Glass Half Full

An Interview with Tony Blair

The other thing is that the challenge of democracy today is efficacy. People always think, and the media loves to play it in this way, that the challenge of democracy is transparency, or accountability, or honesty, but it's actually efficacy. The appeal of the authoritarian leader is that they take decisions and push them through, regardless. The problem in democracies now is that decisions become extremely divisive so that people don't like to take them. And what you end up with therefore is weak decision-making in an area where you need strong decision-making. Curiously and paradoxically in this era of social media, the public does respect people who stand up to it, as well as being sensitive to it. So that's why you have this strange thing, in a lot of Western politics, of a sort of regard for the Putinist model of leadership from parts of the Left and parts of the Right. And it's all to do with efficacy. I think a large part of the appeal of Donald Trump in the U.S. was efficacy. It wasn't just around mobilizing a certain group of people who weren't mobilized before. It was this sense that where normal politicians when they meet a brick wall in front of their objective will sit around and talk about it, these leaders will actually punch a hole through it and that appeals to people.

Whether it's Bolsonaro or Duterte or anyone else around the world, you can see that is the appeal — that strong-man concept of leadership. If the people who are standing up for  liberal democratic values all appear to be too nice or too hesitant ever to do anything in the end, people will gravitate to a different type of politics. I think democracy underestimates its challenge around this issue of getting things done. It's the reason why my institute concentrates on governance: the thing that I've learned about government is that getting the thing done is the hardest thing. Not making the speeches or working out the political strategy. It's taking, for example, a complicated system and changing it radically. That's really hard. And in situations where people feel they need change and conventional politics seems to offer only the status quo, the door is open for radical politics.

OR: George Shultz told us that his number-one concern is education — is that a lost cause?

Blair: If it were a lost cause, I would have stopped pursuing it. I think it's a tough cause. It’s surprised me, what has happened in the years since I've left office. You look around the world today. It's absolutely obvious that education is fundamental to the future of a country, fundamental to all of our countries. If you're not educated, you're not going to be creative, innovative, you're not adaptable to different situations. You're not equipped for the modern world.

That’s obvious and clear. But you look at most of our education systems and a large proportion of the pupils have very long educational records of poor attainment. What is the answer to that? The answer is to reform education systems. What is the obstacle to that? Teaching unions. It just is, all around the world. Every time I have this conversation with any President, anywhere in the world, and they go, "Yeah, education reform, we've really got to do it." That's what I mean by saying the challenge of democracy is efficacy. You need a leader who is prepared to come in and say, even from the progressive side of politics, "No, you guys don't have a veto on how we reform our education systems." And they're prepared to take that battle on, and win it.

These are tough battles, but that's the challenge. That's why when you go on and on with these things not being dealt with, finally people say, "Look, I want somebody to just bust the system. You guys have been operating the system and saying you'll change it and never making the change. So I'm just going to get someone who's going to come in and blow it up and then we'll see where we are." I found this with Brexit. You put 100 rational arguments on the table as to why it was a big risk for the country and people would go, "Yeah, yeah. That may be right, but we need some change."

That one argument trumps all the other 100 rational arguments. It's a big challenge, and democracy has got to do some soul-searching to get itself sorted out again.

This is a change that took place over the last 20 years. 20 years ago, if I were to go into a part of the world where the governments weren't democratic and the leadership were reasonable people but not operating a democratic system, they would say to me: "Look, in this neighborhood with my situation, I'm not ready for democracy. One day, yes. Of course that's the gold standard. That's where we should attain eventually. But you're just being naive about how now's the time.”

You don't have that conversation when you go to such places in the world now. They don't say, "We want to get to democracy, but we're just not ready for it." They say, "Oh, we've been looking at your system. It doesn't function. You want us to adopt all this? Look at your crazy political debates. We need stable long-term government. That's the only way we're going to get our country to be effective." This is the argument we've got to meet, I think.

OR: Are you optimistic or pessimistic on these questions?

Blair: I am eternally optimistic, but I am never sure whether that is a state of nature with me or the product of a rational mind. So I am an optimist, but I am more troubled than I've been for a long time. I think it's possible that the world goes into quite a dark period if the economic fallout from COVID is as bad as I think it may be. We'll work very hard to make sure that doesn't happen, but the signs are not good for global leadership, which I think is essential, and for coming together in divided politics, which I think is really needed, if we're going to take the right decisions to forge the right path to the future.