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by Mandy Rhodes
17 June 2024
Tony Blair: 'The SNP can no longer avoid scrutiny of its record in government'

Tony Blair photographed for Holyrood by Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Tony Blair: 'The SNP can no longer avoid scrutiny of its record in government'

It was a perfect spring morning that May in 1997 when the scale of New Labour’s victory became clear. The wipe-out of every single Conservative MP in Scotland after 18 years of their party being in power at Westminster only added to the sense that this was truly a new political dawn. 

The paparazzi-style photographs of a somewhat startled, tousle-haired Cherie Blair standing on the doorstep of the couple’s Islington home in a cotton nightshirt bought from Next especially for the election campaign [she clarified these points after the media said she was wearing a nylon nightie and she clearly took umbrage at the description] on the morning after the result perfectly captured the moment that power looked very different from what had come before.
And even now, on the eve of yet another potential historic election for Labour, which looks poised to win power after 14 years of Tory rule, it’s hard to exaggerate just how seismic it all felt back then. 

“For 18 years – for 18 long years – my party has been in opposition,” proclaimed Tony Blair on the steps of No 10 Downing Street. “It could only say, it could not do. Today we are charged with the deep responsibility of government. Today, enough of talking – it is time now to do.”
And with that call to action, Blair set about uniting the country by changing how power worked, by devolving it to Scotland, Wales, and London and by helping to broker peace in Northern Ireland.

The 1997 Labour manifesto pledged that power would be devolved to Scotland. Within a matter of months of winning power, Blair perhaps perversely prepared to give some of it away as Scotland went back to the polls to vote for a Scottish Parliament.

Three days before that historic vote in September 1997, Blair hit the campaign trail in Edinburgh. There was a carnival atmosphere, the streets of the capital were lined with flag-waving supporters and, in an interview with the BBC, Blair said that the vote for Scottish devolution was one of “huge significance” to the UK as a whole.

He said it would “show the whole of the United Kingdom that there is a better way that Britain can be governed, that we can bring power closer to the people, closer to the people’s priorities and that we can give Scotland the ability to be a proud nation within the United Kingdom”.

The vote, a few days later, was overwhelmingly a ‘Yes, Yes’: yes in favour of the creation of a Scottish Parliament and yes to one that would have tax-raising powers. Twelve months later, the Scotland Bill was finished, and just two years on from the general election, on 6 May 1999 – Blair’s 46th birthday, as it happened – the first elections to the reconvened Scottish Parliament were held. 

In a speech in 1993, the then leader of the UK Labour Party, John Smith, referred to a Scottish Parliament as “the settled will of the Scottish people”, the creation of which would form the “cornerstone” of his party’s plan for “democratic renewal” in the United Kingdom.
He died less than a year later and with Smith’s death came the sense of unfinished business. That Scots, already nursing a long-standing grudge over a referendum in 1979 to create a Scottish Assembly which they believed had been rigged, wanted more.

Blair passionately believed he had to deliver on his predecessor’s pledge and, despite surprisingly strong resistance from Scots within his own shadow cabinet, felt there was a momentum that he could not ignore.

And on 12 May 1999, five years to the day since Smith’s untimely death, the new Scottish Parliament sat for the very first time.

Anniversaries are always a time for reflection. And this 25th celebration of devolution is no different. Twenty-five years is a long time – a quarter of a century, a generation for some. And for Blair, it is a reminder of how fast time passes. Not only does May 2024 mark Holyrood’s important anniversary, it is the month Blair celebrated his 71st birthday and it’s also exactly 30 years since John Smith, the greatest prime minister we never had, died.

“I’ve been thinking about John a lot recently,” Blair tells me. “It’s hard to believe that he’s been gone for 30 years. Time is passing extraordinarily fast, and because I still remember him so well it just doesn’t feel that long. 

“John was… What was he?... John was the personification of common sense. If there’s anyone who represented that British quality, that common sense quality, it was John, and he was just very, very firm, in his view and his understanding that devolution was an essential part of keeping the UK together. And that it was Scotland’s right to have that devolution.

“You’re right, there were a lot of Scots in the team, but devolution would have happened anyway. I mean, I think I said this to you the last time we met, but with John Smith and Donald Dewar and Gordon [Brown], who are the people I would guess that I was closest to, and then people like Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell and so on, they were all very sensible people who thought about this issue very deeply and they had all come to a very firm conclusion on it.

“I do reflect on devolution a lot, and occasionally do think what should we or could we have done differently, but on the whole I’m still of the same opinion as I was back then, which is that devolution had to happen, otherwise you’d leave Scottish people with the choice of status quo or independence, and Scotland is still part of the UK, which was part of the design – so devolution has worked, as far as I am concerned.

“The history of the movement for devolution, as the alternative to independence, has a long history. Some people think it started with some sort of random commitment in 1997 but that’s wrong. I mean, you had the failed attempt at devolution in the 60s, it was an argument throughout the 70s and, actually, had been an argument since people were debating home rule back in the beginning part of the 20th century.

Blair meets devolution supporters in Edinburgh in 1997 | Alamy

“There was always going to come a point – and this is mirrored all over the world – where you say ok, we’re going to devolve power, give power to what is a nation within the UK as the alternative to that country leaning towards independence, in this case, Scotland, separating from the UK. I think I said this in my last interview with you, that maybe we underestimated the degree to which the independence movement would remain strong.

“But the ultimate test is whether Scotland is still part of the UK and the answer is yes, it is. And further to that, when we look at this upcoming general election, is independence featuring strongly in the priorities of Scottish voters? The answer is no. And that’s quite an important thing because, for sure, back in the day, it would have been central.

“I think for John, like for Donald, it was always going to be a very simple test in terms of the success of devolution, which was, would the UK stick together? And we have. However, I think that really the ultimate test of devolution is two-fold. One, is it now anchored in our constitutional makeup in the UK, to which the answer is yes. And two, has it resulted in independence, which is no, it hasn’t. Everything else is speculation in terms of whether things could have been done differently and so on, and all of those things are perfectly reasonable questions, but those are the two fundamental things, and in that context, devolution has been a success.

“I have this debate often with Conservatives who say to me that because you have the SNP in power in Scotland, then devolution has obviously failed because they are pro-independence. My answer to that is that it would have failed if people had opted in the end for independence, but they didn’t. 

“I think in the end, the thing about the Scottish Parliament elections is that, over time, my view was always that they would start to become about actual policy debates within Scotland and how can best govern for Scotland. I’d agree the elections have still been dominated by the independence argument, but I think you can see that changing now. And the truth is, if there are policy failures, and I think there have been a lot of policy failures around the SNP’s approach to education, health care, law and order, and the SNP is actually very vulnerable on those basic delivery questions, then the Labour Party will do much better if it concentrates on those.

“People often look at Scotland and say Scotland is a traditional socialist bastion, whereas in England they’re more in the middle ground and more tending towards centrist politics. But my view is that in Scotland, as in England, a strong centre will win. And that means that you’ve got to put forward policies that are reforming policies in health and education, in law and order, but because the SNP has managed until recently to remain in opposition, even when in government, and to argue that the problems that Scotland faces are all as a result of the constitutional settlement with Westminster when actually the policy levers are in the hands of the Scottish Government, they have managed to avoid the scrutiny, but I think this is now much more difficult for them.

“My plea to the Labour Party is to say, we’ve got to reimagine the modern progressive mission around technology, the capabilities of technology, and the risks of technology, because we’re going to live through the most revolutionary period in the real world since the 19th century in terms of the changes that are going to happen, and the question is which the party best understands those changes and can harness them properly, and in education and healthcare and law and order, there are massive opportunities. That’s why I always say to people, this should be a really exciting time to be in government.”

And yet it feels so unexciting?

“That’s because in the UK we’re still having a late 20th century debate in politics in the third decade of the 21st century and that’s basically around the margins of tax and spending. This is like having a debate in the 1830s about elements of land tenure when you’re living through and about to accelerate through a massive change in the move from agriculture to the city and the industrial revolution. The latest developments in artificial intelligence are a revolution on top of a revolution.

“For example, we’ve got a huge challenge in this country to stay ahead in artificial intelligence and Scotland’s got some really good capabilities in that field, but to do this, you’ve got to really focus on it, you’ve got to say, what do we need in order to do this, but that’s not even part of the debate in the UK really right now. And yet if you look at what artificial intelligence can do for health service delivery, for instance, it’s just enormous, and it will become more so. The question is how do you get ahead of that?

“My institute did a paper about the industrial revolution and how long it took politics to catch up with it, and of course the Labour Party was created after the industrial revolution. And that’s why politics itself will change. Politics is changing. If you look all over the western world today, you see one or two things happening. In systems where it’s easy for new parties to start, new parties are starting and old parties have been broken up. If you look at the situation in France, where you had a conservative victory in 2007, effectively a conservative party under Nicolas Sarkozy, you then had a socialist party victory in 2012. The combined vote of those two parties in the last presidential election was like a few per cent. Look at Italy where you’re getting new parties.

“Where that doesn’t happen, like the UK or in the US where you’ve got an electoral system that favours established parties, within those parties you’ve got massive disruption going on. The Labour Party had its Corbyn period. And why is the Tory party in trouble? For many reasons, but principally because it’s just become an ungovernable coalition of different people who don’t agree with each other in a deeply profound way. It’s why the country is in such a mess; it’s not getting governed properly. 

“If you look at politics today, whether it’s the Labour Party or any other political party, you’ve got to first start with an analysis of what is changing in the world and then you find your place within it. And so, for the Labour Party today, even through coming into government, it will have to transform itself ultimately into a modern vehicle for progressive politics.

“And in terms of the Scottish National Party, well, I think with the SNP the problem for them is that in the end they are what it says on the tin, but the fundamental fallacy is believing that the solution to Scotland’s problems is independence. And it plainly isn’t.”

What is?

“Good policy. I mean, if you look around the world, and one of the advantages of being out of politics is you get to see what’s going on in the world, you just get a broader sense of the countries that are succeeding, the countries that are failing, those coming up, those slipping down. And it’s all to do with delivery and policy. It’s all to do with a clear, strong sense of direction and delivering on policy. And that’s why this technology part is so important, because if you’re in the private sector today and if you have a conversation with a leader in the private sector, they get the technology stuff immediately because they’re having to do it. The public sector always takes longer to adjust, but it will. And it’s beginning.

Blair photographed for Holyrood by Louise Haywood-Schiefer | Alamy

“You’ve got a situation in the UK where, after America and China, we are probably the leaders in the world of artificial intelligence. I was speaking to someone yesterday from Silicon Valley and they were just saying that Europe has got a real problem with regulation and AI, but the one bright spot of Brexit is the UK has got real potential in that area. But our problem is we get really smart people that develop good ideas and then they leave because our capital markets aren’t deep enough. We’re not giving them the right help and support they need, and that’s got to become a huge focus for government.

“I think we have also lost an ambition and confidence. This is not just true of Scotland but I think the UK as a whole, which is a really bad thing for a country by the way but that’s because I don’t think there’s a clarity of direction. I think looking back 25 years, the difference was that for people like Gordon [Brown], Donald [Dewar], Robin [Cook] and so on, the UK doing well was Scotland also doing well. They didn’t see the two as separated from each other. They had ambition for Scotland and confidence for the country as a whole.”

On mention of these so-called big beasts of politics, I ask Blair whether he is dismayed by the calibre of people now entering politics and whether that contributes to the toxicity of discourse.
“Look, I think there’s a general problem in politics which comes back to the same thing, which is you’ve got to find your mission as a political party or as a country, and if you don’t, then you’re less likely to attract people with a strong sense of what they want to achieve. I don’t think there’s just a problem with Scotland. It’s a problem all over the western world at the moment.

“And, you know, I think it’s really sensible for the Labour Party – and Keir [Starmer] is trying to do this – to bring people with really good ability into the frontline of politics, because you need that. I mean, politics is a strange profession. It’s the only profession in the world in which you put people in charge of really important things with very large budgets and with absolutely zero experience.

“I mean, that’s just the way it is. And I was a prime minister with zero experience. So I’m not making a criticism of anyone in particular, but it is a fact. That’s how democracy functions. But I do think, particularly when you’re living in a very complex world and where these challenges, as I say, of technology can be very great, you do need to be pulling people into politics who have some real depth and understanding to them.”

And on the question of the toxicity, I ask Blair how he reflects on the difficulties politicians have got themselves into on the very basic question of sex and defining a woman. He hesitates, looks at his aide and sighs before launching into one of the clearest exposés of the issue that I have heard in a long time.

“Mandy, I don’t know how politics got itself into this muddle. What is a woman? Well, it’s not a very hard thing for me to answer really. I’m definitely of the school that says, biologically, a woman is with a vagina and a man is with a penis. I think we can say that quite clearly.

“The point is this: if people want to reassign their gender and say, ok I may be born biologically a male but I want to reassign as female, that’s absolutely fine and people should be entitled to do that. And there is no doubt at all there are people who genuinely feel that they are in the wrong body. I know this, I’ve dealt with it over the years. I was actually, I think, the first MP that ever had a full set of meetings with transgender people. So I completely get it. There are just three qualifications to it that I think are very important. Number one, it shouldn’t stop women talking about being biological women.

“This idea that you can’t refer to pregnant women, I think most people think that’s completely ridiculous. Secondly, there may be situations, for example, where you have people who still have male genitalia but are in a changing room with women, and women will feel uncomfortable with that. They shouldn’t feel uncomfortable, so you’ve got to protect that, and the issues in relation to sport and so on.

“And thirdly, you’ve got to be very careful with young people. Because if you’re talking about young people at an impressionable young age, you’ve got to handle this with immense care, because whereas there are people that may think that they’re gay and then decide later that they’re not, there’s no physical change that they’re engaged with, whereas in this, if you’re giving people treatment which involves physical changes to them, that’s such an enormously important, life-changing decision, you’ve got to exercise great care. So subject to those three qualifications, and I think that’s where the overwhelming majority of people are, and honestly, I don’t find it difficult, I’ve never thought that difficult, so it’s a weird thing to me that people have ended up in this extraordinarily polarised debate in which, you know, the most important thing is to apply common sense.”

We close where we started, reflecting on devolution 25 years on and where the journey goes next. I ask whether independence is any nearer now than it was then.

“Honestly, I now think independence is further away than ever, and of course I might be completely wrong, but I think it is for two reasons. One, as I say, I think that people are focused much more on the immediate issues around cost-of-living, global insecurity, worries about the state of public services etc, and secondly, linked to that, I think there is underneath the surface – and I may be completely wrong by this, but speaking to the Scottish friends I still have would suggest otherwise – is a sense that people understand that you’re going to debate about whatever the right constitutional relationship should be and whether it’s independence or devolution, but there’s a much deeper skepticism now that that debate can resolve those big problems.

“And that’s where I do think Brexit has had this paradoxical effect, that it’s both given people another reason for having independence, but the fallout has made people nervous of it because I think whatever people think about Brexit, even if they’re ambivalent about it – and I obviously think it’s a terrible thing, but even if you’re ambivalent about it – you’re kind of thinking, this is a huge mess, and therefore, do we really want to gamble with the Scottish economy that is, by the way, much, much more linked to the British economy than the British economy is to Europe? Do we want to gamble with that?

“But I have this question, and it’s because you asked me this earlier, which is, given that the SNP has got a poor record on delivery, how come they haven’t been removed? You’d have to conclude it’s because the independence issue has still given them traction in substitution for that public service delivery.  But I think the question for me will be, and this would be where I would wish devolution to end up, is that when people are fighting a Scottish Parliament election purely on the basis of who’s the best government for Scotland, that once you get to that stage, then I think the constitutional settlement is pretty secure.” 

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