Et tu, Tony? In the past, this column has opened with a trigger warning that it is about to advance arguments favourable to former prime minister Blair. This week, you can relax (mostly).
Blair’s logic is that Brexit can be averted only if its opponents address “the grievances which gave rise to it”. It may be no coincidence that his former policy chief, Lord Adonis, argued in the Observer that Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron might be willing to “make an offer, probably over the heads of the British government, for the UK to stay in the economic institutions of the EU but with national control over immigration”.
Such an outcome would be a big surprise to David Cameron, who was handed his hat when he asked for considerably less from Brussels before the referendum. But – retreat now to safe space if necessary – I do not question Blair’s (or Adonis’s) motives.
He believes, rightly I think, that Brexit will be bad for Britain and wants to use his public prominence as a three-time general election winner to steer the ship away from the iceberg that the passengers have chosen for their destination.
But this is not the way to go about it. In the first place, the arguments against immigration are economically illiterate. On today’s Andrew Marr Show, for instance, Blair suggested that immigration had undercut wages and that measures of the sort he is advocating would address this injustice.
In fact, the discernible impact that population mobility has had upon pay is negligible, and is dwarfed by the effects of the long recession, austerity, technological transformation and the inclination of many workers to postpone their retirement or work longer hours (thus increasing the labour supply). Making life harder for EU migrants is not going to lead to a pay bonanza for UK-born workers, and any insinuation to the contrary is irresponsible.
The Home Office itself has conceded that there is “little evidence” that immigration has caused “significant displacement of UK natives from the labour market”. In 2014, a study by University College London found that entrants to the UK from the 10 nations that joined the EU in 2004 had contributed £4.96bn more in tax by 2011 than they had cost as beneficiaries of public services. Since the Guardian leaked Theresa May’s plan to cut EU migration, employers have warned of the potentially dire consequences for the British economy.
In the second place, Blair contradicts himself. There is already predictable outrage that he has shifted position since 2004 when, as PM, he chose not to impose transitional controls on migrants from the 10 new EU member states. But the greater shame is that the most eloquent champion of “open” versus “closed” politics has yielded ground to his populist opponents now that they are in the ascendant.
As he put it in a New Statesman interview last November, those politicians who seek to pull up the bridge, build walls and isolate their nations gravely exaggerate the power of government. “My view about globalisation,” he said then, “is that it’s a force essentially driven by people, by technological change, by the way the world has opened up. You’re not going to reverse that.” Spot on.
So what is he up to? Some would call it triangulation: conceding just enough ground to the Brexiteers to neutralise their arguments, and to show the voters that their anxieties could yet be met without the UK leaving the EU.
Marketers call this the quest for “permission”. The former PM seeks an audience with the electorate on Brexit generally by confounding their expectations on a hot-button issue. Gâteau de Blair: the cake you can eat and keep!
I am not among those who dismiss his new institute, or scorn his ambition to energise the lamentably dormant political centre. He is right to acknowledge anxieties laid bare by the EU referendum and Donald Trump’s victory.
But there is a big difference between acknowledgement and appeasement. That difference is, in practice, what separates grownup politics from shrill populism, effective government from sloganeering. Last year’s Brexit debate was woefully infantilised, a shouting match won by lies about spending on the NHS and the harm caused by immigration. The leave campaign spoke grandly of “taking back control”, even as it surfed to victory on a tide of xenophobia, bogus nostalgia and pettiness.
“There are answers to the anger,” Blair told Marr. One must hope so. But they will flow from statesmanship not short-term propitiation. A public figure such as Blair, no longer seeking votes, can afford to speak unpalatable truths and demand maturity of the public. It costs him nothing to disagree with the referendum outcome, to point out the perils of that decision and to urge the voters to think again. He can heed their grievances without endorsing the path upon which the nation has embarked.
By declared intent, Blair’s new mission is strategic. Good: let us hope for better things in the months to come. For this was a purely tactical start to the project, and not a distinguished one. It was, to coin a phrase, no more than an eye-catching initiative.
• Written by Matthew d’Ancona, who is a Guardian columnist. Posted by James Hilton