The former British Prime Minister has been lambasted by critics for his policies in the Middle East while in office and his commercial operations afterwards. From extremism to Brexit, the world faces many immediate challenges, but he hopes his new global institute can help eradicate some of the uglier elements of modern society
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair offers a firm handshake and a broad smile at his giant office near London’s Oxford Street. The room is sparsely furnished – so clean and new – that I wonder whether he spends much time here.
“You looked surprised?” Blair says, pouring me a fresh coffee. “I used to travel a lot, but now I’m home about 70 percent of the time,” he says, referring largely to his London-based work for the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change think tank, which employs over 300 people globally.
His bolt upright posture has the ghostly echoes of a former statesman. Blair, 65, is now more than two decades older than when he stormed to victory with Britain’s Labour party in a landslide election in 1997.
If you’re closed minded to people who are not of your faith or culture you’re just going to fail.
Gone is the youth-like zeal and bouncy energy that promised the British public – in the spirit of the party’s famous electoral theme song – that ‘Things Could Only Get Better’.
Today, Blair’s demeanour is quiet and business-like. For this former PM has a complex legacy in the UK and the Middle East, to say the least.
Despite winning three elections between 1997 and 2005 and being revered for making the Labour party re-electable for the first time in 18 years, it is Blair’s role in sanctioning the disastrous Western invasion of Iraq that has cast the longest – and darkest – shadow over his career.
His joint decision with US president George Bush to overrule the UN Security Council cost 500,000 Iraqi lives – and Blair his reputation.
Later claims of advising dictators for financial gain and the accrual of a vast personal property portfolio have done little to quell the sea of ill will towards the former PM.
Blair’s role as ‘Special Envoy to the Middle East’, a Palestine-Israel peace broking role that he held when he left office in 2007 to 2015, drew particular opprobrium from pundits who criticised him for simultaneously operating dual roles as diplomat and businessman.
Frequently dubbed ‘Britain’s most hated man’ in the press, it’s a wonder that the PM has chosen to return to frontline political debate through the creation of his think tank.
But whatever Blair’s failings may have been, a lack of chutzpah was never one of them.
While Blair’s PR team declined to accept questions surrounding his controversial previous Middle Eastern strategy or business dealings, today in his gleaming, eerily empty office, Blair says he feels compelled to re-enter public life to ‘mend the divisions in British politics and stem the rise of global extremism’.
Established in 2017, the not-for-profit Tony Blair Institute for Global Change takes up around 80 percent of his time. “All pro bono,” the former PM says.
I’m afraid there is an ugly strain of Islamophobia now in parts of British society and we have to go after it.
Following the decision to unwind his controversial commercial venture Tony Blair Associates – which was accused of muddying commercial and charitable work – the new institute was formed to “help globalisation work for the many and not the few”.
While the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change is a not-for-profit body, it does accept donations, including a £9 million ($11.61 million) deal in 2018 with the Saudi Arabian government, according to the Institute’s accounts.
Blair set up the Institute to tackle several of his political passions under one umbrella. He tells Arabian Business: “When I left office I was working on various issues – I had a big commitment to Africa and I was very interested in the Middle East and the Israeli Palestinian situation following my quartet role so I wanted to work on that.
“I had also become fascinated by the problem of extremism versus co-existence and the need to establish ways of working across boundaries of faith and culture, so I set up different foundations which I then bought into this one institute.
“I also added another aspect to it – which concerned how we could return strength to separated politics. All of this has in common the idea that globalisation is essentially a good thing. The question is how do we make globalisation work?”
Blair insists globalisation has worked to some extent but it has left ‘enormous challenges in its wake’.
He says: “How do you make globalisation fair and how do you spread its benefits? It’s not easy. But when you take a step back and ask ‘is the world a better place today than it was 30 years ago?’ The answer is yes, obviously – more people have been lifted out of poverty and fewer people are dying of killer diseases and conflict than have been alienated or left behind by the process of globalisation.”
But Blair says there are ‘many problems’ that come with globalisation as the world integrates, such as extremists being able to operate across national boundaries much more easily.
He says: “Extremism is on the rise. It can come from Islamic groups and it can come from outside. There is an ugliness that has crept into our politics. There are rising strands of Islamophobia, anti Semitism and racism in football. My institute is working on rooting out extremism.”
The world is going to change so fast that people have to escape from old prejudices and attitudes.
Blair recalls the days when he instated the first Muslim ministers and Muslim peers as part of his groundbreaking 1990s Labour party. “In the aftermath of 9/11 and 7/7, we tried to make sure the community stayed together. I’m afraid there is an ugly strain of Islamophobia now in parts of British society and we have to go after it,” he says.
Referring to recent Islamophobic ‘whistleblower’ statements from senior Tory ministers and even the US president Donald Trump, Blair says “anyone that’s in a senior position should be really careful about the language they use because they can give legitimacy to a discourse that’s illegitimate”.
Blair welcomes the recent All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) definition of Islamophobia in Britain.
“If we can do it, it’s a sensible thing because the only way of dealing with racism is to say ‘no, that is not legitimate discourse’. You have to be absolutely clear about it. The more that is part of the political consensus the better and unfortunately that’s frayed in recent years.”
Blair says that while the terrorist group ISIS may have had most of its stronghold removed, the group’s ideology is far from defeated.
This admission is a poignant one for Blair, who in a 2015 CNN interview with Fareed Zakaria, apologised for his “mistakes” over the Iraq War and admitted there were “elements of truth” to the view that the invasion helped promote the rise of ISIS.
Blair says: “ISIS is not defeated and extremism isn’t defeated. There is extremism all over the Middle East and Africa. The question is how do you stop religion being turned into a political ideology?”
Does Blair think Britain should allow ISIS fighters to be allowed back to the UK after turning their back on the country? His answer is “no”.
“I think it’s really difficult but you have to take responsibility for your own citizens in the end. But I do sympathise with the opposite point of view.”
From a wider global perspective, Blair deems it necessary to form an alliance between Islam and those outside of it around certain core principles for “rooting out extremism, wherever it is”.
He says: “There needs to be a quality of treatment of people across the boundaries of faith. And there needs to be an agreement that religion should not be used as a political weapon.”
Blair says he is hopeful that many people in the Middle East understand that “the only salvation for the region is the creation of rule-based economies and religiously tolerant societies”.
“There is no other future. The world today works through connectivity so if you’re closed minded to people who are not of your faith or culture you’re just going to fail.”
Blair says the UAE leadership is “making the right moves in that direction”.
The former PM cites Abu Dhabi’s upcoming multifaith museum, The Abrahamic Family House, as a step towards inter-faith harmony and tolerance. ”I think it is a route to great success. This centre is really important… this is the way to go forward.”
Blair says the only way to become economically successful is to cultivate an educated population that is “creative, innovative and open minded”.
“That’s the way the world works and the world is going to change so fast that people have to escape from old prejudices and attitudes.
“If you’re treating someone differently because of their faith, it’s not just a prejudice that is backward in social terms, it actually hinders the development of economies.”
Blair commends Abu Dhabi and Dubai because “the right decisions have been taken by leaders”.
He adds that “most important thing” for Saudi Arabia is that it continues with the implementation of its 2030 modernisation programme.
And the single most important thing the earth needs right now is “good governance”, says Blair.
“We need the right leaders that lead with proper governance and introduce the right policies.”
“If you look at Labour party now, we have become a far-left political party that’s got policies that are really from the past. I think there is a massive group of people who are politically homeless and who are going to find a way of fighting back.
“There is every possibility now that we can get a rational process in which we determine what form of Brexit we really want, or decide not to do it and put it back to the people with a second referendum.
“There are two different forms of Brexit – a soft one and a hard one – and they are very different in their implications.
“The soft one keeps us in the economic structures of the EU but we exit the political structures and it has the huge drawback of us becoming rule takers, so it’s a weird way of asserting control as you lose the control you’ve already got.
“On the other hand, if we come out of the economic and political structures, the problem is business has been used to trading in the European market in a frictionless way so when they come out there is going to be problems. So that’s why I say there is a choice between a pointless Brexit and a painful one.
“In the end, my view is we should let the people choose as both options have profound drawbacks and neither is as good as the relationship we already have.
“Why shouldn’t we have a chance to think again after all the mess we have been through?”
Born: 6 May 1953 (age 65)
Full name: Anthony Charles Lynton Blair
Education: Choristers School in Durham; Fettes College in Edinburgh; Law at St John’s College, Oxford
Family: Married to Cherie Blair since 1980. The couple have four children.
1976: Barrister 1983: Labour MP for Sedgefield, shadow City spokesman
1984 – 87: Shadow trade and industry minister
1987 – 88: Shadow energy secretary
1989 – 92: Shadow employment secretary
1992 – 94: Shadow home secretary
1994 – 97: Opposition leader
1997 – 2007: Prime minister
1998: The historic Good Friday agreement was reached after Blair’s government involved all sides in the negotiations. 2003: Made the decision to invade Iraq
2016: The Chilcot report into the Iraq war was published, concluding that the Blair government “failed to achieve its stated objectives”
The handshake: warm, firm, lasts over 10 seconds
The suit: single breasted, blue – hates wearing black tie (“unless I’m forced”)
The eyes: tired, but always making full contact. We feel he is looking at us even when looking away
The smile: 1000 megawatts
The voice: increasingly croaky
The small talk: Plenty of it – Blair is master of making you feel important, always asking plenty of personal questions, showing huge interest in the answers
The memory: Sometimes claimed that he has photographic memory. Our reporters have met him in 1996, 1999, 2012 and 2019 – we would have to agree given his recollection of minute details.