Former Prime Minister Tony Blair re-entered the election arena in his former constituency of Sedgefield on Tuesday morning, in an event filled with campaign time nostalgia. At the heart of his speech was the argument that “leaving Europe would leave Britain diminished in the world”.
In a campaign to date which has heavily focused on the state of the economy and public services, foreign affairs and the UK’s role in the world has unfortunately not had a look in. This reluctance can be explained by the mood of the electorate. Few will head to the ballot box on 7 May voting on the issue of foreign affairs, while the long shadow of discredited foreign interventions still lingers over the British public, a hangover from the invasion of Iraq.
Ironically it was the ‘Blair Doctrine’ – based on the reasons that nations should conduct military action abroad on humanitarian grounds – that put us where we are today. Still, the former prime minister’s speech in the North East marks the first detailed speech on foreign affairs we have seen so far in the short campaign. That it comes from a former prime minister no longer seeking elected office underlines where this issues lies in the major political parties’ priority list. Miliband himself is still to make any in-depth speech on foreign affairs since becoming Labour leader.
Blair rightly noted that during the Leaders’ debate last week, Europe featured mainly as a vehicle for discussing immigration. Moreover, the broader question of the UK’s role in global affairs did not come up. It’s hard to conclude what is more surprising, the fact that the issue was completely omitted, or that Blair spent his Thursday evening watching the Leaders’ debate on ITV.
What Blair’s speech succeeded in doing was to expand the argument that Labour’s commitment to Europe is part of a broader point about what role the UK can and should play in global affairs. Undoubtedly Labour’s strongest policy among the business community is its commitment to the EU. Up to now, though, we haven’t really heard from Ed Miliband or Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander on how this commitment fits into Labour’s wider foreign policy agenda.
Blair’s message that the UK must remain a member of the EU to stay relevant and prosper in a globalised economy also used the intellectual framework the Conservatives are currently using about the future of the NHS, in that to protect one objective, you must act in a certain way. Instead of a prospering economy to protect the NHS, Blair substituted EU membership for protecting the UK’s economic prosperity.
Blair also masterfully managed to go on the offensive in his customary effortless rhetoric style. Not only did he champion Labour’s position on Europe, he also managed to attack the SNP more forcefully than Miliband achieved at the Leaders’ debate last week by stating that “had Scotland voted to exit the UK it would now be in economic trauma”, while also painting a political picture where the right wing of the Conservative Party and UKIP become indistinguishable: “Reflect on the forces leading this campaign to get us out: UKIP and the right of the Tory Party”.
For all intent and purposes this was a well-delivered and thoughtful speech. The sad truth is, though, that in the subsequent Q&A, the focus was on what Blair thinks of Miliband’s leadership and what he thinks about Labour’s current attitude towards capitalism. The fact that Blair “100 per cent supports” Miliband is likely to get as much, if not more attention, than his remarks on the growing trend in foreign affairs for nations to operate as, and with, other regional blocks, is revealing.
Blair would have known beforehand this was likely to be the case and he had a couple of prepared answers to use to bat the questions away. However, it can be easy to forget that Blair is not just a former prime minister; he has now re-branded himself as an international statesman who feels he has something to say on the state of the world. In the UK, though, what Blair thinks of Ed is still the top priority.