A month ago, I wrote here about Tony Blair’s ‘Future of Britain’ conference, being held today. I predicted that the event would be a big centrist love-in: an opportunity for mutual back-slapping amongst Prospect, Tuscany, and Third Way enthusiasts, but of little genuine value. Having now consulted the agenda, and messaged a friend in attendance, I can confirm I was completely right.
That does make me sound rather smug, I’ll admit. But I can’t even be half as self-satisfied as some of today’s attendees or their topics of discussion. The agenda centred on six buzzwords of suitably bland and centrist-y: prosperity, transformative tech, Net Zero, community, public services, and Britain in the World. Each subject has been addressed through a combination of interviews, films, and panel discussions.
For those middle-class, middle-aged liberals still coming down from seeing Macca at Glasto, the line-up involved a similarly stellar selection of centrist heroes and heroines. Rory Stewart, Ruth Davidson, and our own David Gauke make up the vaguely Tory contingent; they are accompanied by figures as, ahem, diverse as a former Lib Dem candidate, Paul Johnson from the IFS, and the obligatory senior partner from McKinsey.
But the headliners don’t stop there. Larry Summers and Condoleezza Rice are dropping in from across the pond. There are half a dozen different CEOs, founders, and tech whizzes from an array of start-ups and social media organisations you have never heard of, and some experts on sustainability to waffle about climate change. All topped by the McCartney of centrism himself – Sir Anthony Blair.
Of course, it is very easy for those of us on the right to sneer at such an event. Redolent of the worst excesses of hand-wringing social and economic liberalism it may be, but it does highlight some important areas. We all wish we were in a country that was more prosperous. Technology is re-shaping our lives. And Britain faces huge challenges on the world stage, of which climate change is a part.
So I don’t deny that much of the agenda is worthy of discussion. But this set of topics combined with this line-up is a recipe for banality. One does not need a window into the souls of the men and women in attendance today to suggest they may be coming at matters with rather a large amount of pre-existing agreement. Most, for example, will see globalisation as a good thing, and Brexit as a problem, not an opportunity.
Similarly, these are not people for whom high levels of immigration are a problem. They are individuals who would much rather discuss start-ups than street violence. Net Zero is a bigger priority for them than the revival of local high streets. And whilst I do not doubt the patriotism of Gauke, Davidson, Blair et al, they would be comfortable to be thought of as globally-minded. Most voters would not.
Again, perhaps Net Zero should be a bigger priority than our high streets. Being rather enthusiastic on green issues, I don’t agree. And more importantly for a conference on the future of Britain, neither does the average voter. Our Editor wrote last year about what British centrism really looks like: to the right on culture, to the left on economics. Kick out the illegals and fund the NHS, essentially.
This is not a vision for Britain, I’d wager, that most of this conference’s attendees share. But it is what time and time again votes, polls, and our ever-fantastic columnist James Frayne tell us. Almost certainly, a majority of attendees at this conference will not have voted for Brexit, and a plurality will not have plumped for Boris Johnson in 2019. But a majority of the country did – and it is they that this conference is supposed to be about.
That is why these people are not in power. Blair, Rice, Summers – these are people who dearly want to turn the world back to the turn of the millennium. Having them headlining a conference on the future of British politics in 2022 is as absurd as Margaret Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe doing so at an equivalent event in 2002. Yet Blair’s irrepressible ego means he is compelled to do so.
Those who have came of political age in his shadow are willing to play along with his fantasies of relevance. But like that Rest is Politics podcast that Stewart co-hosts with Alistair Campbell, their audience is the converted. Their age has passed, but they are trapped into meme-ing the same pat Blairite phrases to an approving but hollow audience.
This conference had not time for the culture wars. It may have touched on the cost-of-living crisis, but it did not dominate the agenda. Levelling-up may be a trite phrase, but it does at least reflect an aspiration to reach out to those isolated from Westminster’s navel-gazing. And as messy as debating Brexit, trans rights, or race would be, they engage the punters more than AI or ‘green job’.
So I hope those in attendance today enjoyed their panel discussions, films, and coffee breaks. But to suggest they were talking about the future seems rather a stretch. In the case of a few attendees, they were the future once. They are not now. Today’s event was a twitch of life from a political class fading from view. What will replace them? We’d need another conference for that.