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Ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair Backs A New Brexit Referendum


How can Britain avoid a disastrous Brexit that draws nearer every day? British Prime Minister Theresa May floated one possibility today. Weeks before a deadline for the U.K. to leave the European Union, May says she might accept a delay. That is a change from her long-held insistence that the end of March is the deadline.

Other lawmakers are now moving toward ways to get out of Brexit entirely. Both major parties have officially said they respect that the country voted to leave the European Union in 2016, but some lawmakers are now quitting their parties and pushing for a second vote. One is Joan Ryan, who left the opposition Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn.


JOAN RYAN: I do know that the Labour Party has become institutionally anti-Semitic. We believe that the hard left have taken over our party, that our leadership is a part of kind of Stalinist politics.

INSKEEP: Joan Ryan was elected to Parliament in 1997, the year when a very different Labour Party took charge of the country. Tony Blair became prime minister then, having pushed his party to the political center. He's visiting Washington now. And we played him some of Ryan's interview.

TONY BLAIR: Unfortunately, what she's saying about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party is true. And it's something people like myself have raised over the last three years consistently. Really, what's happened with the British Labour Party is that a strain of the far left has taken it over.

In circumstances where - you know, when I was leader, these people were very much on the fringes of the Labour Party. And now, the new leadership has really brought them in. By the way, I should say I do not believe that the majority of the Labour Party is anti-Semitic. And the members of Parliament, many of whom I worked with for many years, are horrified by this. It's just it has not been gripped and dealt with, and it needs to be gripped and dealt with.

INSKEEP: So some members of your party have left the party and joined this independent group. Is that the right move?

BLAIR: Well, they certainly think it's the right move. I mean...

INSKEEP: What about you?

BLAIR: I, you know, have chosen to stay in the Labour Party.

INSKEEP: So why not try to tear it down and try to build something that seems more credible to you?

BLAIR: I think a lot of people in the Labour Party feel - and, you know, I sympathize with this - it's our party. We've been in it for - in my case, for over 40 years, (laughter) and we don't feel that we should be forced out of it. But I think what happened with these particular members of Parliament, all of whom I know and and like and respect, they just felt enough was enough, and they had to go. And then there were some Conservative members of Parliament who've also joined them now.

And what's happening in our politics is that the activist base of both main political parties has really changed its nature in the last few years. So the Conservative Party is morphing into a more - a party kind of defined by Brexit almost, a - you know, a nationalistic party that really is at odds with much of the traditions of one-nation conservativism.

INSKEEP: We must leave regardless. That's the point of view.

BLAIR: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, leave at any cost. I mean, they got major parts of the Conservative Party now saying, well, even if there's no deal, we just go out and tumble out of Europe. And - which would obviously be a calamity economically for the country. You've got Conservatives simply dismissing concerns of business about the effects of Brexit. And then, on the left, the activist base has been captured by the far left.

Look, it's very, very simple. If you leave this vast terrain of ground uninhabited, people are going to move into it because for sure, if you have a Brexit-dominated Conservative Party and a far-left Labour Party, you're going to have a lot of politically homeless people.

INSKEEP: Let's think about that for a moment. Americans of course are facing the presidency of President Trump and finding it either, in many cases, really great or really horrifying and finding in either case a really stark choice between good and evil, between right and wrong. How do you come in and argue moderation on that? What's to be moderate about?

BLAIR: Yeah, that's a really good point. Moderate to me does not mean passive and does not mean mild in the face of things that are unjust. But what it does mean is rational (laughter). It does mean that you're seeking to build as broad a support as possible and that, for example, when people are taking a position that you disagree with, you're at least trying to understand why they take that position. For me, in the case of Brexit, I don't think there's a way Britain can escape from Brexit unless it deals with the underlying issues, which are issues around anxieties over immigration and the control of immigration and communities and people who feel they've been left behind by globalization.

INSKEEP: When we interviewed Joan Ryan, that member of Parliament who left the Labour Party, she advocated a second referendum. And the terms that she proposed were if people vote yes, it's Brexit under Theresa May's plan that she's tried to put before Parliament, can't get through Parliament. If people vote no, just stay in the European Union.

BLAIR: Yes, I - I've been campaigning for a long time for a vote to go back to the British people so that we can decide in the light of what Brexit really means, once you have a viable proposition, do you prefer to do Brexit, or do you prefer to stay? Because the curious thing again about the June 2016 vote is that we voted to leave the European Union. That's clear. But we didn't at that point have an alternative proposition. I mean, it's a bit like having a general election where the question is, do you like the government? That's never the question in an election. The question is, do you like the government, or do you prefer the opposition?


BLAIR: And by the way, if you did simply have the question, do you like the government, most governments would never get re-elected.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

BLAIR: So it's - so this is why I think the case for another referendum is very strong, but it would be of course a different referendum from the first.

INSKEEP: I want to circle back to the United States because you're talking about moderation or centrism. And it becomes clear when people try to stake out a centrist position, they are forced to choose on certain issues. Is that a real challenge for a centrist? I mean, you have to choose. They're big divisive issues, and you're going to have to come down on one side or the other.

BLAIR: Yeah. No, absolutely you do. The concept of centrism is not for me about splitting the difference. It's actually a cast of mind. It's an approach which says, look, the world is changing fast. We believe that you need to have social and government support systems to help people through that process. And we're not, you know, small-state people, but neither do we believe that an old-fashioned government approach of years gone by is going to cope with what is a completely new situation, a new type of change that's happening.

So this is where I think the political debate certainly our way is going to be in the next few years. Can you retrieve from that sort of hard-left position what I think are genuinely modern, forward-looking progressive policies?

INSKEEP: Mr. Blair, thanks for coming by.

BLAIR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.