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Tony Blair: Scottish independence is further away than ever

Tony Blair photographed for Holyrood by Louise Haywood Schiefer

Tony Blair: Scottish independence is further away than ever

The fall-out from Brexit means Scottish independence is "further away than ever" and UK politics is stuck in a "20th century debate", Tony Blair has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with Holyrood reflecting on the devolution era, the former prime minister called for more focus on the AI "revolution" and said political parties are lagging behind on the way technology will change society.

He said devolution has been a success because Scotland is not independent: "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 devolution referendum was held after Blair's 1997 general election victory. MSPs began sitting two years later.

He told Holyrood editor Mandy Rhodes that he had "underestimated the degree to which the independence movement would remain strong" under devolution but that paradoxically while Brexit may have given further ammunition to the SNP to argue for independence, the fallout from it would deter support for a further massive change.

Responding to why political debate did not feel exciting right now, he said UK politics was caught in an early 20th century debate about the margin of tax and spend and needed to catch up to the way technology will change society.

Blair, who left office in 2007, said: "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?"

Blair continued: "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."

Saying Scottish independence is "further away than ever", Blair argued that Brexit has affected the debate, with the impacts of EU exit making people "nervous" of further constitutional change.

He said: "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?"

And on the controversy that has engulfed politics around women’s rights and gender self-identification, and the question about 'what is a woman?' that has tripped up so many politicians, Blair said: "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."

The full interview is available here.

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