Since Blair’s intervention in the ongoing Brexit debate in the interview in the Mirror on 1st May, many in the liberal centre of British politics have been hailing his announced return as some kind of providential deliverance from the craziness of our current political landscape.
There is no doubt that Tony Blair wants to return to the political spotlight. He says so himself, and some observers have traced a pretty credible analysis of the PR campaign being waged to rehabilitate his public image. We can observe intent and commitment. But this is no guarantee of success.
Tony Blair is still hailed by his fans as one of the most successful politicians of his generation. And that is a fact that cannot be denied, whether you are a fan of his record in government or not. That record of success is what drives the hopes of the liberal centre-left that he can do it again. That he will make a success of this comeback, just as he has made a success of the Labour party in the 90s.
What is missing from the analysis is the extent to which politicians, and the success they enjoy is a product not just of their own force of personality or of their policies, but in fact, mostly a product of the times. In other words, Tony Blair is about as likely to succeed in his political comeback as Margaret Thatcher would have been if she had attempted a political comeback in 2001. Which is to say, not very. Though it is not difficult to why he would appeal to a large part of the electorate considering the state of politics at the moment in the UK and the Labour Party in particular.
It is easy to be nostalgic about the lost glories of ‘Cool Britannia’, much as we loved to deride its kitch even back then. In the late 90s and early 2000s, Britain was a self-confident, assertive and successful country. And Tony Blair was a leader that perfectly embodied the spirit of that age. Just as many of Britain’s earlier leaders embodied the spirit of their ages: Margaret Thatcher, Harold Wilson, Harold Macmillan, Clement Atlee, Winston Churchill, and so on. Tony Blair will be rememberd in that succession of memorable leaders who perfectly represented the Britain of their times.
Theresa May dances perfectly to the tune of modern Britain. Tony Blair’s return, on the other hand, is just as likely to cheer up the audience.Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
But Tony Blair’s Britain is gone. It has been swallowed whole by the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. Today’s Britain is petty, meagre, fearful, inward looking and with uncharacteristically illiberal leanings. Today’s Britain is not looking at how to build a better future for all of us, but it is looking at who to blame for our society’s failings. Today’s Britain has a greater affinity to Nigel Farage’s political persona: small, insular, gobby, and driven by unarticulated, uncomprehending rage, than it has with the hopeful, confident and assured stride that it used to cut in the heyday of Tony Blair’s premiership.
And Blair’s revived interest in front-line politics is not going to change that. All it will do, is exactly all that it has done so far: give false hope to the demoralised liberal centrists who still yearn for the glory days of ‘Cool Britannia’. The rest of the country has moved on. We may lament the direction in which it has moved on. Where we are now is indeed lamentable. But just as Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and the rest of the old Blairite cadre chide the Corbyn wing of the Labour party for living in the 70s, so they are guilty of living in the 90s. And neither will deliver any success to the progressive cause in Britain while they are stuck in their own anachronisms.
This is why Theresa May is dominating the political field as she is at the moment. She is a better embodiment of the spirit of our time than any other political leader we have on the national stage: that schizophrenic mixture of quiet, reserved, old-school, elegant British pragmatism of her ordinary character, and the shrill, impotent, defiant, jingoistic, reactionary rage at our collective inability to pull ourselves out of the current national malaise. Theresa May dances perfectly to the tune of modern Britain. Tony Blair’s return, on the other hand, is just as likely to cheer up the audience.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim
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