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Tony Blair: the alternative to the strongman can’t be a weak centre

Tony Blair: the alternative to the strongman can’t be a weak centre

We’re in a new and potentially dangerous political situation, Tony Blair has said.

Speaking with Gillian Tett, the US managing editor of the Financial Times, at the No Labels conference in Washington DC, Mr. Blair said that:
“It’s important to emphasise a few things. The first is: populism is not new. Concern about immigration isn’t new. Globalisation is not new in its effects. But what is new are two things: first of all, post-financial crisis and with all the change in the world, people are insecure and anxious. They see their communities and societies around them changing. And there is an immense amount of anger, as we don’t seem to be able to provide for people in the way that they wish. Second, social media is a revolutionary phenomenon. It changes everything. It totally changes the way politics works. 
But I’m absolutely convinced that the only way to confront the anger is to provide the answers. That’s why a strong centre is the only way to do it. We need a centre that is not a flabby, lowest common denominator, wishy-washy between the left and the right. We something that is strong and muscular and that is providing answers to the challenges people face.”
Mr. Blair said what is also new and troubling to me is that “if you look at the analysis that has just been done of support for democracy in democratic countries, some of these figures are to me quite shocking.” He added that:
“I think there is a real risk that we forget what liberal democratic values are about and we don’t understand that these values are absolutely fundamental to the human condition improving. But I think it all comes back to, well, what is going to be the alternative to the strongman? And the alternative to the strongman can’t be a weak centre.
“If you want to push away and defeat this type of strongman politics, the centre’s got to be strong and it’s got to be vibrant and it’s got to be dynamic. Otherwise you will find a situation where people say – this is most acute among young people, by the way – ‘Well, I’ve got no particular adherence to democracy, I just want the job done, so if this guy says he can do the job then let’s get him elected.’”
On the role of social media, he said that:
“Today people know, or think they know, about the world. They break into self-conforming groups, they share the same opinion, they reinforce the same opinion, and they become very angry about the way of the world because they don’t see politics as a difficult business where you’re having to grind out results and take difficult decisions. They see it just in terms of an instantaneous like or dislike.”
Mr. Blair also spoke about integration, saying that:
“This is where people expect us to have an honest conversation. The problem we have is with a part – and I choose my words carefully – a part of the Muslim community. It’s not with all the Muslim community. But the best way to deal with these problems is to put them on the table and say let’s work it out and deal with it. But it’s when we appear to hesitate in dealing with it when you get the problem. When people come into a country from diverse cultures – and diversity is strength, not a weakness for a nation – you have to be very clear. You have to say:  here is the space for diversity, where people practice their own faith, in their own way, according to religion, and that’s great. But here is the common space. Here is the space where we agree we all share these values. Respect for democracy. Respect for the rights of women. Respect for the rule of law. Respect for the basic freedoms of our country. In Europe today you could galvanise support around those principles. But if it becomes a situation where people are pro-immigrant or anti-immigrant, that is, in my view, a dangerous situation, because you lose the ability to create the necessary space that people hold in common, so that integration happens and people feel equal citizens of a country as they share that common space. This is the only way it will work in my view.”
Watch the full conversation here. 

Speaking with Gillian Tett, the US managing editor of the Financial Times, at the No Labels conference in Washington DC, Mr. Blair said that:

“It’s important to emphasise a few things. The first is: populism is not new. Concern about immigration isn’t new. Globalisation is not new in its effects. But what is new are two things: first of all, post-financial crisis and with all the change in the world, people are insecure and anxious. They see their communities and societies around them changing. And there is an immense amount of anger, as we don’t seem to be able to provide for people in the way that they wish. Second, social media is a revolutionary phenomenon. It changes everything. It totally changes the way politics works. 

"But I’m absolutely convinced that the only way to confront the anger is to provide the answers. That’s why a strong centre is the only way to do it. We need a centre that is not a flabby, lowest common denominator, wishy-washy between the left and the right. We something that is strong and muscular and that is providing answers to the challenges people face.”

Mr. Blair said what is also new and troubling to me is that “if you look at the analysis that has just been done of support for democracy in democratic countries, some of these figures are to me quite shocking.” He added that:

“I think there is a real risk that we forget what liberal democratic values are about and we don’t understand that these values are absolutely fundamental to the human condition improving. But I think it all comes back to, well, what is going to be the alternative to the strongman? And the alternative to the strongman can’t be a weak centre.

“If you want to push away and defeat this type of strongman politics, the centre’s got to be strong and it’s got to be vibrant and it’s got to be dynamic. Otherwise you will find a situation where people say – this is most acute among young people, by the way – ‘Well, I’ve got no particular adherence to democracy, I just want the job done, so if this guy says he can do the job then let’s get him elected.’”

On the role of social media, he said that:

“Today people know, or think they know, about the world. They break into self-conforming groups, they share the same opinion, they reinforce the same opinion, and they become very angry about the way of the world because they don’t see politics as a difficult business where you’re having to grind out results and take difficult decisions. They see it just in terms of an instantaneous like or dislike.”

Mr. Blair also spoke about integration, saying that:

“This is where people expect us to have an honest conversation. The problem we have is with a part – and I choose my words carefully – a part of the Muslim community. It’s not with all the Muslim community. But the best way to deal with these problems is to put them on the table and say let’s work it out and deal with it. But it’s when we appear to hesitate in dealing with it when you get the problem. When people come into a country from diverse cultures – and diversity is strength, not a weakness for a nation – you have to be very clear. You have to say:  here is the space for diversity, where people practice their own faith, in their own way, according to religion, and that’s great. But here is the common space. Here is the space where we agree we all share these values. Respect for democracy. Respect for the rights of women. Respect for the rule of law. Respect for the basic freedoms of our country. In Europe today you could galvanise support around those principles. But if it becomes a situation where people are pro-immigrant or anti-immigrant, that is, in my view, a dangerous situation, because you lose the ability to create the necessary space that people hold in common, so that integration happens and people feel equal citizens of a country as they share that common space. This is the only way it will work in my view.”

Watch the full conversation here