Blair’s back, but why?
In a speech today Blair put out his case for why the UK should change it’s mind and decide to stay in the EU. I’m not entirely sure I can see what he’s playing at, but for my own amusement I wanted to dig into the issues that surround his noisy re-entry into UK politics to understand what he’s hoping to achieve.
The political landscape
Blair returns to UK politics at a time when the Conservatives are trouncing their opposition in the polls. They’re sitting on a mid-term 16% lead over the Labour party which remains deeply in the doldrums. The Liberal Democrats have found a message they can get behind, mainly standing up for the Remain side of the EU referendum, and this looks to be a rich source of political backing over the next couple of years. UKIP are struggling for relevance as Theresa May moves ahead with a push for a clean exit from the EU, although they’re hovering in the wings. The SNP find themselves representing Scotland as a one party state at Westminster and will do their best to raise Scottish grievances about being run by Westminster, yadda yadda.
But lets focus for a moment on Blair’s old stomping ground. Labour’s position makes me feel sorry for Jeremy Corbyn. The vast majority of his MPs campaigned to stay in the EU. The majority of Labour members voted to remain inside the EU. But the majority of constituencies that returned Labour MPs voted to leave the European Union. Corbyn is therefore left with three options.
1) – Campaign heavily against Brexit. This would leave Labour struggling in pro-Leave constituencies which could easily switch to either UKIP or the Conseratives. Labour’s hope would be that it gains enough MPs in Remain constituencies to make up for this. But that seems unlikely. In Scotland, the SNP is firmly anti-Brexit anyway, so Labours old heartland North of the border is gone. Heavily remain metropolitan areas already return Labour MPs after the Libdems got decimated at the last election. Labour’s hope in this scenario is appealing strongly in areas which are currently Libdem / Conservative such as Richmond. But this has never been core Labour territory, and with the Libdems fighting against Brexit there’s no differentiator.
2) – Support Brexit tacitly, while trying to make noise about issues where Labour could have some success. In this case the metropolitan Labour supporters end up getting a few scraps from the table, perhaps enough to keep them away from a Libdem vote, but in the core Labour heartlands of the North this message should protect the rump of the Labour parliamentary party, particularly if the right issues are picked.
3) – Campaign heavily for a clean Brexit. This takes the wind out of UKIP’s sails and allows Labour to fight on in it’s heartland constituencies. However it totally alienates the metropolitan liberal movement that voted for Corbyn in the first place, and a new leader is elected. May’s positioning on Brexit also makes this an untenable path. There simply isn’t enough political ground on the outside of the governments current position.
Ultimately Corbyn has gone with a flavour of the second option above, and to be honest, he doesn’t have a choice. Electorally Labour are going to suffer for the next few years, but when Brexit is over they can start flying the flag for a socialist UK outside the EU. Batten down the hatches.
Blair seems to accept this; “What this means is that we have to build a movement which stretches across Party lines; and devise new ways of communication.” i.e. Blair is not aiming at regaining his mantle within the Labour party, and it’s unlikely that he wants to create a new party as he sees this new movement stretching across Party lines.
Blair’s arguments for remaining
So why does Blair think we should stay within the EU?
Well, his speech contains the usual lashings of Project Fear that we’d expect to hear from the diehard remainers. Remember that our economy is going to literally die if we leave the EU. Literally. At some point in the future…
But what about positive arguments for the EU? Those things that we can really get behind that only the EU can provide? Well it’s the “biggest political union and largest commercial market on our doorstep”. Check. And this roughly positive statement “Nations that came out of the Soviet bloc have seen themselves safely within the EU and NATO, so enhancing our own security.” I say roughly positive, as without it perhaps we’d have somewhat friendlier relations with Russia, although as Putin is such a nutjob that’s probably unlikely.
There’s also some rough allusion to the idea that being the bridge between the EU and the US works better if we’re within the EU. This seems a strange argument to me as we’ve been a long way from the centre of the EU since the early 80s. Reagan might have liked Thatcher, Dubya was a fan of Blair, but other than that it’s difficult to argue that we’ve ever been a very effective bridge between the EU and the US. If the US wants to influence the EU it talks to Germany and cuts out the middleman.
Even within the EU our political position is peripheral. We’re the snarky old man in the corner putting our oar in from time to time and pissing everyone off. The French-German axis effectively marginalised the UK long long ago. Who went to talk to Russia when they were busily taking over eastern Ukraine? The two Nuclear powers of Europe? The three largest economies of Europe? Of course not. The EU takes the smaller nuclear power, France, the largest economy, Germany, and it ignores the country with the 2nd biggest economy, most powerful nuclear arsenal, and most advanced military intelligence services, and takes Poland instead. The UK is not relevant in the EU. We saw to that when we turned our back on the Euro.
There’s an interesting section of Blair’s speech where he analyses why the people of the UK voted to leave the EU. He concludes, boldly, “Immigration is the issue”. Oh dear Mr Blair. Really? Slipping into this “all leavers are closet racists” line of reasoning? Can you really not think of any other reason people would want to leave Europe?
Later on Blair says “It is clear the sentiment which led to Brexit is not confined to the UK. There is a widespread yearning for reform across Europe.” Of course there is widespread yearning for reform, Europe is broken. Everyone admits it. It’s hard to hear a single voice that’s saying the EU is something great that we should remain a part of. Because it doesn’t look great. It looks like a mess.
The single market aside, which is a pretty decent supranational trading organisation, what other part of the EU can you point to with pride? Are we happy to be part of a union that seems to be forever moving towards a federal union? I don’t think we in the UK are. I think that’s why people voted to leave. Fortunately for me, there’s even data to back that up. Exit polling on the day of the referendum showed that sovereignty was the number one reason people voted to Leave, way ahead of immigration!
Next lazy meme? How about the £13.5B trade we now do with Poland? Well, this isn’t really a meme yet, but it is inaccurate. While we do currently import £13.5B from Poland, we export a much smaller £5.5B. Not that there’s anything wrong with such a one sided trading relationship per-se, as long as those imported goods are going on to be made into higher value goods which are exported elsewhere. But surely here we’d say that total trade is worth £19B, not £13.5B. Besides, isn’t this just a strong argument for having close trading relationships with growing economies? Like all of those growing economies outside the EU?
Next lazy statement? How about “Many of the main themes of the Brexit campaign barely survived the first weekend after the vote. Remember the £350m a week extra for the NHS?”. Well I remember the £100M for the NHS which might well have happened if Gove/Johnson hadn’t imploded so spectacularly post-Cameron. I know you can find an image that shows £350M for the NHS somewhere on the interwebs, I’ve seen it, but the noisy statements all said £100M, and quoting £350M is just a way to drum up the idea that Leavers were lied to. In fact, while the £350M spending on the EU proved to be a strong message in polls, did many people who voted Leave really believe that this money would all go to the NHS? It doesn’t show up on the exit polls, and I haven’t found any data to back up the statement.
And a final lazy meme? Well continuously Blair refers to May’s position on Europe as “leaving the single market” implying that we’re going to walk away from that trading relationship. May’s goal is clearly not to walk away from trading with the single market. She’s accepted before negotiations begin, that the mood music from Europe shows that there is no interest in allowing us to remain members of the single market without accepting a loss of sovereignty as part of the bargain (the ECJ, or freedom of movement, or both). We’re not going to get membership without losing sovereignty, and so we can’t be members of the single market. She does however say that she wants the closest possible trading relationship with the EU. This is hardly the “walking away” implied throughout Blair’s speech. She has said that WTO rules are the backup option if no agreement is reached, but she *has* to say that. It’s a negotiation! You don’t buy a second hand car and start price negotiations by saying that you have to buy the car no matter what.
The Scotland Argument
It may be that in 100 years historians will look back on Blair, not as the person who went to War in Iraq on flimsy WMD evidence, but as the Prime Minister who initiated the breakup of the UK. By creating a Scottish parliament Blair gave credence and voice to a marginal Scottish nationalist movement which only 15 years later just missed out on getting it’s dream of independence fulfilled in 2014.
Within Blair’s speech there’s this paragraph.
“In addition to all this, the possibility of the break-up of the UK – narrowly avoided by the result of the Scottish referendum – is now back on the table, but this time with a context much more credible for the independence case.”
This is a strange argument to make. While a majority of the Scottish electorate voted to remain in the EU, there’s little evidence that this has strengthened the movement for independence from the UK. While some EU remainers who previously voted to remain in the UK have now decided that independence is for them, a larger group of people who voted to leave the UK *and the EU* have now decided that with Brexit in the air, they’d rather stay in the UK.
Indeed the “context” these days is one in which Scotland is propped up by some £9 Billion from Westminster every single year. This is about the same amount of money we currently send to the EU every year (net)! An independent Scotland would face an enormous budgetary black hole unless the fantasies of the hardline independents were to come true (offsetting 37 years of oil revenue, walking away from a per-capita share of the UK debt pile, paying for Scottish citizens pensions from the rUK budget, Whisky being worth £5B more revenue than the Scottish governments official figures say, etc. etc.)
And further to this, Blair’s argument seems to be that the current Brexit path will make trading with the EU harder, why then would Scotland make it’s trading relationship with the rUK harder, as it’s worth 4 times as much to Scotland than trade with the EU?
Madness. That statement is utter madness.
Is Blair the right person?
Finally, is Blair really the right person to be promoting this argument? He took the country to war in Iraq on flimsy evidence of WMDs which you could charitably call “wishful thinking”. This was despite huge widespread opposition, beyond anything we’ve seen from the Remainers. And yet he ignored that opposition and pushed on with his war. Why then should we now listen to Blair counselling that the government should listen to the vocal people that want us to stay in the EU and have a second referendum? Did he suggest having a second vote in parliament about whether we should stay in Iraq two years after the invasion?
The real nail in the coffin is this. The people that are most animated in terms of pushing the arguments in favour of overturning the result of the referendum are mostly the same people who were animated about preventing the War in Iraq. Do they really want to be represented by the arch-villian in chief, Tony Blair? I don’t think so.
So why is he back?
Coming back to the reason I started writing this in the first place, why the hell is he back? Well, I assume it’s because he genuinely believes what he’s saying. I can see nothing else he has to gain…