuring at least some space for dialogue and cooperation with China, even as the West confronts and competes where necessary.
Fourth, we have a strong Foreign Office now with the old Department of Development within. I was not in agreement with the merger and am opposed to the cut in aid because I think it will weaken our global claims. But we still have a big budget, the merger, if properly used, could make more coherent our foreign policy offer, and make it weightier.
Fifth, our Armed Forces are globally admired. We should invest in them and make them at the cutting edge of military innovation in personnel, assets, and deployment.
We should aspire to be thought leaders. We can't alter our size. But countries do, in the old cliché, ‘punch above their weight’ and that should be our ambition. When I look at some of the countries my Institute works with, some may have a small population, but their reach is disproportionate to their size. The UK is much larger, but the principle is the same.
They have one thing in common, however: political leadership prepared to take tough, courageous, bold decisions.
Here is where the state of British politics makes me queasy. Both main political Parties have contradictions to resolve.
The Brexit coalition which brought the Conservative Party its election victory, consists of some who see Brexit as the facilitator of a new, reforming, global Britain; and others, notably in the old Labour seats of the North, who see Brexit as allowing us to return to the nation ‘we once were’. One is small ‘r’ radical; the other small ‘c’ conservative.
The Labour Party also has a tension between its modernising wing which sees radical change as coming from new forms of economic and social capital and its old, small ‘c’ conservative left which believes that the solutions lie in the return to traditional institutions of collective and State power.
Therefore, the colossal downside risk for Britain is that the political debate continues in conventional directions – who spends or taxes more, who ‘supports’ most the NHS, who is most generous with welfare, umpteen versions of who preserves the status quo best, when it is only by rigorous analysis of the way the world is changing that we have any prospect of securing our future.
These contradictions can be resolved, a strong, successful outward-looking Britain can arise post Brexit. But only if we accept: Brexit of itself doesn't make it so; and without action and leadership, Brexit will only exacerbate the challenge the forces of change at work in the world present us, unless we make a supreme effort to understand these forces, harness them and make them our servant.
This is the moment of truth for the pro Brexit and anti Brexit camps alike. The answers aren't found in outdated ideology but in unifying values, clarity of thinking, competence and delivery. This is the political space we must inhabit. The alternative is inexorable decline.