Tony Blair: Britain faces a painful Brexit...or a pointless one

The former British PM speaks to The National about the importance of leadership in challenging times

As the United Kingdom braces for further political turmoil over its exit from the European Union, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair says the country now faces a stark choice: a “painful” Brexit or a “pointless” one.

In an exclusive interview with The National in Dubai, Mr Blair, who is an advocate of holding a second referendum on Brexit, said: "There is no Brexit that is going to unite the country. The country is divided. Some people say to me that another referendum might divide the country, well the country is divided. There is no point in kidding ourselves".

Mr Blair was in Dubai to attend the Global Education and Skills forum that concluded on Monday night. He spoke about the importance of leadership and how to set the right policies in challenging times.

At the heart of how to deal with Brexit is leadership, he said, similar to dealing with the polarisation that the world is facing. Mr Blair also lauded the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and how she has responded to the terror attacks in Christchurch.

Mr Blair’s comments come with only four days left before the official deadline that was set for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, with no clear path forward after repeated failed attempts by Prime Minister Theresa May to arrive at a negotiated solution to the impasse within her own part and in Parliament. Mr Blair did not hold back in criticising the political wrangling over Brexit, calling it a “mess”.

“The problem has been that we have, I am afraid, wasted two and a half years in a negotiation that was never going to succeed, where Britain tried to have the benefits of access to Europe’s single market and customs union without the obligations, which was never going to work,” he said.

Despite his criticisms, Mr Blair is not a supporter of removing the current prime minister. “I am not sure what a new leader at this point really solves. It would be a different person taking forward the negotiation. For me, whoever is Prime Minister has got to switch into this facilitator role – it is the only way you are going to make sense of the bitter, bitter divisions that there are. I also think if I was a conservative MP, you have to think long and hard about swapping over another prime minister.”

After Mrs May's Brexit deal suffered two defeats in Parliament, some voices have been calling for a general election. Asked whether a general election is now necessary, Mr Blair said: "no I don't think so, because I am not sure what a general election does right now. There are different views in both political parties. I think it is better that we treat Brexit as a sui generis issue. You should have another referendum with a final say on what parliament has decided. A general election doesn't solve the issue".

Mr Blair is clearly of the view that the final say over Brexit should be put to a referendum, in a move that has become known as ‘the People’s vote’. With reportedly over 1.5 million Britons marching in London last weekend and over 5.3 million signing a petition to remain in the European Union, Mr Blair said the case for a second referendum is even more compelling.

He explained: “If I was a member of Parliament and I saw that size of a march, and even more the online petition that is at 5 million people now. That is a lot of people to get exercised about an issue. The case to go and give the final say to the people is in any event in principle very strong, because when we voted in June 2016, we knew what we were voting to leave but we didn’t know what the new relationship would be.”

He said that it is reasonable to put another vote to the people once the decision has been made about the future of the relationship between the EU and Britain.

“Honestly, I struggle to find how people can say it is an undemocratic thing. I know we voted to leave but we have now had almost three years with a decision of this magnitude and this mess, I think it is perfectly understandable to say if people vote for Brexit then we have to do it,” he said.

Mr Blair was quite clear in that he did not believe Brexit was inevitable, saying: “It can be stopped if Britain is allowed to think again, whether it will or not, that is a matter that the next two or three weeks will tell us a lot about”.

He added: “I am passionately opposed to Brexit; I hope we can stop it. But if it goes forward, we will sort ourselves out in the end. Britain remains a great country, with great people, great culture and tradition. Its politics may look like a big mess at the moment, but we will sort it out. Long term, don’t be under any doubt, Britain will get back on its feet again and be a global force. The quicker we do it, the better”.

And yet that remains some time away. On the next necessary steps, Mr Blair said that “what we have to do is put in place an agreed process or plan for resolving Brexit. That is going to require parliament to come to an agreement, not necessarily at this stage on what the conclusion is on Brexit but a process for getting to that conclusion”.

The United Kingdom continues to face a “binary and stark” choice, according to Mr Blair, who said that “Brexit can mean one of two things: it can mean a closer relationship with Europe in trading terms which means membership of the single market or customs union or you can break out of those two things”.

He added that “it is a choice of Brexit that is pointless or one that is painful, but frankly that is the choice. The trouble is that at the moment neither parliament nor the country is willing to face up to the binary and stark nature of that choice, but that is what is going to happen. So what we need is a process agreed to find out what it is that parliament wants and then the question will arise do we put the final say with the people”.

While Mr Blair has become much more involved in British politics over the past two years because of Brexit, he has no plans to return to parliamentary politics. “I am obviously heavily involved in the campaign, my institute is really trying to develop a modern policy agenda for what I would call in the centre ground of politics, but I have no intentions of plans to go into the front line myself”.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay leave 10 Downing Street in London, Monday, March 25, 2019. Embattled Prime Minister Theresa May was scrambling Sunday to win over adversaries to her Brexit withdrawal plan as key Cabinet ministers denied media reports that they were plotting to oust her. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay leave 10 Downing Street in London, Monday, March 25, 2019. AP

However, asked what he would do if he was in Downing Street today, he said: “I would be the educator, the facilitator, the arbitrator rather than try as the prime minister, and this is the mistake of the prime minister, to try and push for a particular outcome when there is no way that you can get an outcome that will unite country. You have to lay out the different types of Brexit and then try to lead them to a conclusion – and you do that by being more of a referee than a team captain”.

He added: “One of the things we have to rediscover in politics is the role of leadership. Leaders should listen but they have to lead in the end”. And while Mr Blair is an advocate of a second referendum, he is not a fan of holding referenda to decide major policies.

He said: “One of the things that this whole Brexit thing has taught us is the virtue of parliamentary democracy and the virtue of it over plebiscite democracy, because truthfully these are situations where the detail does matter”.

Mr Blair remains a member of the Labour party, however he said “it is plainly not where we were in the days of New Labour, although I still think there is a significant part of the party that wants a modern, progressive Labour party that is capable of providing modern solutions to the problem we have”.

The sharp divisions in British politics today are not isolated, with Western liberal democracies facing a number of challenges, including fragmentation and polarisation.

Mr Blair said “politics today is conducted in a completely different atmosphere, it has been revolutionised by social media, the post-financial crisis has made politics more difficult, although I am a bit of a sceptic about the degree to which that in itself is changing things. We live in a fast changing world where people want to cling on to identity and they worry they are losing control of the environment around them and they want to feel some sense of belonging and that not everything in the world is changing without their consent or control”.

Anti-Brexit campaigner Steve Bray (2nd R) and a pro-Brexit supporter clash outside the Houses of Parliament in London on March 25, 2019. Accused of presiding over an unprecedented national humiliation in her chaotic handling of Brexit, British Prime Minister Theresa May has all but lost control of her party and her government. / AFP / Adrian DENNIS
Brexiteers and Remainers, in parliament and public, continue to be at loggerheads over the way forward. AFP.

The solution lies in leadership, as Mr Blair explained, that “the right politics is to show people that they can be optimistic about the future, and they can be helped to it. There are policies and programmes that can allow people that they do still have their own identity whilst being happy coexisting in a world that is changing around them”.

Mr Blair said this is true of countries all over the world and gave the UAE as an example of navigating change and maintaining a strong sense of identity. He said “what the UAE represents in the Middle East is also important because there is an aspect to it that is very much about promoting cultural tolerance, reaching out to people who are different, this is the way the world has got to work”.

Mr Blair was critical of the current political climate in western countries, stating that in “the West at the moment, the left wants to target business and blame it, the right wants to target immigrants and blame them and we have got to stop searching for scapegoats and start searching for solutions”.

One country whose leadership has stood out is New Zealand, whose Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has won worldwide support for her response to the Christchurch attacks.

Mr Blair said that she has shown “great leadership” and that she was a “global emblem” of how to conduct leadership in a coexistent and respectful way.

“The challenge is you have to deal with the people propagating hate, whether the hatred is derived from Islamophobia or far-right hate or from the Islamist side of the spectrum. You have to deal with that,” he said.

“In the end it is important to give a solid sense of the right sentiments and right feelings but ultimately we will have to investigate how this far right ideology and propaganda is originating, we will have to deal with it, likewise with the ideologues on the other side”.

Dealing with this extremism requires a number of measures. Mr Blair explained that “what works is a combination of arguing for a framework for co-existence [and] at the same time you are promoting tolerance, you set the limits of tolerance.

“In the end, you have to be intolerant of intolerance, for example you can say here is free speech, but if you are abusing free speech to incite hatred, that is not acceptable”.