Tony, the futurologist
The repeatedly delayed Future of Britain event is no threat to Sir Keir, but its ‘big ideas’ are utterly inadequate in the face of the problems they purport to address, writes Paul Demarty
One of the more obvious points against the system of bourgeois politics is the sort of people who survive it in good shape.
Can there really be a potential role - even in the backrooms and corridors of power - for Tony Blair? After everything - the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan, the relentless lies, the toe-curling Tony’n’Cherie Christmas cards? Can this man really presume to return from a political retirement spent in the extremely profitable company of murderous dictators and rapacious corporations to lecture us all about ‘progressive values’?
Of course he can - the very same deficiencies that caused him to commit such crimes hide them from his view. If it could not stop him signing onto discreditable wars of mass destruction, Blair’s conscience will hardly stop him organising conferences to tell the British political class what it should do if it wants to repeat the glorious successes of Basra and Helmand. So we await, with some trepidation, the repeatedly delayed Future of Britain event, organised by Blair, together with his cronies, minions and chums. The speaking roster is a comprehensive field guide to ‘centrist’ arrogance - including Blair himself, of course, but also Tory-remoaners David Gauke and Rory Stewart, ex-Labour Blairites like Luciana Berger, and US neoliberal heavyweights like Larry Summers.
Blair spelled out the case for this event in a talk at Imperial College London back in January, such as it is. In fairness to the old boy, his outlook seems a little more substantial than the insipid whingings of Labour leader Keir Starmer in his now-forgotten ‘ideas pamphlet’, The road ahead. There have been three “revolutions” in British politics, says Blair - “Brexit; the technology revolution; and a climate ambition which foresees a unique transition to being carbon-neutral in the power sector in just over a decade and the whole country in 25 years”. (Climate ambition is a funny way to put it - perhaps Mr Tony has been spending too much time among those tedious ‘entrepreneurs’ who use the word ‘opportunity’ instead of ‘crisis’.) In order to avoid “relegating ourselves to a league which is poorer, less prosperous and less powerful”, we need big plans to radically change how the British government works and is funded.1
Presumably this conference is supposed to deliver all these ideas, but Blair certainly has an idea of what should be among them. On certain points, he is quite clear: his long-time ardour for biometric ID cards has not been cooled by all that time he has spent giving advice to police-state tyrants - it is the only “sensible” way to stop illegal immigration, apparently. Meeting climate targets will require us to “double electricity supply; replace the present heating systems in 10 million homes; turn 20 million fossil-fuel cars into scrap and buy new EVs; and boost renewables by 4x the present rate” (and build a bunch of new nuclear plants, and use gas in the transition period). On others - the ‘affordability’ of the health service and pension system - our grinning guru is more discreet.
We will return to Blair’s Big Thoughts in due course, but back to the conference stage for now. No end of effort has been expended on getting one other big name on the list - that of Emmanuel Macron. The French president, recently re-elected, is the main glimmer of hope for Blairoid centrists on the global scene; and the enthusiastic courting of him for this event has led to a lot of speculation that this conference will be the founding of a new centrist party modelled on Macron’s La République En Marche! - for once, we are inclined to take Blair at his word that no such thing is forthcoming, but the point remains. If the notoriously combustible French population can deliver a two-term, centrist-neoliberal regime, why should it be so difficult to arrange in Britain?
The specific form of LREM! is not an easy thing to reproduce, of course. The constitutional structure of the UK - with its parliamentary government and first-past-the-post electoral system - does not allow a single individual to break out of the two-party system, as Macron did through the French monarchical presidency. (Donald Trump, who won the Republican candidacy and then the presidency in open defiance of his notional party’s elder statesmen, would be another example of the phenomenon.) In this country, ‘centrist’ third parties are periodically formed to great fanfare, before they are mercilessly crushed by the intense two-party bias of the voting system. The one example of a third party breaking through - that of the Labour Party a century ago - was unimaginable without the victory of universal male and then female suffrage; the party and the franchise were both achievements of a workers’ movement on the rise. Shallow media froth, it seems, just does not do the job. The most recent - and perhaps the most farcical - failure was Change UK, formerly the Independent Group, which was cobbled together from disgruntled Blairites like Berger and Chuka Umunna and Tory remainers like Anna Soubry in the summer of 2019, but had already been wound up by the end of that year!
At the very same time, however, Jeremy Corbyn was finally deposed as Labour leader after the 2019 electoral disaster. The resulting selection of clean-cut ‘moderate’ Keir Starmer as leader has restored a kind of zombie Blairism to the upper reaches of the Labour Party. The utter failure of the Labour left’s perspectives, combined with its opportunism and cowardice in the face of rightwing smears, has given Starmer a free hand to do more or less what he likes; and one of the things he has done is bring people like Blair and prince of darkness Peter Mandelson back into the fold. Why form a new party, when Corbyn and his defeated colleagues have gift-wrapped you the old one?
So perhaps Blair has his vehicle. Labour, at present, is on course to become the largest party in a hung parliament, which in a sense is Blair’s ideal outcome. He always wanted to reverse the split of the Labour Party from the Liberals, but was in that respect a victim of his own overwhelming success in 1997. Thus perhaps he could win the final transformation of Labour into - well, we would say a social-liberal party, but Blairism in power was one long series of insults to the ‘metropolitan liberal elite’, from asbos to draconian anti-terror laws, to those ID cards Blair is still so keen on. He backs Starmer publicly, but warns him off overly “woke” gesture politics, and would clearly prefer a return to the nakedly manipulative gutter tactics of former lackeys like David Blunkett, Phil Woolas and the rest.
But for all the British focus here - the Future of Britain, the Britain Project ostensibly in charge of it and so on - this is clearly something that succeeds or fails as part of far wider political dynamics. In its ‘reforming’ days, the fascist British National Party would invite Jean-Marie Le Pen over from France to give them lessons in brand-detoxification; the endless entreaties to Macron on the part of the ‘Britainists’ must surely have something of the same logic. The rise of Le Pen - and, of course, especially his more palatable daughter, Marine - was an early step of a revival of the far right in the advanced capitalist countries; and indeed the brief purple patch of the BNP was much the same in this country. Blair’s confidence that a revival of neoliberal technocratic ‘good governance’ is the wave of the future is a bet that the wave has already broken in France.
Purely on empirical grounds, there is reason to doubt this. Macron is not popular; Le Pen’s vote has actually increased, as has that of the left-reformist, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The other glimmer of hope on the sensible centrist horizon - the election of Joe Biden to replace Trump in 2020 - presents an ever grimmer picture, with the Biden administration unable to deliver any of its ‘big’ policies, and likely to get beaten badly in the midterm elections this autumn. Blair’s attitude - we need more policies and less ‘politics’ (meaning energy spent on fundamental principles) - is almost comically out of step with the times.
How so? In boom years, capitalism can appear to be a ‘positive sum’ game: the rising tide lifts all boats, although the lift can be almost undetectable if there is not a strong workers’ movement to coerce a share of the pie from the rulers. The history of the last decade and a half, however, is one of financial catastrophe, followed by a recovery (powered almost entirely by asset price bubbles), followed by a pandemic- and war-induced recession whose depth and seriousness is as yet incalculable. In such situations, capitalism becomes a negative-sum game, especially between nation-states. A deeply-internationalised bourgeois elite is dragged into the territory of national chauvinism, and hopes to secure its privileges along the resulting bumpy rides.
So it must be for Blair - who is of Scottish extraction, but friend equally to the American hedge fund manager and the Kazakh secret policeman. The trouble is that - for all his joy in slaying sacred cows - his major priorities are simply dead letters as policies for Britain. He lists out a whole slew of climate policies that he openly admits will burn a hole in the treasury, but there is no point to implementing them if other nations do not do the same thing. We only have the one Earth - and Britain replacing its entire petrol car fleet with electric vehicles will not save us from rising sea levels if nobody else does. (And, of course, not everyone can - there is not enough lithium in the entire world for the batteries required to replace even close to the sum total of existing private vehicles). Why should the next Donald Trump - hell, the last Donald Trump, since his re-election in 2024 is hardly unlikely - not tear up any and all climate commitments again, calling them a bad deal and what have you?
So Blair’s key example of the things we are not doing because of political dysfunction is hardly a bad one, but ultimately tells against his whole project: there are objective limits to what can be done that have to do with the whole historical rhythm of capitalism. Should Starmer succeed in bringing Blairism back to high office, he will govern a country just as much driven towards beggar-thy-neighbour policy as the one he replaced; and, in the end, all Blair’s brilliant ideas will be abandoned to the gnawing criticism of the mice.
Politico reported that the conference organisers approached a certain Elon Musk for funding,2 and there is something appropriate about that. Musk is, after all, a climate-change-era billionaire, selling the (pipe) dream of a private electric vehicle for everyone. That and his various other white-elephant projects seem to bespeak a boundless optimism. Yet the most ambitiously ludicrous of them all is to colonise Mars, candidly on the basis that we have screwed Earth up too much and a billionaire’s got to look after number one and find a new place to throw his weight around.
Blair’s programme has something of the same structure - on the surface, panegyrics to technological progress and the TED Talk’s canned can-do attitude; but everywhere under the surface a perception of decline, of being ‘relegated’ to the lower leagues, and a fear that it might already be too late.