UK Politics

Tony Blair deserves the credit for Brexit

The former Labour leader's immigration policy and passion for EU integration created the conditions for Brexit

BY Iain Martin | iainmartin1   /  18 December 2017

Tony Blair has announced that Brexit must be stopped. Mark Malloch-Brown, a former diplomat, has been hired to herd the assorted cats of the ultra-Remain crowd, and efforts will be renewed to halt the UK’s departure from the EU. To support this effort, a lot of City money has piled in, although I wonder whether the plutocrats have processed the implications of the successful agreement between the EU and the UK this month on phase one, which makes the most determined Stop Brexiteers look (how can one phrase this politely?) somewhat eccentric.

A deal with assorted compromises seems the most likely outcome, around a free trade agreement with the UK and the EU needing to go further than the EU did with Canada on data, security and financial services. The eurozone’s need to access London – the leading capital market – means that there will probably be another serving of fudge. Is that is how it turns out, it will be good news for both sides.

In such circumstances, a Stop Brexit campaign next year by Blair, Nick Clegg, Peter Mandelson, Hugo Dixon of In-Facts, assorted commentators, a bunch of bankers, and ten Lords a-leaping, will need to be extremely lucky to succeed in overturning the referendum. Their pitch also involves encouraging Britons to beg to be let back into the EU. Not a good look.

It remains a source of continuing amazement that Blair should still be seen as the guru of this crowd all these years after he left office.

Yes, of course, he won three general elections. But getting power is only the start. What did he do with it? The record is mixed, to put it mildly. Although there was important reform of public services, Blair let Gordon Brown predicate policy on the foolish basis that the economic cycle had been ended.  Meanwhile, cheered on by Brown and Blair, the balance sheets of the UK banks grew from a manageable level to a sum equivalent to 450% of GDP. This banking boom had disastrous implications when the crisis hit and the banks were exposed. Brown did not cause the crisis, but poor regulation and the banking blow-up meant the UK had the toughest experience of the major economies during the crash and its aftermath.

Another part of Blair’s record gets far too little attention, and that is Europe. There, he turned out, by accident, to be one of the fathers of Brexit. Depending on your perspective, he deserves either a significant portion of the blame or the credit for what happened in June 2016.

Blair came to power in 1997 determined to lead in Europe. He was properly pro-EU, in contrast to Gordon Brown, who saw it in more sceptical terms thanks in large part to the Treasury tradition of exceptionalism. The Treasury mandarins pursued a policy of mild scepticism about the EU while accepting that membership was necessary.

In 2003, Blair’s hopes to lead Europe collapsed when he was forced to choose the United States. His Europeanism was in conflict with his Iraq policy, which was opposed by France. Never again was Blair credible abroad as an EU leader. At home he did a great deal to create the conditions in which Vote Leave could win the 2016 referendum on leaving the EU.

The prime fear at the heart of Brexit was over the loss of sovereignty involved in being members of an organisation dedicated to integration. That concern still tends to come top in polling of Leavers, with concern over immigration (a manifestation of a loss of sovereignty) also pivotal. For many years I’ve listened to Europhile friends declare this principle a bogus reason to leave the EU. “We’ve dealt with this sovereignty argument nonsense,” one told me grandly as the referendum loomed.

Oh yeah?

The British have been remarkably consistent in being wary of integration for the last quarter of a century. The concerns over Maastricht (a serious scaling up) were so widespread that John Major had to battle his way to serious  concessions or opt-outs. This concern was not, as Blair likes to say, just a Tory party issue. Put the question to voters and they were and are really rather unhappy about giving up sovereignty.

That does mean that it was their top concern, or anything close. In 2001 when the Tories tried to deploy that theme in a general election against Blair it went badly wrong. But in mid-2001 the economy seemed to be doing well, 9/11 had not yet happened, and the Tories looked out of time, despite the efforts of William Hague. The European Union was for most voters a fact of life, annoying from time to time but just there.

What really changed the situation and gave euroscepticism fresh impetus was the re-emergence of the immigration issue and its handling by the Blair government, combined later with the shock of that financial  crisis which made voters angry and fearful. Immigration – change, losing control, too much too fast – became the embodiment of voter concerns.

And no wonder. The speed and scale of the increase in net migration was stunning. The subject is still so sensitive that it is always necessary to point out that immigration is needed and valuable. But it is reckless in the extreme to allow a situation in which it happens on such a vast scale, so suddenly. Voters are right to be worried about assimilation and the impact on services and culture.

Between the mid-1970s and 1997, the UK did not have a single year in which which net migration to the UK hit 80,000. It was consistently below 50,000. The numbers were manageable and immigration largely disappeared as a subject of dispute.

In 1998 it shot up from around 48,000 to 140,000. By 2004 it was running at 268,000.

Contrary to conspiracy theorists, the numbers took Blair’s team by surprise.   They responded by doing what New Labour did so well, that is flattening opponents by presenting their motives as inherently nasty and old-fashioned. This just about got Blair through the 2005 election. By 2007 he was gone, and Gordon Brown had a go at restoring trust by talking about “British Jobs for British Workers.” That didn’t work.

When David Cameron came to power in 2010 he pledged to bring annual net migration to the EU back down below 100,000. It proved impossible, or beyond the then Home Secretary Theresa May, because of freedom of movement within the EU and the surge of a world on the move outside the EU.

This was not secret. It was apparent at the time when Blair was in power and contemptuous of the critique. The worry about speed and scale was highlighted, endlessly, by certain researchers and a few politicians, and dismissed. Meanwhile, in their homes, millions of people watching all this unfold on the television news looked at each other and wondered whether those in charge had gone mad. This built and built, and then fused with the panic when the money ran out in the financial crisis.

All along, the questions voters asked about uncontrolled migration were sensible.

Two hundred thousand people a year? That’s two million more people in a decade? Three hundred thousand? That’s three million in a decade? Where are they all going to live? What about public services? What on earth are we doing?

Throughout, onto the same television bulletins came people from the elites to tell the worried voters that worrying about this was, well, not far off racist. This was a corrosive process like water dripping on stone, month after month, year after year. By the time Cameron failed to deliver, it only confirmed the view of millions of Britons that politicians starting with Blair had not listened and arrogantly unleashed forces they could not control.

Blair’s lack of self-examination, for someone said by his supporters to be so good at politics, is striking. Preside over this situation – having ignored warnings about the advisability of your chosen course of action – and you cannot expect the outcome to be stable or pretty. You get something like Brexit, with deep concerns about sovereignty compounded by worries about immigration and the blowing up of an economic model they were told was unbreakable.

Personally speaking, I welcome Brexit. But if I were an ultra-remainer, I don’t think Tony Blair is the person I would be looking at to persuade Leavers to change their minds about Brexit.