Former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair is by turns pensive and defiant as he reflects on the upcoming anniversaries of two events that arguably defined the best and worst of his decade in power.
Monday marks 20 years since Mr. Blair joined U.S. president George W. Bush in launching an invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, without a UN mandate and in defiance of some of the biggest demonstrations ever seen in Britain.
For its many critics, the war was exposed as a reckless misadventure when no weapons of mass destruction were found, and hampered the West’s ability to stand up to the rise of autocrats in Russia and China.
But Mr. Blair rejects the notion that Russian President Vladimir Putin profited by defying a weakened West with his own aggression against Ukraine, starting in 2014 and extending to last year’s full invasion.
“If he didn’t use that excuse (Iraq), he’d use another excuse,” Britain’s most successful Labour leader, who is now 69, said in an interview with AFP and fellow European news agencies ANSA, DPA and EFE.
Saddam, Mr. Blair noted, had initiated two regional wars, defied multiple UN resolutions and launched a chemical attack on his own people.
Ukraine in contrast has a democratic government and posed no threat to its neighbours when Mr. Putin invaded.
“At least you could say we were removing a despot and trying to introduce democracy,” Blair said, speaking at the offices of his Tony Blair Institute for Global Change in central London.
“Now you can argue about all the consequences and so on.
“His (Putin’s) intervention in the Middle East (in Syria) was to prop up a despot and refuse a democracy. So we should treat all that propaganda with the lack of respect it deserves.”
Fallout from the Iraq war arguably hampered Blair’s own efforts as an international envoy to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians, after he left office in 2007.
Through his institute, Blair maintains offices in the region and says he is “still very passionate” about promoting peace in the Middle East, even if it appears “pretty distant right now”.
But while there can be no settlement in Ukraine until Russia recognises that “aggression is wrong”, he says the Palestinians could draw lessons from the undisputed high point of his tenure: peace in Northern Ireland.
Under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, pro-Irish militants agreed to lay down their arms and pro-UK unionists agreed to share power, after three decades of sectarian strife had left some 3,500 people dead.
Mr. Blair, then Irish premier Bertie Ahern and an envoy of US president Bill Clinton spent three days and nights negotiating the final stretch before the agreement was signed on April 10, 1998.
The territory is mired in renewed political gridlock today.
But a recent deal between Britain and the European Union to regulate post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland has cleared the way for US President Joe Biden to visit for the agreement’s 25th anniversary.
Reflecting on the shift in strategy by the pro-Irish militants, from the bullet to the ballot box, Blair said “it’s something I often say to the Palestinians: you should learn from what they did”.
“They shifted strategy and look at the result,” he added, denying he was biased towards Israel but merely recognising the reality of how to negotiate peace.
“There are lots of things contested and uncontested,” he added, dwelling on his tumultuous time in 10 Downing Street from 1997 to 2007.
“I suppose the one uncontested thing is probably the Good Friday Agreement.
“The thing had more or less collapsed when I came to Belfast and we had to rewrite it and agree it... it’s probably been the only really successful peace process of the last period of time, in the last 25 years.”
Tories could pull off shock election win
Tony Blair came to power as leader of Britain’s Labour party in the years after it suffered a paralysing defeat to the Conservatives that few saw coming.
While praising current Labour chief Keir Starmer, Mr. Blair says that in the next general election, a shock win cannot be ruled out for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Tories — even if the party currently trails badly in the polls.
But on one thing regarding UK politics, the 69-year-old elder statesman is sure: Britain will not rejoin the European Union in the coming years.
“Whether and how the UK rejoins the EU will be for a future generation. I think that’s the reality,” Mr. Blair said.
The former prime minister vocally opposed Brexit in Britain’s 2016 referendum, even travelling to Northern Ireland with ex-Tory leader John Major to warn of its likely impact on the delicate peace there.
Following his surprise win over Labour in 1992, Major laid the foundations of peace talks with pro-Irish militants, which Blair went on to build into a landmark agreement in 1998.
Major’s election win accelerated Labour’s conversion from a flirtation with the far-left in the 1980s to electoral respectability, and Blair won a landslide five years later.
Then, the Conservatives were rebuilding after the political demise of Margaret Thatcher. Today, under Sunak, they are trying to rebuild after political and economic tumult under Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.
Starmer’s Labour has a commanding lead in opinion polls, averaging 20 points, ahead of the next election likely to take place in 2024.
But Sunak personally polls better than his rival, drawing media comparisons to the 1992 contest between Major and his Labour opponent, Neil Kinnock, who voters decided was not ready to be prime minister.
‘Very sensible guy’
Asked if Sunak could pull off a repeat upset, Blair said: “In politics, you should never talk of certainties, because there aren’t any.”
Sunak, whose presentational style has been compared to Blair, was “repairing the damage that has been done” to the Conservative brand by Johnson and Truss, he said.
But however much Sunak improves the party’s standing, voters will still be taxed higher and receiving less in public services come the next election.
“And I also think that Keir is a very sensible guy. He’s someone who looks like he can lead the country,” Blair added.
“In the immortal words of Sir Rod Stewart, it’s time to give the other lot a go, or whatever he said.”
The British rock crooner, a lifelong Conservative, said in January that “I’ve never seen it so bad... change the bloody government” and let Labour in.
While both Blair and Starmer campaigned to keep Britain in the EU, the current Labour leader has ruled out rejoining the bloc’s single market as a compromise step after Brexit.
“I think right now, the debate in the UK is the degree to which we want to re-establish a strong relationship with Europe, which I think we should and which I believe Labour will also do,” Blair said.
Britain and the EU had much to talk about in energy and climate, science and research, and defence and security after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he said.
“I think there’s a strong case for trying to cooperate on technology,” Blair added.
“Because otherwise, Europe, including the UK, is going to be pinned between two technology giants in the US and China, and possibly a third in India.
“And so I think there’s a massive amount we can do together.”