Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Return of Tony Blair

I've been meaning to write about Blair ever since his interesting interview by Andrew Marr on Sunday where he said, “I have always said I am a public service person first. I would have been happy to carry on as prime minister. I would have been happy taking the job as president of the EU.”

It's very rare that you get blunt open statements like that from politicians. Note I wrote "politician", not "former politician".

I want to stress first that this is my personal opinion and is by definition speculative - but I think Blair is back in the game.

He's tried the go-off-and-make-money thing that John Major and others have done, but he's clearly bored with giving speeches to the "elites" regardless of how much they pay him. Not for him John Major's life of quietly turning up to directorships and pocketing a very nice salary for it. He's tried the Middle East envoy thing, but found that without office he was reduced to the thankless John de Chastelain role. John de Chastelain did not bring peace to Northern Ireland, his role was to suffer the idiots of N.I. for years and keep them in the process long enough till a powerful decision maker (Blair) could come in and resolve things. He doesn't want to be knighted and sent off to the Lords like Thatcher either.

The key to understanding Blair is understanding the seductive nature of democracy and elections and his addiction to it.

Most people fear democracy. The markets panic every time an election occurs, Brussels seeks to prevent referendums in Greece (they should have taken my advice and allowed the referendum last Nov) and appoint technocrats. Anyone who has been part of a political party and attended local meetings will recognise how difficult most people find it to stand election and lose. It's a staple of local party associations to find people joining the party who have had some modest success in their lives (promotions at their job etc) and then react with shock at the electoral process, especially if they are on the losing end. If you don't win a job or promotion, the rejection is handled in private, and it's the decision of one other person (your boss or potential employer) and thus easy to dismiss without much injury to your ego. When you don't win a selection or an election, you are being rejected by the majority of your peers, and the rejection is handed to you publicly. Voters often ask why better people arn't put up for election - and the answer is that all parties are desperate for good people, but finding someone good who also has the temperament to withstand the whole humiliating process is really hard. And politics is a humiliating business for most of the people taking part.

But for a rare minority who have the gift of winning, democracy and elections are like an elixir beyond compare. Votes are a validation and there is no feeling like the applause of your peers handed to you in public. It better than winning a war (which takes place by force) or being crowned king (which requires you to pass court injunctions preventing anyone from criticising you, Prince Charles style). Winning an election is about winning validations that are freely given and the sweeter for it. And the bigger the pool of the electorate the bigger the validation. The bigger the margin of victory the bigger the validation.

And so we come to Tony Blair, the man who won three general elections, two of them with the biggest margins since universal franchise. He doesn't fear the process, he loves it. He doesn't fear those who criticise him, he believes he can handle it and turn people around (see his masochism strategy in 2005 of speaking to audiences comprised only of people who hated him - who apart from him has done that?). And he's fairly young - 41 when elected in 1997, and 54 when he left office. He craves another win the way an addict craves another hit.

Blair is a populist not a conservative. The historical figure he most closely resembles is Pericles, who led the populist faction in Athens in the fifth C BC (opposed by the conservative faction led by Cimon), and who managed to get directly elected annually to the position of archon strategi every single year from 461BC - 429BC. He's the man who made going to the theatre free for the poor (their tickets paid for by the state), built the Parthenon (spending 5000 talents, equivalent to 50 million today, a lot of money for a town of just 50,000 people, they were really rich back then) and also the man who led Athens into the disastrous Peloponnesian war. And he has the same communicative gifts.

So what do we do with our modern day Pericles? He's not going to be President of the EU unless they suddenly bring in direct elections. Part of the reason Herman von Rompuy was chosen was because he was bland and innocuous enough to stick to his brief of chairing the council and not overshadowing Merkel, Hollande and the other decision makers. Blair in that role would immediately seek to dominate and usurp everyone else, which is why pigs will fly before they appoint him.

So that leaves being Prime Minister of the UK. If Ed Miliband fails to win the next election, I wouldn't be surprised if Blair stood for the leadership. He'd win too, thanks to debates and all the rest showing up his opponents as ordinary people.

In a way it all depends on the European situation. Martin Wolf of the FT is of the opinion that if the Europeans actually pull off a resolution to the crisis and make a federal eurozone, with the euro surviving intact, the only options for the UK are leaving the EU entirely, or joining the eurozone. The position of in the EU but out of the eurozone is untenable in that situation as we would not have parity with a powerful federal hegemonic eurozone within the EU. In that situation, Blair would lead those saying we'd be better off controlling the hegemon by being in it and taking it over (his boundless belief in his persuasive skills mean he thinks we can completely dominate them if we were in with him in charge).

If people want to avoid Blair 2.0, they need to work hard at making sure Ed Miliband gets to Downing Street and hope that the euro breaks up too.