Blair, the onetime wunderkind of British politics who led the Labour Party and the country for 10 years from 1997 to 2007 preaching a Clintonian centrism he called the “Third Way” only to see his tenure end amid recriminations over his support for Republican George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, still punches hardest when he’s hitting to his left. In our conversation, he bashed today’s liberal leaders in both countries for “solutions that look back to the ‘60s or ‘70s” and for preaching a form of feel-good “identity politics” that will flop as an answer to Trumpism.
.. “You can go for what are very good-sounding things like, we’re going to abolish tuition fees, or we’re going to give you this for free, or that for free,” he says, calling out both America’s Democrats and Britain’s Labourites. “In today’s world, and in particular, in the absence of a vigorous change-making center, that’s very attractive. But I don’t think it’s answer, and I’m not sure it would win an election. Maybe it would, but even if it did, it would worry me. Because in the end, I think a lot of these solutions aren’t really progressive. And they don’t correspond to what the problem of the modern world is.”
But it’s Blair’s comments about Trump as much as his disdain for Sanders and Corbyn that are likely to infuriate many U.S liberals.
Just a few months ago, Blair stirred outrage when he told his former communications chief Alastair Campbell in a British GQ interview that Democrats “just go mental with you” at even the suggestion of working with Trump and that the divisive U.S. president who has spoken of the mainstream press as “enemies of the people” may have a point about his “polarized and partisan” media coverage.
Blair did not back away from that in our interview, saying it’s a mistake “just to go in flat-out opposition” to Trump, that the president may well end up as a traditional Republican at least on foreign policy and arguing Trump has “actually been helpful” in the Middle East, where Blair has served as a mediator for the quartet of Western powers trying to achieve a long-elusive peace settlement.
.. When we talk, Blair claims to be unfazed by the flap, blaming the fury on “right-wing media in the U.K. that’s controlled” by a bunch of “old men who are in favor of Brexit” and choosing to ignore the fact that the left is none too happy with him either. “Nowadays,” he says, “if you step out at all into any area of public controversy, you’re going to get a bucket of something unpleasant poured over you, so you get used to that.”
.. But it’s almost impossible to overstate the extent to which Blair is excoriated across the British political spectrum these days—“his reputational currency has fallen as his bank account has swelled” over the past decade, says his old colleague Campbell, acknowledging not just Blair’s political unpopularity but the opprobrium he’s gotten for what’s perceived as buck-raking from advising autocrats from the Persian Gulf to Kazakhstan.
Even those who don’t outright condemn Blair see him as a man without a party, tilting at Brexit without being able to propose a realistic scenario by which it could be overturned, given that neither Labour nor the ruling Conservative Party is willing to officially campaign on undoing it. “Brits hate him. They really hate him,” says one American who spent the better part of two decades living in London. “His international stature, even now, masks how low is the esteem in which he is held back home.”
.. Blair has remained well regarded here, and tends to get positive notices from centrist-minded American commentators who see him as a rare liberal willing to take a moment away from Trump-bashing and Brexit-bemoaning to trash the rising populism and “riding the politics of fear,” as he put it to me, that is now increasingly seen as the only acceptable response to angry voting publics in both countries.
.. Blair acknowledges that he and others in the Clintonian middle opened the way for this challenge—they became “complacent” in power, he says, entitled “managers of the status quo”—though as with Clinton there are many critics who feel he is hardly introspective enough about his own role in the current mess.
.. Blair somewhat testily rejected the premise of my question, reminding me that he had one of modern Britain’s longest winning streaks before going on to blame much of his current plight on the political polarization of the British media. “One should never exaggerate this,” he says. “I mean, I did win three elections in the U.K.”
.. there’s no doubt that Blair’s re-emergence as among the most outspoken anti-populist leaders on either side of the Atlantic is a striking contrast to the two American presidents with whom he partnered so closely over his decade as prime minister.