Tony Blair’s re-emergence in British political debate in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum serves as a stark reminder of how quickly history can move.
Here is a man who, just over ten years ago, looked to have recast our politics as decisively, in his own way, as had Margaret Thatcher before him. New Labour were the natural party of government, and under David Cameron the Tories were scrambling to wrest ownership of the Blairite orthodoxies from the resentful grip of Gordon Brown.
Now? Writing just after the referendum in 2016, Andrew Rawnsley offered a guided tour of the rubble of Blair’s proejct. He identified three “pillars of Blairism”: an ‘electable’ (moderate) Labour Party; Britain engaged with Europe; and an interventionist foreign policy. Then he wrote:
“How stand those pillars of Blairism today? Shattered. Each one lies broken in the dust.”
Rawnsley’s broader point was to trace the collapse of the Blairite centre, in part at least, to Iraq, the shadow of which Blair himself had at that point still not escaped. But what if he could now?
Supporters of the former Prime Minister have suggested that his energetic engagement with the neo-Remain cause is motivated, in part, by an urge to associate himself with something new in the minds of a rising generation of voters who don’t remember Iraq.
Today’s 18-year-olds would have been just three years old when the invasion took place, and seven when Blair himself left office. The politically engaged might have picked up second-hand a visceral hatred of the Iraq War, but those whose interest in politics has only been spurred by Brexit offer a relatively blank slate for the writing of a new legacy.
Perhaps more than a legacy, too. After all, Blair has not confined his interventions to Brexit. Just last week he spoke about violent crime, a high profile domestic issue. The UK’s party system is robust, and a wholesale realignment still unlikely, but were one to occur it is easy to imagine Blair, in many ways the architect of the ancien régime Brexit has displaced, trying to play a prominent role in any new ‘centrist/liberal’ force.