Speeches

Tony Blair speech at Blenheim Palace

Blenheim Palace, October 1, 2007: What I want to talk to you about tonight is really how I see the debate about globalisation in politics today. And the real dividing line to think of in modern politics has less to do with traditional positions of right versus left, more to do today, with what I would call the modern choice, which is open versus closed.

If you take any of the big motivating debates in politics today, in Europe or America, international engagement or isolation, immigration -is it good or bad, free trade - a benefit or a fear. Each essentially has, at its core, this question: "Do we open up? Albeit with rules and controls, or do we hunker down, do we close ourselves off and wait till the danger has passed? Is globalisation a threat or an opportunity?" It's the same central issue.

Now, naturally none of these are truly tradable as absolutes. No one, I don't think, believes in uncontrolled immigration and nobody, at least outside North Korea, wants a closed economy. But the basic predisposition is what counts. Do we prefer to be open and when we can we are? Or do we open up only from necessity, closing if we are able.

In Britain, the modern Labour Party has undoubtedly gone for the open position. Interestingly, it is the Conservative party that appears to be more closed but not to be fair on the economic issue. But elsewhere you'll find the open and the closed on either of the traditional political categories of right and left. And it has got some fascinating implications, actually, for electoral calculations.

Often in a country you will find a crossover with open and closed positions being taken simultaneously by different parts of one party. In America right now, the President is definitely on the open side of the immigration and trade arguments that would be opposed by many Republicans, likewise, free trade Democrats are not exactly shouting from the rooftops right now. Even here in Britain, although the Labour Party today is clearly for open, parts of the trade unions are definitely not.

And often the clash is as much cultural as it is political. Immigration changes the nature of our society not just the individuals in it. Today, for example, we take it as read that the City of London is foreign-owned, as are some of our most hallowed and ancient British corporate institutions. But, I can tell you when the process first began on foreign ownership it was hugely controversial.

In the North East for example, as the mines shut down in the 1980s there was a fierce debate in Parliament about foreign investment, focussed on the advent of the Nissan car company. But, back then - even though now people accept it - back then, people thought it was a betrayal even to contemplate such a thing. And this underscores I think the profound characteristic of the modern world: the speed of change.

In truth, globalisation is a fact. It's why resisting it is self-defeating and even absurd. But the inevitable consequence of it, is unquestionably challenging because it makes change happen at break neck speed and indeed if you decide to open up, and if you are on the open side of the argument, it happens even faster. That's why the natural inclination is to ward it off or seek to place limits on it.

You see echoes of this here in Britain for example in the debates over private equity companies. There's a perfectly sensible debate over the tax treatment of capital gains and whether that is a legitimate form of tax avoidance. But underneath that entirely rational argument is actually another, which is the speed at which a take over can be mounted and a company changed, and all the risky, often frightening implications for those that work there.

And this is a different type of argument, but it awakens all the old primeval fears about the nature of capitalism. And recent events in the financial market show again the truth of the proposition that globalisation presses the fast forward button of world events. However, it's not just economically, but politically that this happens. It may happen, for example in the way the European Union has grown in just a few years from 15 states to 27, an extraordinary period of growth. Or, to take a less benign example, five years back, there was no way Iran would have found itself in any way at all in alliance with Al'Qaeda. I remember raising the possibility a couple of years back, and being told that I simply didn't understand it was unthinkable for theological, political, cultural, regional reasons and yet today it is happening.

And it's happening partly because, as the world opens up and globalisation, and the technology that comes with it offers new and unparalleled possibilities for communication and exchange. Then alliances politically disintegrate and new ones are formed within months under the pressure of events, when it would have taken a generation in earlier times.

So I'm saying this - that globalisation, and the interdependence and speed of change that accompanies it, is a fact. However, what we do about it is a choice.

I advocate openness, see it primarily as an opportunity not a threat, believe we should embrace it and equip our people and our countries for it. We should do so because it actually is the only way to cope with the inevitable but do so also because a world that is opening up offers a chance for a more just and fair and kind way of ordering human affairs. In other words, for me, I don't wish globalisation wasn't happening, but none the less accept that it is. I like it, I think it's great that London strives and thrives today partly as a result of the many influences from the outside as well as the inherent talent within.

However, such ebullient optimism is dangerous unless it is partnered by the changes necessary in thinking, policy and attitude to make such openness work. I don't, in other words, believe in a laissez faire approach to global change. On the contrary I think it requires enormously determined and active handling. I said open versus closed is often more important today than the traditional right versus left, but how openness is managed, how its opportunities are garnered and its risks withstood, this is emphatically a live issue between the conservative and progressive ends of the political spectrum. More than that, without a worked out strategy, based on a proper analysis of the impact of an open policy, then such a policy may not work, or even be counter productive.

So, what are the lessons of the past decade for globalisation and how we handle it?

First, I think for countries, companies and people there is a huge premium today for all of us on the ability to adapt, on flexibility, on willingness to engage with and welcome change. The welfare state, the public services of any modern developed nation are subject to stresses and strains that require deep and even at points constant, evolutions, sometimes revolutions, certainly reform. The excitement that the new French President creates is a reflection I think, of his country's desire for, and willingness to engage with the means for change. Of course the doing is infinitely harder than the talking, as I know. But even setting out on such a path has galvanised and awakened and stimulated his country.

I always used to say my worry with our reform programmes was the precise opposite of the usual complaint of the critics. I worried that we weren't going far enough, fast enough. But, part of the new world being shaped by global forces, including consumer preference is actually for all governments, a far more assertive, picky user of services, whose expectations are continually on the rise. In this governments are no different from companies, we have to beat existing expectations and anticipate the next wave and at the same time, what holds good one year could just be simply swept away by events the next. Fail to spot this and you fail to understand the new context in which we operate.

Three years ago, for example, energy policy was barely on the agenda of most international summits. Today it will dominate the agenda. Nuclear power was a no no for most Europeans even a couple of years ago. Now most people would accept, however reluctantly, it is part of the future. Ironically too, the very fact of being open means tougher, sometimes more restrictive measures to prevent abuse. I believe migration essentially to be beneficial, but I know consent for it is dependent on tougher points, even draconian measures, to ensure the integrity of the systems that control it. The international treaties governing it however, are hopelessly antiquated, forged as they were in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

Individuals face the same pressure. I mean what is work life balance as a concept other than an attempt to make sense of the change in society and work that people have willed - they've done it deliberately - and yet as consequences of the new mechanisms of support?

People realise today that to succeed, they have to adapt, to acquire new skills, to change jobs - even countries - to be adventurous. But if a welfare state wants to spend on child care, and pre and after school activity, if it wants to invest in skills, then what is it going to spend less on to pay for this?

Secondly, we all talk, indeed I did once famously about the importance of education in the modern world, but we are still not really internalising the revolutionary change in thinking needed to make its importance a governing principle of a modern society.

Actually in a sense it might be what needs to happen, is that we alter our notion of what we mean by education - we usually think of it as learning, sitting and passing exams, acquiring knowledge. At best, for sure, expanding our horizons. But the reality is that for today's world it is about the development of the whole person. It's not about a skill or an aptitude or a qualification, it is about also nurturing an attitude, one that is open, and creative. One in other words that fits the world's zeitgeist today.

So what a modern employer looks for, increasingly, is not just the GCSEs or the A-levels or the quality of degree, but also the turn of mind, the ability to get on with people, the spirit and character of a person. And for this the education system needs to be far more focussed on broad not narrow skills, on extra as well as intra-curricular activities and on different ways of teaching and learning. But again to do all this will require governments and states to undertake the most profound structural reform. The old monolithic systems of education are too cumbersome, too conservative, too narrow to work. That's why the academy system, modelled in a sense on the best of British private schools and which I'm pleased to see our own government, taking forward, is so revolutionary in its implications. It's not about new buildings and equipment, vital though they are. It's about the freedom to adapt, to innovate to circumvent unnecessary bureaucracy, whether that of the government's curriculum, the local authority structures, or the teaching unions' rules.

So, obviously there are these internal issues that arise from globalisation and change within a country. But it is in the international dimension, of course, that globalisation is fundamental. After all that's the whole point. Globalisation trashes national boundaries, gives people a means of universal communication and spreads ideas and ideology as much as capital or technology.

Yet it is here that global politics so chronically lags behind global reality. One of the difficult things incidentally, is also to realise that globalisation brings with it different cultures meeting each other.

We could take a number of issues, the environment, Africa, world trade, and in many if not all of them we would find a clear global challenge, with the potential for good or ill, and yet the global response is unbelievably incremental and timid. I will deal with just on: the new global terrorism based on a perversion of Islam.

What is interesting about this is that it is utterly a reaction of nature. It is quintessentially formed on a retreat from the modern world. At its crux is actually a desire to be closed off from economic development, from interaction with other cultures, from the social and philosophical advances that have characterised the Western world for around four centuries. Yet the intriguing thing is that though the ideology is atavistic and backward, the methods it utilizes are very modern. It understands the power of terror to cause chaos, and undermine the critical ingredient of developed societies and economies, which is confidence. It communicates across the world with ease. Its propaganda is crude, but effective. It plays to innate fears and sensitivities in the culture it is addressing, Islam, and it plays to our own culture, with its guilt and uncertainty about our superior standards of living, with consummate skill. But above all, it has a narrative and an explanation it offers to its own, to its possible recruits and to us its enemy. For us to deal with it requires a better, more powerful, more compelling narrative. One that is equally addressed, not just to ourselves, but to our possible recruits and to our enemy. We have to make the case for openness, for the benefits of a global community, for the strengths that come from diversity, for the liberating possibilities of the values of tolerance, respect for others and equality of treatment, whether between race, genders, different abilities or sexuality. We've only to list such attributes to recognise however, the incompatibility of such a position with the closed attitude, for example to trade, or to international action or to immigration. We can't defeat such an ideology, or certainly can't counter it persuasively, if we share, albeit in an entirely more benign and mild and harmless way, some of the same attitudes.

The most compelling narrative is one in which we assert with confidence that the wealth and opportunity and benefit that comes from societies, economies and cultures that are open, can be allowed, in a new global community taking shape around us, as offering hope for the future and not fear.

In other words our narrative has got to say globalisation is a tremendous opportunity for people; to be open to the changes that are happening in the world is right, for our world in the early twenty-first century. However, and here is surely the element most missing from the outline of such a narrative currently in place, this world view will not convince on the basis of its material advantages alone, unless it is also about ensuring those advantages are distributed, widely and fairly. In other words, an open society is good, its benefits easily promulgated, if it is also fair. If it considers itself as being under obligations, especially to the less fortunate, as well as providing new and rich opportunities for those already in the circle of achievers. Our narrative, in my view, to defeat this terrorism and its ideology, cannot therefore only be about freedom, or even democracy, right though those things undoubtedly are. It also has to be about justice, about equality, at least of status and opportunity, about fairness.

Think if as well as fighting terrorism with all the necessary instruments of the military and security, we were also fighting it comprehensively at the level of ideas: the Millennium Development Goals within reach; the urgency in respect of global warming exhibited; peace in the Middle East as well as war. Think how much more powerful the narrative would be. Think that as well as the pre-emptive action, which I believe can be necessary to eliminate security threats, we were also prepared to take and fund, the pre-emptive action to eliminate the threats to the wellbeing of people in distress and poverty. The result would be surely a more persuasive, deeper, altogether more effective narrative that would not merely defend our way of life to ourselves, but enhance its reach to others.

Set against it, the ugly hatred promoted by our enemies would resonate only with those who already find such emotions within themselves. I can see this so clearly now in the Middle East, where one of two things can happen in how the argument about the future is framed. It is either Islam versus the West, or it is moderate and modern people, whether Christians, Jews or Muslims, Americans and Europeans, Israelis and Palestinians, versus the extremists.

How this argument is framed, depends on whether it is possible, to bring the notion of justice to our side, rather than have our enemy arrogate it to theirs. We may think this idea lies obviously with us, but it isn't obvious to many in that region, living the lives that they lead, and therein lies the danger. It is a subject for a whole other lecture, but I just want to say here that this is urgent in my view. Apocalyptic language never much helps, but I repeat this is urgent. The Middle East and beyond is part of the world on the move at the moment, and its direction is not necessarily one we will find it easy to live with.

One reason for the weakness of our response to these global challenges is, of course, the weakness of our global institutions. In truth we've got mid-twentieth century institutions, dealing with very much twenty-first century problems. We need a greatly more effective United Nations, World Trade Organization, IMF and World Bank. But as I say, the global politics lags the global reality. Countries aren't yet ready, especially the most powerful ones, to yield effective power to such bodies. But the multiplicity, complexity, immediacy of such problems, makes any one country, even the United States, incapable of solving them without multi-lateral, i.e. global or communal action. Sooner, at least hopefully sooner rather than later, we will have to confront this.

So, in summary, in the open versus closed debate I stand clearly for the side that is open. I believe that is the progressive position. I also believe it is only progressive and not reactionary, or even small c conservative values, that can guide the world best, if it opts decisively to support the open view.

Globalisation is good, but it will only work to create a world of peace and plenty if the world also acts decisively to give it values, a set of convictions and beliefs, as well as accepting what it brings by its own force. Accept it we must, but shape its impact we can and without justice there will be no shape that will last for the future. The pace at which globalisation is occurring, and the push back which its is provoking, make it the challenge of our times, and I believe that time itself is not on our side.

Thank you.