The Battle for Britain

On February 17, Tony Blair delivered a speech aimed at reopening the Brexit debate in Britain. In view of the potential significance of his intervention, we reproduce the text of his speech here.

LONDON – The British people voted to leave the European Union, and the will of the people should prevail. But the people voted without knowledge of the true terms of Brexit. As these terms become clear, it is their right to change their mind.

What was unfortunately only dim in our sight before the Brexit referendum is now in plain sight. The road Britain is going down is not simply “Hard Brexit.” It is “Brexit at Any Cost.”

Our challenge is to expose these costs, to show how the decision was based on imperfect knowledge, and to demonstrate in easy-to-understand ways how proceeding will cause real damage to our country. Finally, we must build support for finding a way to stop the current rush over the cliff’s edge.

Consider the surreal situation in which our nation finds itself. I make no personal criticism of Prime Minister Theresa May or her government. May is someone who is trying to do the right thing as she sees it.

But just consider the following: Nine months ago, she was telling us that leaving would be bad for the country, its economy, its security, and its place in the world. Today, it is apparently a “once in a generation opportunity” for greatness.

Seven months ago, after the referendum result, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond was telling us that leaving the European Union single market would be “catastrophic.” Now it appears that Britain will leave the single market and the customs union, and Hammond is optimistic about the results.

May says that she wants Britain to be a great, open trading nation. Our first step in this endeavor? To leave the largest free-trade bloc in the world. She wants Britain to be a bridge between the EU and the US. Is having no foothold in Europe really the way to do that?

We are told that it is high time that our capitalism became fairer. How do we start laying the foundation for such a noble cause? By threatening Europe with a move to a low-tax, lightly regulated economy, which is the very antithesis of that cause.

This jumble of contradictions shows that May and her government are not the masters of this situation. They’re not driving this bus. They’re being driven. And as we pass each milestone, the landscape in which we are operating changes, not because we have willed the change, but because this is the direction in which the bus is traveling. We will trigger Article 50 not because we now know our destination, but because the politics of not doing so would alienate those driving the bus.

The surreal nature of this exercise is enhanced by the curious absence of a big argument about why this continues to be a good idea. Many of the main themes of the Brexit campaign barely survived the vote. Remember the £350 million ($439 million) a week of extra funds promised for the National Health Service (NHS)?

Virtually the only practical arguments still advanced – under the general rubric of “taking back control” – are on immigration and the European Court of Justice. On the ECJ, I defy anyone to be able to recall any decisions that they might have heard of, as opposed to the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, a non-EU body.

True, ECJ rulings are important on technical issues. Some businesses like some rulings; others do not. But no one can seriously argue that the ECJ alone provides a reason for leaving the EU.

Immigration is the issue. Net immigration into the UK totaled roughly 335,000 people between January and June 2016. Just over half came from outside the EU.

I know that in some parts of Britain, there is real concern about the number of migrants coming from Europe and the pressures they place on services and wages. But May recently admitted that we would want to keep most EU immigrants in Britain, including those who have a confirmed job offer and students. This leaves around 80,000 people who came looking for work, without a job.

Of these 80,000, a third went to London, and most ended up working in the food processing and hospitality sectors. It is highly unlikely that they’ve “taken” the jobs of British-born people in other parts of the country. So the practical impact of Brexit on immigration is, on analysis, less than 12% of the total.

Future historians will, no doubt, scurry to investigate the antecedents of these migrants from Europe and why the British people were willing to sacrifice so much to restrain them from coming. What will they find? That the migrants were terrible people who threatened the country’s stability? No, they will find that, on the whole, the migrants were well behaved, worked hard, paid their taxes, and were a net economic benefit to the country.

Of course, for many people, the core immigration question – and one that I fully accept is a substantial issue – concerns immigration from non-European countries, especially from places with different cultures in which assimilation and potential security threats can be an issue. Yet this impacted the Brexit decision.

It was US President Donald Trump who said that without the refugees from Syria, “you probably wouldn’t have a Brexit.” It is no coincidence that the “Leave” campaign’s infamous immigration poster was a picture of Nigel Farage in front of a line of Syrian people.

Thus, we have moved in a few months from a debate about what sort of Brexit we want, involving a balanced consideration of all the different possibilities, to the primacy of one consideration – controlling immigration – without any real discussion as to why and when Brexit does or does not affect the immigration people care most about.

Now we’re told we have to stop debating Brexit and just do it. But I question whether the referendum really provides a mandate for “Brexit at Any Cost.”

But suppose that it does. The argument is then that the British people have spoken. We must respect their will, and we should just “get on with it.”

I agree that “getting on with it” is a powerful sentiment. But if we are to be true to the concept of parliamentary democracy, rather than government by one-off plebiscite, we would also feel obliged to point out that it isn’t a question of just “getting on with it.” This is not a decision that, once made, is then a mere matter of mechanics to implement. It is a decision that begets many other decisions. Every part of this negotiation – from money to access to post-Brexit arrangements – is itself an immense, consequential decision.

In a rational world, we would be asking: Why are we doing this? And, as we learn more about the costs, is the pain worth the gain? Let us examine the pain.

We will withdraw from the single market, which accounts for around half of our trade in goods and services. We will also leave the customs union, which covers trade with countries like Turkey. We then need to replace more than 50 Preferential Trade Agreements that we have via our membership in the EU (for example, with Switzerland). So, EU-related trade is actually two-thirds of the UK total. This affects everything from airline travel, to financial services, to the manufacturing industry, sector by sector.

Britain will also need to pay for previous EU obligations, with figures as high as £60 billion, but will not benefit from future opportunities. Britain will lose influence in the world’s most significant political union, and have to negotiate on its own on issues like the environment, where we currently benefit from Europe’s collective strength.

There is alarm across sectors as diverse as scientific research and culture about the impact of the withdrawal of European funding. All of this is the result of an intricate renegotiation of the trade arrangements we have just abandoned.

The complexity of that negotiation, moreover, is without precedent. It is even possible that it fails, and we end up trading on the basis of World Trade Organization rules. This is yet another minefield. We would need to negotiate not just the removal of tariff barriers, but the prevention of non-tariff barriers, which today are often the biggest impediments to trade and pile costs on business. This could take years.

The British pound is down around 12% against the euro and 20% against the dollar since the Brexit referendum. This is the international financial market’s assessment of our future prosperity: we will be poorer. The price of imported goods in supermarkets is up, and thus so is the cost of living.

Of course, Britain can and would survive outside the EU. The UK is a great country, with resilient and creative people. And, yes, no one is going to write us off, nor should they. But making the best of a bad job doesn’t alter the fact that it isn’t smart to put yourself in that position unless you have to.

Most extraordinary of all, the two great achievements of the last decades in British diplomacy in Europe, supported by both Labour and Conservative governments – namely, the single market and European enlargement – are now apparently the two things we most regret and want to rid ourselves of.

The single market has been of enormous benefit to the UK, bringing in billions of pounds of wealth, hundreds of thousands of jobs, and major investment opportunities. Our trade with an enlarged EU has meant that trade with Poland has gone from £3 billion in 2004 to £13.5 billion in 2016.

Former Soviet-bloc countries have joined the EU and NATO, enhancing our own security. In addition to all of this, the possibility of the UK’s break-up – narrowly avoided by the result of the Scottish referendum on independence in 2014 – is now back on the table, but this time with a context much more credible for the pro-independence cause. And we are already seeing the destabilizing impact of negotiation over border arrangements that helped to bring peace to Northern Ireland.

None of this ignores the challenges that stoked the anger fueling the Brexit vote: those left behind by globalization; the aftermath of the financial crisis; stagnant incomes for some families; and the pressures posed by big increases in migration, which make perfectly reasonable people anxious and then feel unheard in their anxiety.

I’ve always believed that if the political center does not address problems, the extremes can exploit them. But our duty is to give answers, not ride the anger.

Here is the paradox: As the UK undergoes this unique experiment in diplomatic and economic complexity, the government’s entire focus is on one issue: Brexit. May’s cabinet is a government of Brexit, for Brexit, and dominated by Brexit. It is a mono-purpose political entity.

Nothing else truly matters: not the NHS, now in its most severe crisis since its creation; not the real challenge of the modern economy, the new technological revolutions of artificial intelligence and Big Data; not the upgrade of our education system to prepare people for this new world; not investment in communities left behind by globalization; not the rising burden of serious crime or bulging prison populations; not the need for better social care; not even, irony of ironies, a genuine policy to control immigration.

The priorities of all governments are not really defined by white papers or words, but rather by the intensity of focus. The May government has bandwidth only for Brexit. It is the waking thought, the daily grind, the meditation before sleep, and the stuff of its dreams – or nightmares. It is obsessed with Brexit because it has to be.

So, what do we do? The Leave campaign was a coalition: some were against Europe for economic reasons, while others opposed it for cultural reasons; some were ideological in their opposition, while others used cost-benefit analysis and concluded that we were better off out than in. We must expose the agenda of the ideologues, and we must persuade those interested in the cost-benefit ratio that the pain is large and the gain largely illusory.

But it is the ideologues who are driving the bus. The economic future that could work outside of Europe is exactly the low-tax, light-regulation, offshore free-market hub with which May threatens our European neighbors, but which, to the Brexit ideologues, is a promise of things to come. Indeed, this is what many in business say they’re being told by ministers – but, of course, in secret, because this is the exact opposite of what the mass of voters are being told when promised a fairer capitalism with a better deal for workers.

It is a vision that would require major restructuring of the British economy and its tax and welfare system. It will mean less money, not more, for the NHS; actually, it probably means a wholesale rebalancing of British health care toward a system based on private as much as public provision.

It will not mean more protection for workers, but less. If that is what we wanted to do as a country, we could do it now. The EU wouldn’t stop us. But, as of now, the British people wouldn’t vote for such a vision. So the ideologues know they have to get Brexit first, then tell us that the low-tax, low-regulation model is the only one that will work outside the EU. And, by that time, they will be right.

In defeating these ideologues, we face two major challenges. The first is the very effective cartel of right-wing media that built the ramp for pro-Brexit propaganda during the referendum campaign. This cartel is now equally savage in its efforts to enforce optimism, and to pillory anyone who disagrees as a traitor or moaner. These outlets have made it very clear to May that she has their adulation, so long as she delivers Brexit.

The second challenge is the absence of an opposition that looks capable of defeating the government. The debilitation of the Labour Party was a great facilitator of Brexit. I hate to say that, but it is true.

What this means is that we have to build a movement that crosses party lines, and devise new ways of communication. Many different groups are doing great work and must find ways to coordinate their strategy and tactics effectively. We should begin to create informal links immediately and then build them into a movement with weight and reach.

We need to strengthen the hand of MPs who are with us, and let those who aren’t know they have serious opposition to “Brexit at Any Cost.” The institute that I am establishing will play its part. We are creating a policy platform wider than the Europe question. There is an urgent need to reposition the entire debate about globalization and how we make it work for people. In this sense, the Brexit debate is part of something much bigger.

And we need strong links with the rest of Europe. If our government were conducting a negotiation that genuinely sought to advance our country’s interests, that negotiation would include the possibility of Britain remaining in a reformed EU.

It is clear that the sentiment that led to Brexit is not confined to the UK. There is a widespread yearning for reform across Europe. Part of our work should be to help build Europe-wide alliances to give voice and effect to such an impulse.

The case for Europe remains rooted in understanding the future, not the past. Worldwide, countries are coming together in regional alliances for a very simple reason: as China rises, as India and other large population countries follow, and with the US already so powerful, nations of our size will cooperate based on proximity to maintain strength and influence, and to defend our interests adequately.

This is true of the nations of Europe. But for Europe, there is a more profound reason: the transatlantic alliance is needed today more than ever, and it is much stronger with Britain in Europe and Europe an equal partner with America.

Forget the short-term electoral politics there or here. In the long term, this is essentially an alliance of values: liberty, democracy, and the rule of law.

As the world changes and opens up across boundaries of nation and culture, which values will govern the twenty-first century? Today, for the first time in my adult life, it is not clear that the resolution of this question will be benign. Britain, because of its history, alliances, and character, has a unique role to play in ensuring that it is.

How, therefore, can it be wise for us, during this period of epic global change, to be focused not on how we build partnerships, but on how we dissolve the one to which we are bound by ties of geography, trade, shared values, and common interests?

The one incontrovertible characteristic of politics today is its propensity for revolt. The Brexiteers were the beneficiaries of this wave. Now they want to freeze it to a day in June 2016.

They will say that the will of the people can’t change. It can.

They will say that leaving the EU is inevitable. It isn’t.

They will say that we don’t represent the people. We do, many millions of them and, with determination, many millions more.

They will claim we’re dividing the country by making our case. It is they who divide our country – generation from generation, North from South, Scotland from England, those born here from those who came to our country precisely because of what they thought it stood for and what they admired.

This is not a time for retreat, indifference, or despair. It is a time to rise up in defense of what we believe – calmly, patiently, winning by force of argument, not by the argument of force, without fear, and with the conviction that we act in the true interests of Britain.