|UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE To be published as HC 300-ii House of COMMONSMINUTES OF EVIDENCETAKEN BEFORELIAISON COMMITTEETHE PRIME MINISTERMonday 18 June 2007
RT HON TONY BLAIR MP
Evidence heard in Public Questions 116 – 199
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
||This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.
Taken before the Liaison Committee
on Monday 18 June 2007
Mr Alan Williams, in the Chair
Mr Kevin Barron
Mr Alan Beith
Sir Stuart Bell
Sir Patrick Cormack
Mr John Denham
Mr Andrew Dismore
Mr Frank Doran
Mrs Gwyneth Dunwoody
Mr Michael Jack
Mr Edward Leigh
Mr Terry Rooney
Mr Barry Sheerman
Dr Phyllis Starkey
Mr Phil Willis
Dr Tony Wright
Sir George Young
Witness: Rt Hon Tony Blair MP, Prime Minister, gave evidence.
Chairman: Welcome again, Prime Minister, to what is the eleventh but also the final session of questions with the Liaison Committee. Today we have three themes and you were notified as normal of the themes but, as before, you have been given no indication of the questions. The themes today are, firstly, the business of governing; secondly, the consequences of constitutional change; and thirdly, interventionism and foreign policy. As this is a shorter session I intend to go straight into the first theme: the business of governing, and John Denham.
Q116 Mr Denham: Prime Minister, delivery; delivery; delivery, or at least can we ask about how your experience of trying to make public services better actually shaped your policies? You began saying “wise spending not big spending”, you began with a very top-down approach to public service reform; today you have almost doubled real spending in most of the major services but in an approach to public sector reform which even some of your advisers say is quite similar to things you had opposed in the past. Can you pick out what the major events over the past ten years were that caused you to change the approach that you took to public service reform?
Mr Blair: First of all, on the level of public spending, I think we were always determined to increase that significantly, since one of the big problems that we inherited was an under-investment in the public realm, so I think that was always going to happen. Secondly, the big change that came about, or evolution in thinking if you like, was to move from a situation where the reform was very much driven from the top down. I do not ignore the importance of that, incidentally, I do not think we would have got the big improvements on literacy and numeracy in primary schools or the initial gains on waiting lists coming down without that top-down approach, and I still think that it has its own validity in certain specific areas, for example accident and emergency departments I do not think would have been changed but for a very specific, centrally driven target. On the other hand, as our experience of changing structure developed then I became a far stronger advocate of breaking down the monolithic structures, opening things up to competition and contestability and so on, but doing it still very much on the basis of keeping the values of the public service intact.
Q117 Mr Denham: When you look at the opposition you had to those changes, you once talked famously about the “forces of conservatism”, I do not think you named them at the time but I just wonder now when there are fewer people to offend whether you would like to say who the forces of conservatism were?
Mr Blair: Well, it was taken at the time of that speech as an attack on the Conservative Party, which actually it was not —
Q118 Mr Sheerman: Why not?
Mr Blair: Why not, exactly, which is also what the Labour Party thought, but it was really to do with small ‘c’ conservatism and it was in part borne out of my experience in government that was already pushing me towards more radical structural reform of public services and also the view, which is the view I hold more strongly now than ever before after ten years of government, that just as companies and organisations are subject to continual change, almost a permanent revolution and change in order to keep up to date with the way the world is changing, so public services have got to do the same, and in the end part of the trouble with top-down approaches is not merely that if that top-down approach slackens for any reason the pressure comes off, it is also that the centre is too slow to keep up with the pace of change that is happening, and therefore, particularly in relation to the Health Service, I have moved very much to the view, which is why we have introduced these reforms in the past few years, that you need what I would call self-sustaining and self-generating change. If you look at where the really big falls in Health Service waiting lists have come – and that was the problem we inherited in 1997 – they came when we started to introduce patient choice.
Q119 Mr Denham: So where were the forces of conservatism? Were they primarily within Whitehall and the Civil Service structures or were they the people out there that you wanted to deliver change?
Mr Blair: Again my experience of change is that whilst you are introducing it everyone says it is a terrible idea (provided the changes obviously are in the right direction) but once they are introduced it is a lot easier. If you take tuition fees for example, when we first introduced those people described it as my equivalent of the poll tax, it was going to be a complete disaster, university applications would slump, it would lead to huge rises in inequality. Now I think there is a virtual consensus that the system should change — well, sorry, our Liberal Democrat colleagues —
Q120 Mr Willis: Thank you for acknowledging that!
Mr Blair: — are maybe a little slow to catch up with that consensus, but nonetheless I think you would have to argue that it is in a completely different position politically today than it was then. I think really what happens – and I think this is true in the public services, it is true in every walk of life – if you talk to any corporate person who has taken through a big change programme, they will tell you when they first announced it everyone said, “I think this is going to be terrible,” and so on. Some of the first changes introduced in the Labour Party were treated in the same way. I think that in the end the most difficult thing is keeping people aware of the fact that nowadays in the public services if you want the high expectations of the public met you have got to be prepared to change the whole time.
Q121 Mr Denham: Can I be clear, do you now think that you have changed the culture in the public services so that whatever the next round of change is change will be more widely accepted or is this simply an inevitable part of the business of governing that whenever you try to change something you are going to have that small ‘c’ conservatism trying to hold you back?
Mr Blair: I think truthfully, yes, you will always have that trying to hold you back, but I think that also, for example in the Health Service now, there are major structural changes that you do not need to keep going back over but I think they will carry their own momentum of change forward. For example, tomorrow we are indicating to people how they can use Internet technology in order to make choices about their health care. If you think of this some, let us say, two or three years down the line where people can choose to have their operation in a range of different hospitals in the country, where independent providers can come in and provide the services if they are not being provided well enough elsewhere, there will of necessity be a lot of change that will come as a result of that and so I think it is also getting people used to the idea (which is very common in the private sector) that nowadays you would expect continually in a sense to update and to adjust as the world around you changes.
Q122 Mr Denham: Several of the candidates for Deputy Leader of the Labour Party have talked about trying to overcome some of the alienation and hostility of public sector workers to the changes that have taken place. Looking back over ten years do you think you could have done more to take people with you on the changes?
Mr Blair: Yes, I think we could have and I think it is important – and I am not saying that we got this right over the last ten years – constantly to explain to people why it is you are trying to make the change. I also think that you need to be able to create a culture in public service which does not immediately resist change or end up in a situation, of which I think there is a risk happening here – and I am trying to choose my words carefully – where I think there is a danger sometimes that the public service unions and associations almost get into a competition with each other as to who can flag up the most resistance to change, and I think that can sometimes be unhelpful. What was interesting to me is when we held, with the help of the King’s Fund, a seminar and meeting on the National Health Service on 30 April this year, and we had everyone there, including Unison, the BMA, the RCN, all the people that we might have expected to be very, very critical, they were still critical but all of them – all of them – said that the National Health Service had improved immeasurably over the past ten years. My point to them is occasionally it is a good idea to state that and then go on to your criticism rather than simply making your criticism which leads the public to believe that the Health Service is getting worse, when it is absolutely obvious on any independent basis that it is getting better. I think that, too, can be a problem in taking people with you. In other words, if you get into a bidding war between the various organisations as to who is going to stick it on the Government the most, sometimes that is actually self-defeating in terms of the morale of the organisation because I find with public service workers what they most want, in a sense, is recognition of their commitment, their dedication and their professionalism, and to be self-critical for a minute, I do not think that we have and I have said sufficiently to our public servants: “You are doing a great job of public service and, even though I believe these reforms are necessary, that is in no way a diminution of my respect for your commitment or your professionalism.” Sometimes we say it and it does not get heard and I think perhaps we need to do more there.
Q123 Mr Willis: Prime Minister, I will not go into top-up fees but in 2004 Lord Butler famously described your style of government as “sofa government”, saying, and I quote: “The informality and circumscribed nature of the Government’s procedures … risks reducing the scope for informed collective political judgment.” At what point, Prime Minister, did you decide to abandon Cabinet government and rely on sofa government with the approach of hand-picked friends and special advisers?
Mr Blair: That is not a loaded question in any way, is it?
Q124 Mr Willis: No, no!
Mr Blair: I think in fairness to what Robin Butler has said (and I think I have said this before) he was there for I think about eight months of the Government as we came in and, incidentally, did a very good job of helping the transition, which is a big thing to do after 18 years of one party being in Government, and I have already said I think in that first period of time probably for a time he was still functioning almost mentally and psychologically with us as an Opposition party rather than as a governing party. I have to say that over the past ten years it just would not be correct to say there is not a proper functioning Cabinet government. There are 50 different cabinet committees, I chair 16 of them, there are all the major public service reforms that we have done in the last few years which have been not just through Cabinet committees but through Cabinet itself, with detailed discussion of them, and I just do not recognise the description. The other thing that is really important to say, however, is I do not believe having done this job that I am the first Prime Minister that has discussed issues with a few people who work closely with me or with individual Cabinet ministers. If anyone is telling me that prior to my arrival the Prime Minister would wander into the Cabinet and for the first time the subject would be opened up for discussion and no-one had ever had a private discussion beforehand, frankly I do not believe it. I would be fascinated to hear if that were the case but I do not think it is really correct. It is true there is a sofa in my study but that cannot be a huge innovation either. There presumably were at least chairs or something for people to sit on and not just a desk and a chair for the Prime Minister prior to my coming into office!
Q125 Mr Willis: I am sure, Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher would have said the same thing if she been asked the same question. However, is not a consequence of sofa government – I am continuing down this theme – that special advisers like Lord Adonis and Lord Birt, in fact, are able to develop policies which do not have the support of individual departments? I am talking about academies, for instance, top-up fees, I think, was another one, the move into nuclear power; all decided by unelected special advisers who are, if you like, ahead of senior civil servants in policy-making. Has that not been a danger of the time you have been in office or do you not recognise that?
Mr Blair: I do not really. When I was a lawyer and you used to do the pleadings you used to deny the allegation and you then used to say, “If which is denied, the allegation has any validity in it …” and then you would give your explanation and I would say to you (i) I do not recognise the description of sofa government but (ii) insofar as you do have discussions with smaller groups of advisers, I think that is perfectly natural. Actually in relation to special advisers and politics, I want to say something very clear, although it is not, I think, very popular in many quarters: I think the job of politicians is to have a strong programme, to get elected on the programme, and then to carry the programme through. I think special advisers perform a very valuable role. Incidentally, we probably have a smaller number of specially appointed people which new governments bring in than virtually any political system in the world. We have got 3,500 senior civil servants, we have got I do not know how many special advisers but it cannot be more than a few score, and they do an excellent job, they are a vital part of the system but the idea that a special adviser comes forward with an idea and the Prime Minister just introduces it is incorrect. The Academy Programme, for example, has gone through an immense amount of discussion and debate and indeed adjustment over the years. The programmes for reform have very much been led by the departments themselves. On nuclear power there have been I do not know how many different energy reviews over the years and then there was a process of review and consultation again over the past couple of years as the situation on energy got more tight, and I think sometimes people just fail to distinguish between the policies that they disagree with and the process of coming to make those policy judgments.
Q126 Mr Willis: I think, Prime Minister, there is clearly political debate which agrees or disagrees with a particular policy and that is absolutely right and proper but one of the hallmarks of your Government has been to say that it is evidence-based policy and it is a mantra that comes in from every single department and yet on key areas of public policy there appears to be very little evidence to actually support the policy direction. You can disagree with that direction, that is fair comment, but the evidence behind, for instance, academies and the evidence behind nuclear power appears to be very, very small indeed.
Mr Blair: I think that is a matter of dispute, with the greatest respect. For example on nuclear power, nuclear power is hardly a new idea, it is hardly the first time anyone has ever thought of nuclear power. We have had nuclear power stations in this country for over half a century; nuclear power is used around the world. The one thing we are not short of is evidence about nuclear power, the industry, how it works. Now, it may be a good idea or it may be a bad idea – and I happen to think it is a good idea for the reasons that I have given – but I do not think you could possibly say that those people who advocate nuclear power today have no evidence to back it up.
Q127 Mr Willis: There is very little for academies.
Mr Blair: I do not agree with academies either —
Q128 Mr Willis: You do not agree with them?
Mr Blair: No, sorry, I do not agree with what you are saying about the evidence about academies. The reason why we have moved and now have moved even further in the academy direction is because of the experience that we have had which is that if state schools are given greater independence and greater freedom, if they are allowed to develop very much their own purpose and ethos, it improves the standards. We are one step towards specialist schools, then we have got trust schools, then we have got academies. I think again you can see plenty of evidence for it and actually the single best piece of evidence for academies is the number of parents trying to get into them. These academy schools were usually schools which had falling roles, they are now heavily over-subscribed, and I am a great believer in trusting the judgment of parents in relation to schools. I think if parents are trying to get into a school, it is not a complete indicator of whether the school is good or not but it is a fair enough indicator I think, and my experience of the school situation is that the Academy Programme is popular now and I think in time to come it will develop even further, but it will develop in a sense on the basis of the evidence. If the Academy Programme succeeds it will develop even further, if it does not it will not, but I think the evidence so far is very promising.
Chairman: Unless we are careful we are going to run into serious time problems so could we have concise questions and some succinct answers, Prime Minister.
Q129 Mr Dismore: In highly politicised areas particularly on issues that are considered as populist such as asylum and immigration or counter-terrorism, do you think you are open to the criticism that rather than stand firm in the light of what professional advice or objective evidence may be, this is taking second place to the “something must be done” syndrome and that has led to poor decision-making and policies?
Mr Blair: Again, I do not really accept that because I think in respect of asylum or immigration there are real public concerns out there that you have to meet.
Q130 Mr Dismore: Public concerns, yes, but the evidence may point the other way. For example, on section 4, the removal of support from failed asylum seekers, that policy has been shown demonstrably to have failed, and section 9 in relation to vouchers again. Do you ever get to the position where you think, “We are in a hole, we had better stop digging”?
Mr Blair: I am not saying that all the measures have worked and one of the things you have got to do – and I think this is quite important actually for policy-making in the future – is to gain acceptance that when you try certain things some of them will work and some of them will not. In the private sector again people understand that completely as a culture. We had to bring the asylum claims down and so we had to take those measures, and we have. The asylum issue is still a very potent issue out there but three or four years ago the numbers had risen vastly and it was causing real difficulty. In respect of immigration there are real fears and worries that we have to meet. Now I am not saying all the measures have succeeded but I am absolutely certain that if we had not taken those measures we would have been subject to far greater criticism.
Q131 Mr Dismore: The point I am making, Prime Minister, is that, yes, you have got this “something must be done” coming from the public. The question is then what do you do, is it evidence-led or is it simply a knee-jerk reaction to some of that? Is policy being made in a rush, effectively? In those two examples neither has led to a reduction in immigration, in fact probably the contrary because people have just disappeared and gone missing into the woodwork so you cannot actually remove them.
Mr Blair: Yes, but then I am saying if you look at the measures taken as whole they actually have been effective. I am not saying in every area they have worked as well as they should but if you take them as a whole they have worked far better than people ever anticipated which is why we actually for the first time ever reached the tipping point last year.
Q132 Mr Dismore: Do you think there have been decisions made on policy where the evidence has actually pointed the other way simply to satisfy the public or is at best ambiguous, and, if so, do you regret any of those sorts of decisions?
Mr Blair: No, and I think if I were to be self-critical of the Government I would not take this particular line of criticism. I think what is more difficult is whether the pace and the scale of change has happened fast enough in certain areas. My criticism is almost diametrically opposite to the criticism that is often made. I have got all sorts of reasons and explanations for that but I would say, for example, in the Health Service but also I think in the law and order field and to an extent in education, it has only been in the last two or three years that we have really been pushing this forward with the vigour that I think it is now absolutely necessary to do. There are all sorts of explanations there. We could probably never have got the consent for doing these reforms if we had started them right at the very beginning but, nonetheless, I think that is the area where as I leave office I focus on most. I think this idea that we do a knee-jerk reaction to whatever the headlines of the day are is incorrect really. In each of these areas, in particular asylum and immigration, we were working on that from the very early years of government, often finding it extremely difficult, incidentally, to get legislation through the House of Commons because it was fiercely controversial.
Q133 Mr Dismore: Or maybe not based on evidence.
Mr Blair: Well, except that now it has gone through, and it is interesting how the next time we were thinking of legislation people wanted us to go further rather than retreat from it.
Q134 Mr Dismore: The point is that some will work and some will not work, it clearly is an issue, and the question is when do you start putting things right?
Mr Blair: Yes, and I think that is a fair point that as you go forward and as your policy evolves then you can see some things that are working better than others so, for example, if you take the issue to do with exclusions in schools, I would say that when we first set a target for reducing the exclusions, which we wanted to do for perfectly good reason, we had to be careful that that did not send a signal that kids were to be kept in school even if, truthfully, they would have been better off out of it so you had to adjust the policy. So again I think there is nothing wrong in saying that or admitting it, and I would have a further evolution of that policy today which is that I think often in the third sector or voluntary sector some of these things could be done better than through the traditional process of the local education authority.
Q135 Mr Sheerman: Prime Minister, you started off ten years ago believing passionately in social mobility. Is it not the case that some of the policies which might work very well in health – putting the consumer first, diversity of providers and all that – when it comes to education you must reflect on some of the research now showing that social mobility has, with all our spending on education and all the innovation, has actually slowed down?
Mr Blair: Sometimes how you measure this is a whole thesis all on its own, however, let me go straight to this point: I think one of the most important things over the last ten years that we have done is to focus on early years learning and I think in time to come the Surestart programme, the children’s centres, the additional help on nursery education, these are things that will repay themselves not in the short term or even often in the medium term but in the long term. I have seen for myself enough evidence in different parts of the country where combining the early years services on one side and reaching out to families who otherwise would be left behind has made a fundamental difference to many people’s lives.
Q136 Mr Sheerman: But in Surestart that was a classic case of evidence-based policy. Indeed, you followed it through when only a third of them were working well and you switched across the board and learnt from the early experience but when it came later on, if you look at the area of skills, here we have a tremendous problem in skills, Leitch points out that there will be practically no unskilled jobs by 2020. In the area of skills you are forcing people to do Level 2 qualifications where a lot of other qualifications that give diversity and choice are being squeezed out of the system, so there is a different area where you are not taking the same principles through.
Mr Blair: I think specifically on the Level 2 point you make, that is an area that we need to look at very carefully and I think that is a fair point. Its purpose has been obviously to get more and more people with Level 2 qualifications but I think it is a fair point to make. However, I would say that the changes we made in further education colleges – and you will know this better than me (and I have visited several just in the last few weeks) are producing real results and benefits in the types of skills that those further education colleges are giving their students. I would say, secondly, of course the whole purpose of the Academy Programme is in some of the poorest parts of the country with the poorest kids to give them a greater opportunity in life. People say what is the single most important thing we can do for social mobility and the answer is education, in my view, that is the single most important thing, so I think we are improving the life chances for many, but again we need to adjust this. We have quadrupled the number of apprenticeships now but we need to make sure that they are of real quality. When we introduce the 14 to 19 changes, which will start in 2008 and build up over time, I think that will be revolutionary actually in terms of the way we handle vocational education in our schools.
Q137 Mr Sheerman: You have mentioned the word “revolutionary” two or three times this morning. The one revolutionary thing that many of us wished you had carried on with was the radical reform of qualifications from 14 to 19 and all of us, many people, certainly in the education sector, wonder why you did the research, you had the policy and at the last minute you rejected the Tomlinson proposals when this is a country which has a genius for turning diversity into hierarchy. Are you not now worried that what happened with Tomlinson was the big missed opportunity? Why did you do it?
Mr Blair: No, I do not think so. Of course we are doing what Tomlinson recommended on the vocational side but to have merged the academic and vocational in that way and had one diploma I just think people would have been confused by that and I think you would have ended up getting into a huge debate about A levels or dumbing down and I just felt that it was not a sensible change to make. That is often then taken as we dumped Tomlinson; we did not, we accepted the vocationally recommendations.
Q138 Mr Sheerman: But we now have a hierarchy where the brightest kids do A levels, the less able do apprenticeships, and in between there is the new diploma.
Mr Blair: My answer to that is not to mess about with A levels, it is to improve vocational education. The one thing I think about these “hierarchies” is this: you cannot in the end fool the kids, the parents and the employers. If the vocational education that the students are getting is of high quality then that will establish its own answer to the hierarchy problem.
Q139 Mr Sheerman: But, Prime Minister, it was all on course, what pressures made you change your mind. I think you were at one stage very much for this radical reform; something changed your mind. You had Adonis behind it, you had the Schools Minister, David Miliband, you had those working parties, it was the most thoroughly researched piece of research ever. You seemed to be for it right to the last minute and then it was clear that you decided that you could not go that far; why?
Mr Blair: That is not actually correct. I was always, always very, very sceptical of the notion that it was a good idea to get rid of A levels. What I was completely determined to do was to change vocational education, that is true, but I was very sceptical of it for the reasons that I have given and as the debate went on – and this was a classic example actually of having a very intensive internal discussion in government – I became more convinced that it was problematic and in the end, with absolutely no disrespect to Professor Tomlinson because he did an excellent job, I felt that it was not the right change. What was the right change however was to strip down and streamline, as we are doing, vocational qualifications to get them really sorted out and to change the further education colleges as well which are undergoing now a process of change, and I think that is great because they have been the Cinderella service of the education system for too long.
Chairman: Now it is time for you to draw breath, Prime Minister, while we move into the second theme which is the consequences of constitutional change and Peter Luff.
Q140 Peter Luff: Prime Minister, I am searching for the adjective, let us call it remarkable, that speech you made about the media last week. In that speech you lamented the declining importance attached to Parliament, you said you had changed nothing and I quote: “What has changed is the way Parliament is reported, or rather not reported.” Are you seriously asking us to believe that it is all the fault of the media?
Mr Blair: No. It is certainly not all the fault of anyone, I am simply saying that there is a relationship between the way Parliament is reported – and it is no one’s fault, that is not the point – the point is you do not get the same focus on parliamentary debates as you got when I first came into Parliament and certainly 20 years before that. The Chairman of your Committee is in a better place to talk about this than any us, but it is just a fact. It is not anyone’s fault, it is the way the world works today.
Q141 Peter Luff: It is someone’s fault, Prime Minister. In writing in this week’s Spectator Charles Moore stressed the importance of the principle of “Le patron mange ici” for any organisation (“the proprietor eats here” for those who have not got the Prime Minister’s skills in French!). Let me put it to you, you have not manged ici a great deal over your ten years, you have the worst voting record of any Prime Minister since the War; you have spoken in only four debates, apart from Queen’s Speech debates, three of them on Iraq; you have evoked the Parliament Act on three of the four occasions it has been used, and two of them when you had a majority and the largest party in the Lords; halved the opportunity for topical questioning at Prime Minister’s Question Time; flooded the Commons with 22 per cent legislation than in the previous ten-year period, while modernisation has meant that Members of Parliament did not have the time to consider it; routinely timetabled bills, the Commons Library could not even estimate for me the number of clauses that have not been considered in the Commons; arbitrarily abolished the historic office of Lord Chancellor; encouraged your ministers to make statements to the Today Programme rather than the House of Commons; and as your first and most symbolic act moved the Whips’ Office out of Number 12 Downing Street and moved Alastair Campbell in instead. Were you not sending a pretty powerful message to the media?
Mr Blair: You mean where the Whips’ Office is the sort of — Peter, honestly, by all means, it is a great list, but let me just respond to you directly and head on, the thing that matters about the patron manging ici is the number of times the patron turns up and answers questions. If you go back over my period I have actually spent longer answering questions in the House of Commons than either of my two predecessors in the same period of time. I have made more statements in the House of Commons and, yes, it is true as a result of the large majority I have not turned up to vote in the same way but it is not turning up to vote and going through the lobby that is holding me to account, it is questioning me, and that is what we are doing here, and I am the only Prime Minister ever to have agreed to come along to this Committee. So by all means read it out — As for the legislation we have prelegislative scrutiny far more than we ever did before and I think that will develop even further. The modernisation of the Houses of Parliament, with the greatest respect, is not a matter for me, it has been a matter for you guys. Whether you want to have it the old way or the new way is up to you, and I have my own views on that as well, but the fact is it is a myth that we have somehow said we are not bothering with Parliament any more. It is just not correct. The reason why I think it is important to nail this down right now is that actually we do need to look at more innovative ways of having a proper public debate and that is the reason I agreed to come along to this forum because in the end I think we probably get as much, if not more, out of this type of more informal dialogue when you can go into issues in detail over a period of time than you could really with Prime Minister’s Question Time which, let us be absolutely clear, of course it is a major part of holding the Prime Minister to account, but it is also a debating joust.
Q142 Peter Luff: Prime Minister, I anticipated you might say that about this Committee —
Mr Blair: So you have got another list?
Q143 Peter Luff: We are among friends here today and no-one is really listening so can you give us some tips because, frankly, I do not think we have got a great deal out of these sessions over the years and I wonder why that is. Is that because you are too good for us or are we doing it wrong? Can you give us some tips for your successor so that we can actually make them more effectively when Gordon takes over?
Mr Blair: It depends what you want out of this and it also depends what you want out of holding the Prime Minister to account, because there is politics as theatre and there is politics as discussion. Politics as theatre is what happens at Prime Minister’s Question Time. As I say, I think it is absolutely a major part of our constitution and should be maintained and all the rest of it, however it is politics as theatre. Politics as discussion is what you do get out of this. I have just had an interchange where I have said frankly what I think are the problems with the public service reforms that we did, all the rationale behind it, and the point that I am making to you is when you say what have you got out of it, you ask in your own mind what you measure that as, because I think this is the point that I was really trying to make is that if you are saying unless you get a whole lot of headlines tomorrow saying “Prime Minister floored, rocking on his heels, did not know what was going on” et cetera you would feel you have not got anything out of it, then maybe what you have got is a proper discussion of policy which is in fact what politics should be about. I say to you – and I say this because I am off out of it next week as you know (in relation to this job!) – most of us in politics come into politics because we are interested in ideas, and too little, in my view, of the present debate about politics or is about ideas is about things that are really happening to people in the real world and too much of it revolves around scandal, controversy, people bashing each other.
Peter Luff: Let us get on with the policy, Prime Minister. You are good at theatre: I would say simply “parting is such sweet sorrow”!
Q144 Sir Patrick Cormack: Prime Minister, ideas: you seem to have changed yours on the House of Lords; why?
Mr Blair: Really I have not.
Q145 Sir Patrick Cormack: Oh good.
Mr Blair: So let me say that when I asked Jack Straw to have a look at this and see if we could find a way through, I said if you can find a consensus I will back that consensus.
Q146 Sir Patrick Cormack: But he could not, could he?
Mr Blair: And as it happened, he could not, true, so my actual view remains pretty much as it has always been.
Q147 Sir Patrick Cormack: So you favour a non-elected second chamber rather than a hybrid or an elected one?
Mr Blair: I do actually, yes.
Q148 Sir Patrick Cormack: And are you going to advise your successor that that way lies wisdom?
Mr Blair: No, because I think he is perfectly capable of making his own mind up on the issue and if people take a different view, which people do on this issue, that is entirely justifiable too. Again this is not advice to my successor, it is more a comment to my colleagues in the House of Commons, I would just say be really cautious of trying to replicate the House of Commons in the House of Lords. I do not think that really works. If we want it to be a proper revising chamber it is best to be a different type of chamber. I understand the tremendous pressure there is because if you ask people should it be elected or non-elected everyone will always say it should be elected, but I think the danger is – and I say this as someone who has had a lot of toing and froing with the House of Lords, as you know, over the years – I do think we benefit from having people who have not necessarily spent their life in politics who can come in and give a broader experience and so on. I personally think that is quite helpful.
Q149 Sir Patrick Cormack: That is a bit of a wobble then, is it not?
Mr Blair: It is not that I wobbled, I felt that if you could get a consensus, get a consensus on it, and I did not think it was right for me to stand in the way of that as it had been part of our manifesto programme. You asked me my view and I have given it to you honestly.
Q150 Sir Patrick Cormack: Prime Minister, we have all these people experienced in the House of Lords including former cabinet ministers. What is your intention, are you going to do a Heath and stay in the Commons, are you going to do a Stockton and go in the twilight of your years to the House of Lords; are you going to do a Major and go and chair the MCC or something; what is your intention? What are you going to give to the country through Parliament after 27 June?
Mr Blair: Well, I really do not know, but I am very happy staying as I am for the moment, thank you, I mean not as —
Q151 Sir Patrick Cormack: But you do not rule out —
Mr Blair: I was about to answer all Peter’s dreams of getting what he wanted out of a session like this, yes, sorry! I will let you carry on.
Q152 Sir George Young: Prime Minister, can we turn to another part of the constitutional picture where your legacy is mixed and that is devolution. Your manifesto in 1997 said of your devolution proposals for Scotland: “The union will be strengthened and the threat of separatism removed.” With a Scottish Nationalist First Minister in Scotland, that has not happened, has it?
Mr Blair: Well, I am not sure about that. I think the fact that the SNP beat us by one seat is obviously unfortunate for us as a Labour Party, but I think the interesting thing is that the support for separation in Scotland is significantly down from where it was in 1997. I think if we had not met the legitimate aspirations of the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for a greater measure of self-government, we would have weakened the United Kingdom. I think it is perfectly natural that from time to time people will want to vote for different political parties, and if I could give you some advice, George, get your own party sorted out up there and then they will offer us some competition rather than the Nationalists!
Q153 Sir George Young: I think the threat of separatism has not been removed, which was the aspiration. Can I turn to a related question. The Scottish citizen through his MSP has total control over Scottish domestic policy and through his MP he has leverage, sometimes decisive, on English domestic policy. The English citizen has no leverage at all on Scottish domestic policy. Through his own MP he has control over English policy but that can be overturned, as it has been. How can that conceivably be a balanced, sustainable constitutional settlement?
Mr Blair: The alternative is English votes for English MPs and I just completely disagree with it for the reasons that were given 40 years ago when first debating devolution in Ulster. If you go to two classes of MPs it will do a lot of damage
Q154 Sir George Young: Do you not risk then having two classes of citizens and may that not be more important?
Mr Blair: I think the way that our constitution works is through a balance. I do not pretend that you can state all this logically and define it in a way that satisfies everything, but the fact of the matter is that the English are 80 per cent of the votes and the MPs and so on, and if you end up in a situation of English votes for English MPs you will create two classes of MP and you will do exactly the damage that people thought would be done all those years ago when devolution first was raised for Northern Ireland, and both parties rejected it then, and they were right to do so in my view.
Q155 Sir George Young: Can we look at the damage that may be being done at the moment. If you take higher education – we have just been talking about it – a Lithuanian, a Pole or a German pays nothing for his education in Scotland whereas an English student does and his parents are probably subsidising everybody else through their taxes. How on earth can you defend that?
Mr Blair: In the end what we do is we give a certain amount of grant, public money to Scotland, they decide how they are going to spend it. We do not increase that, incidentally, as a result of the decisions taken by the SNP Government there. If they decide they want to spend the money in a different way, they can spend the money in a different way. But then they are going to have to tell the Scottish people what other services they are going to reduce in order to pay for it. What they certainly cannot do is increase the spending and then just hand us the bill
Q156 Sir George Young: Can we talk about the money because there is a certain amount of headroom in Scotland which enables them to fund public services which are either not available or have to be paid for in England, for example access to certain drugs. Lord Barnett, he of the Barnett Formula, last year denounced the Barnett Formula as over-generous to Scotland, he said it should be scrapped and sums of money returned south of the border. Do you agree with him?
Mr Blair: I do not actually, no, because again I think it is part of the balance that we have in our constitution and I think if we want to keep the UK together, the Barnett Formula is a small price to pay for that, even though I understand why it causes concern in parts of England
Q157 Mr Beith: It certainly does.
Mr Blair: If you look at what has actually happened to the UK over the years, if you look around the world at the amount of secessionist pressures and separatist pressures there are, and various disputes that there are within countries, I think we have found a way through that and the interesting thing about the SNP is if they did try to move towards actual separation they would be brought up very sharp by the rest of the Scottish Parliament that is opposed to it.
Q158 Sir George Young: But is not your legacy to a Scottish Prime Minister a United Kingdom that is less united and people who feel less British and is not the going going to be much tougher for him because of where he comes from?
Mr Blair: I do not agree with that at all. I think one of the reasons why we should be proud of what the UK is today is that if you go back to 1997, let us not assume then that the UK was under no pressure from separation, it was, it was under intense pressure in Scotland, to a certain extent in Wales and, of course, Northern Ireland was how we know it was, I think if you look at the UK today it is stronger. Now, of course you will get different governments from time to time. I think that over time, incidentally – and I was only half-joking when I was talking about the Conservative Party then – you will get a proper policy debate with a different policy agenda which will be more conventional in terms of parties fighting each other, whether in Scotland or in Wales. Indeed, I think you can see that happening in Wales. But, I do not agree that the UK is weaker today. The fact is, as I say, if you look at what has happened in Wales, the Nationalist Party have had to eschew separation there and if you look at the SNP in the recent campaign, they did everything they could to run away from the issue.
Peter Luff: Prime Minister, we must move on, to keep to time. Phyllis Starkey.
Q159 Dr Starkey: Prime Minister, your original proposals to balance devolution in Scotland and Wales and England were to move to directly elected assemblies in England. That has not happened because of the “no vote” in the North East and there is a perceived democratic deficit in regional government in England. Do you regret not being bolder at the start and just imposing an elected regional government system on England?
Mr Blair: No. I am not sure that is the way forward, if I can again be completely frank about it. One big measure of devolution that we did do, of course, and people forget this when we talk about devolution of England, is that in London we have a Mayor and an Assembly. After all, that is the major larger city.
Q160 Dr Starkey: Absolutely but the rest of England, outside London, is left with nothing, no directly elected government between the national government and local councils.
Mr Blair: This is, again, somewhat controversial. Personally I believe that, eventually, I make this prediction in ten years’ time, we will have elected mayors in most of our big cities and I still believe, honestly, that is the way we should go. I know that is not everyone’s cup of tea at all. I think, for example, when you have a city like Birmingham, we should be going to that. We should also go back to the days politically, I think, where you could get major figures emerging in local government who would then go on to the national stage. I think that has happened less in the past few years but you can see how it could happen again. I am not saying in every set of circumstances it is where people want to be but I think that is a better way to bridge it. The problem we found in the North East, because we tried to do a regional assembly there, if it was going to work anywhere it was going to work in the North East because of the coherence of the North East, but truthfully we found when we got into the campaign and the referendum that Teesside did not feel the necessary link with Tyneside, that County Durham did not necessarily want to be in the same place in terms of government as Newcastle and even Newcastle and Gateshead did not.
Q161 Dr Starkey: Prime Minister, your keenness on elected mayors is an interesting congruence with the Leader of the Opposition Party. Can I take you to local government itself because although funding for local government has increased so has control of local government by central government with the top down performance regime and ring fencing funds. Did the Government get it wrong at the start because it now seems to be loosening up and freeing up local councils? What would you recommend to your successor, that he should loosen up controls on local government still further?
Mr Blair: Again, for my successor, that is up to him, and he should be absolutely free to decide what he wants to do without advice from me. In relation to local government, however, I think what we did was we pushed through changes which were top down but again a bit like the rest of public services if we had not done that in the early stages it would have been very difficult. We are now trying to develop a more nuanced way of partnership with local government so that, for example, in some of these partnership area agreements that we are now putting together with local government they could have a lot more power. This is one of the reasons I do think this ties in with mayors and so on, I can see a situation where in years to come, if you had a powerful elected mayor in major cities, on some of the issues to do with benefits and unemployment and so on, you could have a situation where local government had greater power to influence those issues as well. I think that in the end we needed to do this for the first few years but we are right now to evolve to a more devolved system.
Q162 Mr Beith: In your early constitutional changes you were working from an agenda which had been prepared beforehand with a lot of discussion, including cross-party discussion, over devolution and constitutional convention, the Cook-McLennan discussions on a whole series of issues, and to me that is the best basis for making fundamental constitutional change. When you came before us following the decision to create the Supreme Court, and what was initially a decision to abolish the Lord Chancellor, you said that in retrospect we could have done it better had we published a paper, had we taken a step back, in other words you had moved from a very deliberative way of making constitutional change to sudden announcements and the consequences had not been worked through. Is not the first process a better one?
Mr Blair: It depends what it is you are trying to do, and I said what I said then about the Lord Chancellor’s position. Just to emphasise, the reason why I was so concerned to get a change in the Lord Chancellor’s department is that I always saw it as a major delivery department.
Q163 Mr Beith: I am talking about the method of making change.
Mr Blair: No, I understand that. It was a matter of urgency for me to get that done.
Q164 Mr Beith: Was that the same with the Ministry of Justice because having admitted to us that maybe you did not do the first one the right way, when the Ministry of Justice was created the Lord Chief Justice read about it in The Sunday Telegraph and the process was quite clearly a very unsatisfactory one for the senior judiciary. Why was that not the subject of some general discussion beforehand without the commitment being made before the discussion started?
Mr Blair: That was a different situation altogether. These proposals for changing the Home Office responsibility and moving to a Ministry of Justice were put to me within Government late last year. They were then subject to a whole set of discussions within Government and it is a machinery of government change that I happen to think is right, although there is a perfectly valid alternative point of view that what was necessary there was to make sure that we freed up the Home Office to focus more tightly on the security and terrorism issue and, also, get the end to end case management within the criminal justice system. Now, I am afraid I do not accept that it involves any constitutional change for the judiciary at all. The independence of the judiciary is now protected in statute. We will have a Judicial Appointments Commission which appoints the judges, that is a step forward. I understand the worries they have over bargaining and financing but that should be resolved in the normal way. I do not really accept that was simply tossed on people’s desks like that.
Q165 Mr Beith: When you began this discussion within Government, which does not seem to have involved very many people, not even the Lord Chancellor, why did you not open it out at that stage, publish a paper, indicate this was the direction Government wanted to go and get all the complications sorted out?
Mr Blair: To be fair to what you are saying, there is a case for deciding your two machinery of government changes differently but let us be clear, no government up to now has done that.
Q166 Mr Beith: You did it yourself in the early years.
Mr Blair: These were constitutional changes.
Q167 Mr Beith: So was this.
Mr Blair: No, but I do not accept the Ministry of Justice is a constitutional change.
Q168 Mr Beith: So, you disagree with the Lord Chief Justice when he says: “We are now in a position where there is no agreement on the proper constitutional position” and, in his words, “that there is a serious constitutional problem”?
Mr Blair: I have an immense respect for the Lord Chief Justice, and he is doing a superb job, but I do not agree that we are changing his position constitutionally through putting the prisons and probation in with the courts.
Q169 Mr Beith: You are prepared to leave office and hand over to your successor having made changes in the way the judiciary relates to the Executive, changes which are embodied in a concordat that had to be produced to deal with the problems that emerged? You are prepared to leave office with the head of the judiciary believing that there is a serious constitutional problem and that you have not understood it?
Mr Blair: If I could have the constitutional problem identified I would be happy to look at it very carefully but I do not think it is a constitutional problem. I think the real concern of the judiciary, and I entirely understand this, and if you read their paper carefully it is very obvious, they want to know that there is someone in Government that they can go to and make their case to and, also, they want to know that they are not going to be at a disadvantage in relation to courts’ funding because the Ministry of Justice has got the prisons and probation in it too. I totally understand that, I do not actually think it is a constitutional point. However, let me just make one thing absolutely clear, in the early days when we were negotiating with the Liberal Democrats and others on constitutional change, I think it did work well. Those were major constitutional changes. They were things like proportional representation for the European Parliament. Truthfully what happened, Alan, which you will probably accept, is that when we came to the later stages of this, and in particular on the House of Lords, we could not really find agreement, so that was really the problem.
Mr Beith: I think you had better have a meeting with the Lord Chief Justice before you go.
Peter Luff: That is a statement not a question, Prime Minister. Mr Connarty wants to look forward a bit rather than backwards.
Q170 Michael Connarty: I like this idea of having a chat instead of trying to score points, so pull up your sofa I want to talk to you about the European Constitution. First, I want you to accept my thanks because I think you have lifted the veil a little in the last week over the process that we have been trying to see through in my Committee for the past six months of discussing what will be a treaty which will take Europe forward. I have a couple of questions on that. What proposals from the Treaty for a constitution for Europe, the previous Constitutional Treaty, would have to be in the Treaty that you are presently negotiating for a referendum to be required before it is put to Parliament?
Mr Blair: I never had the feelings about the Constitutional Treaty that other people had because we had negotiated a very good deal for the UK but I accepted in the end that it was a Treaty which, by its very nature in the way it was put forward, let people say “Well, this is something of such a fundamental nature that it should be put to the British people”.
Q171 Michael Connarty: That was what you said.
Mr Blair: Exactly. Now, in my view if people want an agreement this week we have to go back to a conventional amending treaty because the whole reason why this arises is because Europe is enlarged from 15 to 27 countries, Britain wants that, Britain has argued for it, it is a huge achievement in Britain over the past few years that it has happened. Europe needs to work more effectively. What it does not need is a Constitutional Treaty or a treaty with the characteristics of a constitution, to put it in the words that the Dutch have used. In my view, we should be very clear about this – and it gives me an opportunity today to make this absolutely clear – here and also to our European colleagues. First, we will not accept a treaty that allows the Charter of Fundamental Rights to change UK law in any way. Secondly, we will not agree to something which displaces the role of British foreign policy and our foreign minister. Thirdly, we will not agree to give up our ability to control our common law and judicial and police system. Fourthly, we will not agree to anything that moves to Qualified Majority Voting, something that can have a big say in our own tax and benefit system, we must have the right in those circumstances to determine it by unanimity. Now, those are four major changes, obviously, in what was agreed before, and that is the position we will set out and if people want an agreement, I am afraid we are going to have to agree on that.
Q172 Michael Connarty: If we achieve that, and we did not put it to a referendum, do you reject the UKEP assertion if we did not put even that treaty to a referendum it would be an exercise in deceit, to quote their leader?
Mr Blair: There are people who if there is a comma from the Constitutional Treaty that goes into the new treaty will say, “This is a fundamental matter and has got to be put to referendum”, let us be clear about that. As I have said, if we hope to stop some people whose agenda, of course, is to change Britain’s relationship fundamentally with Europe in a backward direction; if we are hoping to satisfy those people we will never satisfy them. If we achieve those four objectives I defy people to say what it is that is supposed to be so fundamental that could require a referendum. Furthermore, let me make this point, this is so important for Britain’s relationship with Europe. I have been dealing with this issue over, obviously, the ten years. It is fundamental, in my view, to this country, that in the early 21st century it is two alliances, one with America, the other within the European Union, it has to keep those strong. Over the last ten years Europe has moved immensely in our direction. One of the things that is so important, therefore, is that we do not carry a mid-20th century view of the world into the early 21st century and we end up separating ourselves apart from Europe at the very moment when, with the new French President, a new German Chancellor, the new President of the Commission, we have people more on the British line of how Europe should develop than we have ever had.
Q173 Michael Connarty: If you fail to deliver a treaty which all 27 EU Governments would accept, which basically means the treaty fell, could your European participation be judged as a failure?
Mr Blair: No, I think there is a lot more to it than what has gone on. If you look in the last ten years, when I first came in we were completely isolated. We had just had the beef war, Europe was not really moving in a British direction. If you look at it today on economic reform, on energy, on climate change, on European defence, Europe on enlargement, Europe has moved in our direction and I think we need to keep our position strong at the centre of Europe.
Chairman: Now we move to the final theme, interventionism and foreign policy, Tony Wright.
Q174 Dr Wright: Prime Minister, you will have noticed in all the assessments that are being made of your ten years at the moment there is one phrase that crops up all the time and that is the phrase “but for Iraq”. You will have seen Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer yesterday, I quote: “But for Iraq he would be leaving Downing Street able to make an unambiguous claim to be one of the most successful world leaders of his time and one of the most successful British Prime Ministers of all time. But for Iraq, he would probably not be leaving Number 10 at all”. That is simply the case, is it not?
Mr Blair: No, I do not believe it is the case on the latter point and, as for the rest of it, it is a judgment people are going to have to make. I believe what we did in Iraq was right. In the end, you take a decision of that importance on the basis of what you believe to be right, and you stand or fall by it.
Q175 Dr Wright: When people say, as you know they often do, that it was the worst foreign policy mistake since Suez, or some people say longer – now obviously I do not want to get into the argument – you will say that is not the case. Would you allow at least for the fact that might turn out to be the historical judgment?
Mr Blair: It is for others to make the historical judgment. I do not make the judgment in history. I am just giving my view about this because I think you can see the same thing happening in Afghanistan if we are not careful. We are making a fundamental mistake. We think we are creating this problem; we are not creating it, it is being created for us. The very forces that we are fighting in Iraq, which are basically al-Qaeda doing the suicide bombing, including the bombing of that shrine, deliberately to provoke sectarian conflict, the elements of the Iranian regime who are backing the Muqtada al-Sadr people down in Basra, these are the elements that we are fighting in Afghanistan, that we are fighting everywhere, if we do not stand up and fight them back, and at some point in time we are going to have to, they are going to get stronger. What they now believe is that they can give us, and the politicians who are democratically elected in the West, such a serious problem, in terms of the destruction and carnage that they are able to cause, that we will lose our will and fall away.
Q176 Dr Wright: I think we understand your analysis because you have given it to us many times, the questions are about its effectiveness. You were sitting in front of us in July 2003, just after the war, and you said – and this is a direct quote from our session here – “The test will be what does Iraq look like in a year’s time”. We are four years on, we now know what Iraq looks like, is it not a tragedy that you happen to find yourself as British Prime Minister when the crazies are in the White House?
Mr Blair: Again, it is immensely comforting to people to say “You know, if it was not for George Bush everything would be fine”. September 11 was planned before George Bush came to power, any American president would have had to have dealt with it. Yes, you are absolutely right, I thought in July 2003 we had removed a terrible dictator, we had got in place a UN process for democracy, we were going to have an elected government, the important thing is to ask “What happened?”. In August 2003, the first thing happened, which was that they murdered the UN Special Representative and his staff by blowing up the UN Headquarters. At that moment – at that moment – we had a fundamental decision to take as an international community, did we say, “Right, we are not going to let you succeed” or did we say, “This is going to be really difficult”?
Q177 Dr Wright: With respect, we are finding out more about this whole process now, and you will tell us whether it is true or not, but yesterday’s newspapers were telling us about the fears/worries that you had about the lack of preparation for what would happen after the invasion. We have got Sir David Manning, your foreign policy adviser, being quoted saying that you were terribly exercised about the lack of preparation in Washington, he was sending you memos about this. Jeremy Greenstock says you were tearing your hair out afterwards about the chaos that was ensuing. Peter Mandelson says that you came close to resigning. Was it not your burden that you carried us into a war knowing that there had been no effective preparation and it was likely to be catastrophic?
Mr Blair: Yes. First of all, I was not concerned about the lack of preparation, I was concerned to make sure that we were properly prepared. Secondly, however, the issues that were exercising everybody in early 2003 – and there was a lot of work done across Government in order to deal with this – were issues to do with the humanitarian situation, to do with economic reconstruction and so on. The absolute key to this – and this is in the end why I will carry on making this argument and I believe in the end that people will understand the importance of standing up for what we believe in – it is so comforting to people to say, “There was an error made in the planning, someone did not spot what was going to go on”. You can have this argument about de-Ba’athification, the disbandment of the Army, and I am happy to go through that with you but, in reality, even if you had taken different decisions on those things, that is not what has created the problem. What has created the problem is that the people we are fighting have decided to give us a problem. What they have decided is that if they can hang on long enough in Iraq or Afghanistan or anywhere else, then we will lose the will, and that is their argument, that is what they are doing.
Q178 Dr Wright: Just to finish this, was it the case that you were warning about the lack of preparation?
Mr Blair: I was not warning about the lack of preparation, Tony, I was saying it was important that we were prepared. The areas of preparation that people were most concerned about were to do with the fact that you were removing the Government, 60 per cent of the Iraqi population was on a food programme – 60 per cent of them – there were large areas of the country which did not have proper power and fuel and so on, so there were a whole series of things like that which were immensely important. Now, what happened subsequently, however, is that as we began to get the country on its feet, as they started to make preparations for democracy, then of course the people who were fighting suddenly realised, “If you let these guys succeed here, how do we manage to get across our case? How can we say that the purpose of the West and America is to oppress the Muslim world if actually Muslims for the first time in Iraq and Afghanistan are getting the right to vote”, it is a difficult argument to make.
Q179 Mr Leigh: What created the problem, and has at least given – you must accept this – a vicious twist to sectarianism, to the influence of Iran, to extremism, to terrorism in the Muslim world, what created the problem was your invasion of Iraq. Tony is right, you are arguably – let me say this as a Tory – the most successful Labour Prime Minister we have ever had on a domestic front but on your political tombstone will be written one word “Iraq”. Do you deny that? Are you in a state of denial about it?
Mr Blair: Edward, I am in a position where I do not write what is on my tombstone, other people do. I do not know what they will do. What I do know is that if we end up saying that because these people are committing these acts of terrorism in Iraq or Afghanistan that we should not have done the removal of Saddam or the removal of the Taliban, then we are making a fundamental mistake about our own future, about security, about the values we should be defending in the world. We cannot be in a situation where the harder they fight us the less our will is to succeed. If we are not careful, we will be in that situation.
Q180 Mr Leigh: We have had this conversation many times, we know where we stand on that but when you were taking these decisions that Tony was talking about – and apparently you once told Roy Jenkins you wished you had done history at university rather than law, I do not know whether that is right – did you have any sense of history? Did you go back to what had happened when, for instance, we invaded Afghanistan in the 19th century, or Iraq in the 1920s? Did you go through what had happened in the past? Did you have any real concept of that in your mind? Apart from the great vision thing which you are brilliant at – and once again you have performed magnificently this morning – perhaps on the history thing you are a bit weak, are you not?
Mr Blair: I do not think it is a weakness of understanding of history. Yes, I do have some understanding of history. I do not think anybody in my position ever takes a decision to go to war lightly. But the situation we were faced with, for example if you take Afghanistan, was a situation where 11 September had come out of there, the place had been turned into a training camp for al-Qaeda, so we either allowed that to carry on or we stopped it and I believe we had to stop it. I also believe this – and this is where I take, if you like, a broader view, and whether it is based on history or not you can judge as well as I can – that the real issue is that the roots of this are deep and pervasive right across the Muslim world and we have to go back into the roots of this. That is why the Israel-Palestine question —
Q181 Mr Leigh: Fine, we have to go back into the roots of it. You have performed brilliantly in Northern Ireland, you realised the military solution did not work, you have gone into the roots there, you have gone into the minds of Sinn Fein, do you ever go into the mind of the Arab on the street corner, the Arab in Baghdad who is out of a job now, whose cousin has just been murdered in some sectarian killing, who is not interested in politics? Do you understand the massive hatred of us? Whatever you say, of course we are not the terrorists, we are not killing these people, we are not suicide bombers, we reject all that, do you not realise that you have given a massive impetus to our enemies by invading a sovereign country? Of course you are not going to accept that, but is there no smidgen of doubt at the end of your ten years? Despite all that has been written, is there nothing in your mind which says, “Perhaps I may have made a mistake?”
Mr Blair: You always have to reassess and reconsider, of course you do, but here is what I think the problem is. This is why I think we will have difficulty defeating this terrorism until we stop buying a little way into its argument, or even quite a long way into its argument. I was stopped by someone the other day who said to me, “Look at all these people who are dying in Iraq”, and I said to them, “We are not killing them.” How can we be said to be oppressing the ordinary Muslim on the street when if the violence – perpetrated incidentally by other Muslims on Muslims – stopped we would be able to get the country on its feet, it is a prosperous,wealthy country and its people would prosper? My point is, I do not dispute that on the Arab street there is a lot hatred of the West, but my point is you are not going to defeat that until you challenge it.
Q182 Mr Leigh: You are a liberal interventionist, do you not realise that your brand of liberal interventionism, your great ideas of peace and democracy and the values of the western world, which we all accept around this table, are not necessarily the values of your opponents? Let me just put this last question. I think history is very important and I was in my son’s school yesterday and I saw a war memorial with 130 names of the Great War and I thought, “How can these people actually ever take us into war, how can they interfere in other countries in the way I think you have done”? In the dark watches of the night, is there never this regret? Do these thousands of people who have now died as a result of your decision never come back to haunt you or are you just completely filled with self-belief?
Mr Blair: It is not as simple as that, is it? Of course I accept a deep and profound responsibility for what has happened and anybody who has ever sent people into action, particularly when our troops are killed, and does not feel the weight of that responsibility is not a human being, and I am a human being. But I also say to you that we have an example when we did not intervene in Bosnia – 250,000 people died and in the end we had to intervene. When we intervene, and I have done it four times now – in Kosovo, in Sierra Leone, in Afghanistan, in Iraq – the question which also has to be asked is, “Supposing in this modern world, where we are linked together, we do not intervene?” That is why I favoured intervening in Darfur. If we do not end up in a situation where we take action, look at Rwanda, where – how many? – 2, 3 million people died. The fact is, Edward, in the end when we do intervene and we give people a proper, democratic process, please do not believe that the ordinary Arab does not want democracy or freedom when we do, it is just rubbish. Of course they want it. What country has ever chosen not to be a democracy? It is just nonsense. It is what oppressive people do to justify their oppression. They say, “Democracy and freedom are western values”, that is rubbish, they are universal values of the human spirit and they always will be. The fact of the matter is, these people in Iraq and Afghanistan, if they were allowed to be free from this terrorism, they would be able to make improvements in their country.
Q183 Mike Gapes: Prime Minister, the basic philosophically of what you have just said, goes back to your 1999 speech in Chicago where you set out five conditions which should be considered before intervention. Can I just summarise them for you quickly? “Are we sure of our case? Have we exhausted all diplomatic options? Are there military operations we can undertake? Are we prepared for the long term? Finally, do we have national interests involved?” That case, you could say, and you have referred to them, worked in Kosovo and in Sierra Leone, but with hindsight would you now accept that perhaps those five points were not undertaken when we went to Iraq? Also, would you, in the light of Iraq and in the light of 9/11, want to change those five conditions in any way?
Mr Blair: I would not want to change them, I think they are basically the right questions to ask, and I would say they are answered in respect of Iraq. I believe if Saddam and his two sons were still running Iraq, you would just have a different set of problems. You are right, that 1999 speech essentially set out my view that in today’s world, because it is interdependent, we should be prepared to intervene.
Q184 Mike Gapes: Would you not accept that the difficulties that we all know, the very deep difficulties we now have in Iraq, have actually discredited and undermined future interventions? You have talked about Darfur and there could be others. It is actually the case that liberal interventionism is now much harder to make because of the problems we are now experiencing in Iraq.
Mr Blair: I think one of the odd things is that some of the people who are most opposed to Iraq are most in favour of Darfur. I do not think it actually has worked like that. I think the one thing we do need to recognise is that one of the conditions I laid down is, are we prepared for the long haul, and that is the real issue, to be honest. Are we prepared for the long haul? That is the question I would pose.
Q185 Mike Gapes: If we look round the world there are very few countries, even in our European Union partners, who are actually prepared to take an interventionist position as we are. For example, there were great difficulties in getting numbers for the NATO forces in Afghanistan and the Germans have just had this interminable debate about aircraft deployment there. Is the reality that your position is not now held by many other countries? Would your legacy be secure, do you believe? Do you believe our foreign policy is going to continue to have this interventionist approach or, in fact, are we now facing a situation where we are out of step more and more at the moment with most countries in the world and even the thinking across the Atlantic?
Mr Blair: Again, truthfully, Mike, even when I made the speech, when the country signed up to that doctrine, if you like, I believed that perforce we will be pushed in this direction as a world. I think you are right, there are varying degrees of enthusiasm, but what is interesting is that in respect of Afghanistan there are none of the arguments there were about Iraq, and yet even there we have to keep people up to the mark now five, six years on, and I think that is an important lesson all in itself. What I would say to you is, you can debate this but the one thing I think is hard to refute is that over the past ten years, for better or worse, and some people would say in certain circumstances it is for worse, we have been in the thick of it, we have been right in the centre of every major international policy debate. The other thing we have not talked about today is the rise of China, and when you look at the world ten, 15, 20 years down the line – and this is why I am not a Eurosceptic, it has got nothing to do with a love of all things European, although I think European culture is great, it is to do with the fact that we are a country of 60 million people in a limited geographical space in a world in which China has, even today, more people in it than the whole of the European Union and the United States of America put together and doubled – in those circumstances economically and politically their power in the years to come is going to be enormous and the best way for us to exercise our influence is through our alliances and through a policy where we are prepared to stand up and intervene in certain circumstances. That is my view, whether it is the view of people in time to come that is their decision obviously, but I think for us it is the only way we are going to make this country count in the modern world, and we should be grateful for the fact we have Armed Forces which are prepared to intervene, because if we retreat to a position where we have not, well, we will be in a different situation altogether.
Q186 Malcolm Bruce: Prime Minister, it seems to me, and you have done it again this morning, you keep re-writing the reasons for your intervention. We went into Iraq apparently to remove weapons of mass destruction but subsequently claimed it was to remove a tyrant and impose democracy. If I can ask you about Afghanistan, we went into Afghanistan having removed the Taliban for reconstruction and development, and John Reid told us hopefully that we would be out without a shot being fired; 60 of our servicemen have been killed and the situation is deteriorating. Do you think it is right we should be going after the Taliban in the way we are doing?
Mr Blair: First of all to correct this business. What John said I think was that he would like to be able to say not a shot would be fired. I think the whole purpose of his statement was actually more that it was going to be dangerous. It is dangerous down in Helmand and our forces incidentally are doing an amazing job down there, and it is difficult on reconstruction and development because, again, the Taliban and al-Qaeda are employing the same tactics. Just recently there were reports of them executing a girl for going to school; a few months back they executed a teacher in front of his class for teaching girls.
Q187 Malcolm Bruce: Can I say, Prime Minister, I heard President Putin using those kind of arguments to justify the failure to prosecute human rights’ abuses in Chechnya. I am not suggesting we tolerate human rights’ abuses. The fact that the Taliban is wicked or that the people in al-Qaeda are wicked does not detract from the fact that we have set ourselves objectives which we then change. The point I am suggesting to you is not the problem in Afghanistan now, that we are going after the Taliban and, in the process to quote the Red Cross, “Thousands of people have fled their homes and are continuing to move in search of safer areas”, and specifically, “Indiscriminate methods of warfare, including attacks that, while aimed at military targets can be expected to cause many civilian casualties, are carried out without taking precautions to spare civilians”, and that is by international forces. How do you win the hearts and minds of the people you are trying to provide development for if you are in the process making them homeless and indeed putting their lives at risk?
Mr Blair: Malcolm, I think some of these reports refer to things which are happening in other parts of Afghanistan. Down in the Helmand Province, we are doing excellent work on reconstruction and development, we are doing it often with the full consent of the local population, and we are not failing in our objective, we are actually beating the Taliban down there. It is important that we stand up and fight them. What are we going to do? Give up and walk away because they are doing these things of complete brutality? Incidentally, I think it would be very unfair if we started to compare what was happening in Chechnya with what was happening in Afghanistan, although you are right in one sense, I always said President Putin should be supported in dealing with the terrorism which was coming out of Chechnya. This extremism that is happening down in Helmand Province, it is not the desire of ordinary people that this is the case.
Q188 Malcolm Bruce: Can I accept that, Prime Minister, but I think the point I am trying to make is that you say on different occasions what the objectives are, when the circumstances change on the ground then the justification changes and that causes a weakness.
Mr Blair: That is not really quite correct. The objective was to remove the regime which was there which was sheltering al-Qaeda and to put in place the democratic process, which we did. They are fighting back, so we have to carry on fighting.
Q189 Malcolm Bruce: Can I then put a final question to you. You also mentioned Palestine which has exploded over the weekend. Can I ask, what you would say to the Palestinian woman who said to me when my Committee visited Palestine, “You …”, that is the UK, “…invaded Iraq to impose democracy, yet you refuse to recognise the Government of Palestine elected in internationally-supervised free and fair elections”? What would you say to that woman?
Mr Blair: We have recognised the Government.
Q190 Malcolm Bruce: Sorry? You have recognised the Government? Of Hamas?
Mr Blair: We have recognised Hamas as having won the election. Let us be absolutely clear what the problem is. The problem is not whether we recognise Hamas have a mandate and have won the election, the problem is that if they want money from us – and we are putting hundreds of millions of pounds from the European Union into the Palestinian territories – we need to make sure that that money is not being used for them to buy weapons. They can get money from other people, I am afraid, to go and do that, but they cannot get it from us.
Q191 Malcolm Bruce: A final point, Prime Minister, the point at the end of the day is that those were free and fair elections by the people of Palestine. Do you not understand that the people who voted for that Government and then found it undermined by the international community do not really believe you are trying to bring democracy to them?
Mr Blair: Malcolm, this is why I say to you that the propaganda of these people has to be challenged. We did not dispute the fact that they had won the election, we were perfectly happy to carry on giving them money to that Government, provided that they eschewed terrorism and did not end up in the situation where the money we gave them was then going to be used for terrorism. What else can we do? Therefore to say that that amounts to a non-recognition of the Government is nonsense.
Q192 Malcolm Bruce: It was the same party before and after the elections.
Mr Blair: Yes, but that is not the point. The point is not whether we recognise they won the election, the point is when they then come to the international community and say, “Here is the giving-plate, we want hundreds of millions of pounds”, surely we are entitled to say, “Okay, we will give you that money and we will help your people, but only if you give up terrorism”?
Q193 Dr Wright: Could I, Prime Minister, ask just a couple of quick personal questions at the end? One picks up on what Edward asked you, which is this bit about believing things too much. When we are all beating ourselves up over Iraq and not knowing what to do, what struck me was your absolute certainty about it. I was never sure whether that was just a front you had to adopt or whether you really believed it. Then when we had the report on intelligence, it seemed to say you believed things you should not really have believed. You are often said to be a destiny politician, but does destiny sometimes get in the way of a critical examination of the facts? Do you really ever have doubt? That is what I am asking you.
Mr Blair: Of course.
Q194 Dr Wright: Do you?
Mr Blair: How could you possibly not have doubt? In the end in politics, you have to come to decisions and take decisions and you do so on the basis of belief, but the idea that you do not doubt anything —
Q195 Dr Wright: So you have doubt.
Mr Blair: Is this a revelation? I have given you a headline for tomorrow, “He has doubt”!
Q196 Dr Wright: You are almost certainly one of the nicest people ever to have been Prime Minister of this country — (Laughter)
Mr Blair: What is coming now then?
Q197 Dr Wright: But your successor is going round saying that the job is to rebuild trust. How can this be? Is that code for Iraq, do you think?
Mr Blair: On the first point, I do not know whether that is a compliment or not in our business. Yes, of course, trust is a major question, but ten years in I have come to the conclusion – and this is where I have definitely changed as a politician over the 13 years I have led the Labour Party – I did have a tendency to want to be all things to all people, and that is a perfectly natural political desire incidentally. I gave up trying to please all of the people all of the time, my highest ambition now is to please some of the people some of the time! Even that has not been successfully undertaken! I think that these issues are just more complicated than appears with a simple opinion poll and I think in the end what the public does really want in its leaders is that it wants people to take the decision and to drive forward. I think there is a bigger understanding amongst the public than we sometimes think as politicians, that these jobs are difficult, the decisions are not easy and sometimes people are glad someone else is taking the decision. So you have to be careful with this issue because in the end I think what people really do want, they look for leadership nowadays and, incidentally, I am sure they will get it from my successor.
Dr Wright: Thank you very much, Prime Minister.
Q198 Chairman: Prime Minister, I will be self-indulgent and allow myself one single question. Looking back over your ten years as Prime Minister, what do you regard as a high point and what do you regard as a low point?
Mr Blair: The low points are always, for example, the Omagh bomb and the Northern Ireland process, sending our forces into battle when people die, when you realise you are dealing with life and death issues as a Prime Minister. The high points are when you think as a result of a decision you have taken sitting in Downing Street something has happened to change people’s lives. I always say to people when I go round schools now and I open a lot of new schools and a lot of new school buildings, and I know it sounds very prosaic, you do get a sense of a high because you realise that was a decision that was taken in government to do something for people. That is the way that it is. Whatever the high points or the low points, the one thing which is absolutely clear is that it is a tremendous privilege to do the job and that is why you should never complain about it. I meant what I said in my resignation speech up in my constituency, which is that I do actually think that this is a great country and I think the British people are an extraordinary people and for anybody to come and be Prime Minister of this country is a complete honour, and that is the right way to look at it. So whatever the highs and the lows as you go through it, that is the sentiment you should leave with. The judgments that people make, well there are judgments they will make now, there are judgments they will make in time.
Q199 Chairman: Prime Minister, as the House of Commons’ geriatric I can say something without being presumed to be seeking something in return. This has been a new experience for you and a new experience for us. I have to tell you that I have found it a fascinating experience over the five years. I think my colleagues sitting around the table would say, whether they agree with you or disagree with you, they have enjoyed it and they have found it worthwhile, and you have created a precedent which we hope will continue. May I personally wish you well and wherever your future ambitions take you, may you enjoy yourself. (Cries of “Hear, hear”)
Mr Blair: Thank you.