I admit to being a big fan of Tony Blair.
As Donald Trump might put it, no one is a bigger fan of Tony Blair than me.
I remember being at the Labour Party conference in Brighton in 2001, just a couple of weeks after the 9/11 attacks. The air-exclusion zone in place over the seaside resort – and the Heckler & Koch automatic weapons at the perimeter of the conference green zone – signalled the wave of panic the Al Qaeda attacks had engendered.
The atmosphere was febrile and the expectation was high.
Blair delivered a sweeping and visionary speech about how the world we once knew was in flux, but that there was an opportunity to reshape it for the better. I’ve observed and participated in British politics since the early 1980s and I can think of no other figure who could have matched his insight, passion and bravura.
He is undoubtedly one of a kind.
Fast forward to 2017 and another Blair speech has been making waves.
The former Prime Minister has hit the headlines by telling us that we should ‘rise up’ against Brexit. He has seen us teetering on the cliff edge of economic destruction and selflessly raced along to save us from ourselves.
Blair’s shrewd political instincts have certainly not deserted him. He realises 48% of the population feels confused and unrepresented. Tim Farron and Caroline Lucas may be passionate about their support for the EU, but they are minor figures on the political stage. Jeremy Corbyn was always an opponent of Europe and few Remainers have any confidence in his ability to articulate their point of view.
So Blair sees a big gap. One that only a political giant can fill.
It’s certainly clever positioning on his part, but there’s one fundamental flaw. Even as a Remainer, I judge his argument on this occasion to be completely wrong.
The way I would characterise his intervention is that it comes from a position of safety. He is not currently involved in frontline political leadership (although perhaps this is something he hopes may change). He can say pretty much whatever he likes.
This is not true of the Labour Party leader, who has to compete for votes everywhere from Hackney North to Stoke Central. Jeremy Corbyn has been much criticised for supporting Article 50 in Parliament, but no other person in his place could possibly have done anything different. With the majority of Labour MPs representing seats that voted to leave the EU and with the majority of Labour Party members wanting to remain, he is caught between a rock and a hard Brexit.
Here’s the way I view it.
Labour supported the idea of the referendum and backed it in Parliament. It must therefore respect the result. In a democracy, we don’t ignore votes that go against us or demand that they are re-run.
But people were told lies, the Remainers cry.
Indeed they were. Those lies were exposed and denounced during the referendum campaign and people voted for Brexit anyway. That’s their prerogative.
But lots of people didn’t vote, say the Remainers, which means only a minority of the total electorate backed Brexit.
That’s certainly true. Although I’m afraid elections and referenda are decided by the people who do vote, not the ones who don’t.
But people didn’t know what kind of Brexit they were voting for, the hardcore Remainers plead, now bolstered by Tony Blair. If they’d known it meant hard Brexit, they’d never have gone along with it.
I see no evidence in polling data that this is the case. People are very happy with Theresa May and her approach to the negotiations. She’s 16 points ahead. Until such time as Article 50 is triggered, we’ve no idea about the shape of the negotiations or exactly what form Brexit will take.
And then there’s the final desperate wail from the Remain contingent and Mr Blair: “we have the right to change our minds”.
This is the most beguiling of the messages they put forward, as it speaks to us all at a common-sense level. Surely we can decide we made a terrible mistake? Can’t there be a ‘do-over’ now the full facts have become clear?
Leaving aside the rather patronising assumption that substantial numbers of Brexit voters have changed their mind (I think it’s a small proportion), the argument begs all kinds of questions. If we can change our mind once, can we change it again? Can we flip-flop between leaving and staying? Or does the game stop when we get the result we want?
If the referendum had gone the other way and Farage and Gove had been demanding another referendum, they would have been given short shrift. And rightly so.
So while Blair is well-intentioned and certainly articulates the disastrous economic and political consequences of Brexit very well, his case for ‘rising up’ deserves knocking down. You don’t rise up against democracy unless you want every alienated, frustrated and disenfranchised Brexit voter to believe the propaganda they’ve already been fed. That the elite never listens. That the system is stacked against them. That nobody cares.