Tony Blair was on the Today programme this morning. He was interviewed by John Humphries. It was a tour de force. Authoritative, bright, fluent, open and quietly insistent. He was arguing for a second referendum but it was done with great subtlety.
Looking though my Twitter feed later I saw that some people thought him a busted flush, calling him the Leave campaign’s secret weapon. Others were more positive saying that at least he answered questions in a direct manner.
It was a long interview and I realised that although I’d listened quite carefully I could remember very little of what he said. So I went back and listened again and wrote down a few of the things he said.
These are my thoughts on the interview.
The first thing to say is that Blair has a fantastic ability to to rise above the tribal, to not speak down to people and to cut through and talk in a way that makes it seem as if he is addressing each listener as an individual about whom he cares.
That's special in the midst of the dialogue of the deaf that passes for much of the obsessive Brexit conversation we are trapped in. One might even say that there are some really important lessons here for a second referendum campaign if we get that far.
Blair doesn’t ridicule Leavers or pander to Remainers. He doesn’t use all that condescending language of being taken for a ride and lied to in the first referendum so beloved of #FBPEers and People’s Voters. Which sends the message that you are basically an idiot even though we might one day want your vote.
Instead Blair paints a picture of a national crisis, of a parliament blocked, of a ‘complete mess’. Again, he doesn’t blame MPs for this blockage and commends them for trying to find a way out of it by identifying and taking forward a solution in the national interest. And he fully acknowledges the real difficulty of a second referendum.
But rather than attempting to undermine the legitimacy of the first referendum or harking on about the gullibility or ignorance of voters he makes a direct
appeal to the people.
‘So we’re asking YOU the people, we’re not asking some other people, we’re asking the British People in these circumstances do you want to think again?’
This is clever. He asks each of us – YOU – if we want to 'think again'. And when he says this he doesn’t mean any old group of people (‘some other people’) but you, the British People, in these specific and unforeseen circumstances, if you as one of that people want to think again.
It’s an artful, almost effortless subliminal affirmation and reminder that each of us is part of this collective – this people bound by citizenship and
identity and the dilemma that we face. And having explained about the mess and blockage in Parliament
it asks us if we want to think again because it looks like no-one else but you the people is going to sort this out. It’s tricky and difficult but that’s where we are. It’s a national crisis and
we have run out of road. What do you reckon?
Having made his case for a referendum he plays his ace: his knowledge of Europe and his belief that the EU will reform. He starts by asserting his authority.
‘I do know what Europe thinks, I think’, he says, chuckling at his brazenness.
Who else would have the nerve or credibility to say that? Because he’s not saying he knows what the EU is telling the Prime Minister or the UK about Brexit negotiations. Because that would be a message that is too limiting and that implies subservience and the whip hand of Juncker et al.
Instead he loftily insists, ‘I do know what Europe thinks’ and by this implies that he is an equal and a very knowing one at that of all those hoity toity Europeans who for the last two and a half years have been treating representatives of the UK government with the intransigence of a poorhouse matron.
Having established his authority to pronounce on these issues he lets us into a secret that only he appears to have divined. This is the fact that in the
last 30 months Europe has been in turmoil and it has been convulsed by the ‘very issues that gave rise to Brexit’; anxieties over immigration and anxieties over communities left
This is very clever. Having told us he knows Europe he then tells us that Europe is suffering the very same anxieties that underly Brexit. Who would have guessed?
This shifts the narrative from the one where Europe is laughing at us for the fools we are to the one where miraculously we are all in the same bloody
anxious boat. Britain is neither alone nor mad, and our anxieties – which can look a bit ugly and
parochial and for which many bien pensant commentators command us to be ashamed - are shared with the other peoples of Europe.
In his wind up for the final pitch Blair tells us that because these are European issues it is to Europe that we should look for a solution. And this is Blair’s schtick, this is the balm, the snake oil he has brought back from his travels. Because he has been on the Grand Tour of Europe, he has played their capitals and he has the t-shirts. He’s a European hand and leader and he ‘knows’ Europe. He says,
‘In a rational world Europe would think again on the fundamental questions that gave rise to Brexit and that are giving rise to these political convulsions.’
He loves to talk of this rational world, the world that is not ‘mess’ and ‘blockage’, the world that has clear heads and compassionate hearts, a world that sees clearly and that can find solutions and assuage anxieties.
He goes on,
‘I would say to Europe is there a way you can meet our anxieties over the questions of immigration and over the questions of integration? And you can do that on a European wide basis that deals with the problems underlying Brexit and that have given rise to these anxieties.’
Just like that. Blair’s unique unicorn. An appeal to Europe, to meet us half way, a problem shared is a problem solved and all that. And a deal to be
struck: that if we, the British People, vote to stay in Europe that Europe will reach out a hand to us and our Brexit anxieties (which are also
European anxieties) and that Europe will agree to do something about them, it will somehow reform this immigration and integration stuff (even though it has said many times that the four freedoms
are sacrosanct) because these are European wide concerns and despite what they say in public (because, says Blair, Remember that I know
Europe) I can tell you these things will be changed.
It’s a brilliant conceit that he carries off with total conviction. And it’s an empty promise on which he is not going to have to deliver. And even though we know it is baloney we want to believe it because it will make things ‘better’. And we are thirsty as hell for ‘better’.
For a wavering Leaver it offers hope (no economic pain and reformed cake) and for the Remainer worried about the democratic implications of a second
referendum it says we’ll have another vote because it’s the only way through the mess and in the meantime Europe will tackle and take into account the anxieties that underlay Brexit. So all be
well despite the threat of civil unrest.
Tough on Brexit and tough on the causes of Brexit.
If Remain needed a hypothetical 600,000 swing votes from Leave in a second referendum to gain parity that is a very powerful message. Not to all Leavers but to those who are susceptible to shifting position if someone would only take them seriously as equals with anxieties that do not condemn them as Neanderthals beyond the pale of progressive politics.
That’s Blair’s magic. And he was given eighteen minutes of prime time public radio within which to work it.
Even if you can’t remember what he said or only half heard him over breakfast his promise of a rational world where things can be sorted without shame or
disdain is a hum of optimism that seems to momentarily drown out the false voices and broken promises, the misery, frustration and fear.
The interview was at 8.10 UK time on the BBC Radio 4 and is available on the BBC Radio iPlayer http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/services and BBC Sounds https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds
Thanks for reading.