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BBC Onepolitics show


Last Updated: Sunday, 15 April 2007, 14:11 GMT 15:11 UK
Blair defends his 10-year legacy
In the first of a series of leadership interviews, Jon Sopel spoke to Tony Blair live and No 10 on Sunday 15 April 2007...

Tony Blair
If you talked to people who are experts in the industry [pensions], they will say to you look, the two biggest factors have been people are living longer and the correction in the stock market in the year 2000, that wiped two hundred and fifty billion pounds off the value of the, the shares
Tony Blair


JON SOPEL: Now a decade has passed since a very young looking Tony Blair walked through the famous black door as Prime Minister, for the first time, that sunny May morning. Well, after ten years at the top, he's likely to announce he's bowing out within the next few weeks.

The halo that surrounded the New Man at Number 10 when he first arrived, has long since slipped, but Mr Blair's work isn't quite done. He's still got to lead his party through elections for one last time.

With Labour's grip on its traditional strongholds in Scotland and Wales under serious threat, it's not going to be easy and the Prime Minister joins me now.

Prime Minister, thanks very much for coming on to the Politics Show, presumably you're not looking forward to these elections with a great deal of confidence.

TONY BLAIR: Well I think it, it's always difficult when you're in a third term and you're mid-term, but actually if you look at the issues, for example at stake in Scotland, on the argument we're very strong; so we've just got to keep pushing on, which we will do, right up until polling day.

JON SOPEL: Is this a referendum on your time in charge?

TONY BLAIR: You know, when you've been Prime Minister for ten years, and when you're a third term government, I mean in a sense everything, everything that happens is a referendum on your time in charge.

On the other hand, I actually think in respect of Scotland and Wales particularly, then the question will be, who offers the best future for both of those two countries inside the UK and the most important thing to realise and I've visited both Wales and Scotland in the last week, is that if you look at the economy there it's strong.

There's huge investment in public services and in both Wales and Scotland, crime is significantly down.

JON SOPEL: You always said that you would go if you thought you'd become a liability to the Labour Party, and now - I saw you gave an interview yesterday in which you said, you warned voters not to give you a kicking, one last time, on my way out of the door. That rather made it sound as if you thought you had become a liability.

TONY BLAIR: Actually, what I said was, our political opponents are saying use this to vote about anything other than the issues that are there in the elections in Scotland and Wales, but I, my own judgement having visited both Scotland and Wales this last week, is that people will make a decision on the actual issues facing Wales and Scotland and devolved government there.

And the amazing thing about the United Kingdom, if you think back over these last ten years, and you see how strong Scotland is today, how you know, the unemployment in Wales for example is dramatically down from where it was a few years ago. If you look at what's happened in Northern Ireland, I think the UK is in good shape; so it's important we keep it that way.

JON SOPEL: Well you say about devolution and of course that is one of your great legacies as being Prime Minister over these past ten years. Now your former colleague, George Robertson had said that once you had devolution, it would 'kill nationalism stone dead'. It doesn't look that way does it?

TONY BLAIR: No. Although it's interesting because in Wales for example, the Nationalist Party there have had to say they've given up on independence and if you look at the SNP fighting the Scottish election, they want to talk, I mean independence is their policy and it's their one aim above all else, but if you look at what they want to talk about, they want to talk about anything other than independence, and it's important if we're to believe in, in relation to the polls, support for independence has fallen. Actually support for independence used to be far stronger before devolution. Now it's up to us to win the argument obviously, but I think... (interjection)

JON SOPEL: Well maybe you're not winning the argument at the moment.

TONY BLAIR: You know, funnily enough I think we are winning the argument. I think what we've got... (interjection)

JON SOPEL: Well then why are the SNP doing so well?

TONY BLAIR: Well I think the issue then is, are they actually going to do well when we come to polling day? Now, I think what's interesting about it is that when you look at the economy or health or education or welfare or law and order, there's no real doubt as to who's got the best policies in Scotland.

Labour has. Which is why the SNP want to talk about Iraq or you know, any other issue other than actually talking about the Scottish elections. Now, I think in the end, what will be really important for us, is to bring home to the Scottish people that one of the reasons why Scotland is so strong, is so confident today is precisely because of the strong partnership inside the UK.

JON SOPEL: We've had dozens of emails from viewers about this subject saying, why didn't you go the whole hog on devolution. Why is it, why shouldn't it be the case that you for example have MPs in England, England MPs only voting on English issue?

TONY BLAIR: Because if you end up with two classes of MP, you do then break up the UK and that's why the Tory policy is so misguided and what I keep saying to people about the United Kingdom is, understand the English are the majority in the MPs and they vote through the financial plans for the whole of the UK. So what devolution (interjection)...

JON SOPEL: But doesn't England lose out though?

TONY BLAIR: No, it doesn't loose out because in the end, England benefits from being inside a strong United Kingdom.

JON SOPEL: But what about the issue that then comes up if Gordon Brown succeeds you as Prime Minister, he introduces a Queen's Speech in which the legislation is not going to affect his constituents by and large on health, on education, on all manner of other things because of devolved power. Now, aren't English people going to feel slightly unhappy about that?

TONY BLAIR: But of course it does affect the - this is one of I think the, the misunderstandings about it. Because the whole financial settlement is very much governed by the UK, the decisions are taken at the Westminster parliament, on the overall level of spending, then the nature of the UK parliament, the decisions the UK government does, does have an impact on Scotland's education and health service.

The reason why Scotland has been able to engage in the refurbishment and now over the future years, the continuing refurbishment of every school in Scotland, why it's been able to build new hospitals, invest in new primary care facilities in Scotland, is precisely because of the strength of the UK economy and the interesting thing is this, when I was at Govan on Friday, talking to the shipyard workers there, they know perfectly well, cos they're building the Royal Navy's new class of destroyers, it's going to be disastrous for them if the SNP take Scotland off down the route to independence.

So the really key thing is to understand that today the United Kingdom is stronger precisely because of the partnership that allows issues for example, the economy, defence, pensions, social security to be taken on a UK-wide basis and allows education, health, law and order, the other devolved issues to be taken on a local basis.

JON SOPEL: Let's just talk about your position here in these sort of final few weeks. Norman Lamont memorably said of John Major that he was in office and not in power. Isn't that your position now?

TONY BLAIR: No, I mean I think the interesting thing is that the media has always wanted to get to the point, once I say, well I'm not going to fight a 4th election, of saying, okay, well your authority has gone, you can't do anything. You look back in the last two years and I think this has been probably the most energetic time for us, in terms of domestic policy, of the ten years we've been in government.

JON SOPEL: Well what more is there that you can do? Or are you just marking time now?

TONY BLAIR: No, absolutely not. I mean the truth is, we will over the next few weeks be putting in place the, if you like almost the main building blocks or the final building blocks of the reform programme, so that over the coming years, we will reach, by the end of 2008, despite all of the difficulties as we see from the Health Service report today, by the end of 2008, we will have an average waiting time for operations down to seven or eight weeks, a maximum, in patient and out patient of eighteen weeks and we will have probably every secondary school in England over the next few years, become an academy or a trust school and move beyond the old comprehensive versus selection argument.

In addition to which, anti social behaviour, targeting the offender rather than the offence, will be the hallmarks of our criminal justice system. So my point to you is this, when you ask the question, you know, will our changes stand the test of time, the answer is they will.

On the health service, despite all of the difficulties that we have, we are sorting it out, so that for the future, it will be stronger, better, more built round the patient and an education system that will, for the first time give us secondary schools that are effectively independent non fee paying state schools.

JON SOPEL: You're not doing new things then, you're just trying to make things that you've been trying to make work over the last ten years work better now.

TONY BLAIR: Well of course they have worked. To a huge extent, I mean when people take a step back over the last decade. When we came to power, people used to die on waiting lists, waiting for their heart operation. People don't do that any more. That's why the number of people who've died from cardiac diseases, is down by something like a hundred thousand since we've been in office.

Or you take the schools results for example. When I first came to power, there were eighty schools in the whole of the country, secondary schools, where the kids got five, over 70% got five good GCSEs.

The figure today is over six hundred. The number of failing schools cut dramatically, the number of kids at eleven year old, getting their requisite passes up dramatically, so we've done an awful lot over the last ten years, but the changes that we're making, have been making in these pass few years, when we've put in place these elements, over the next few weeks, you will then have a situation where for the future, Britain's 21st century public services and welfare are in a completely different state...(interjection)

JON SOPEL: It seems that you're making the argument that you are doing nothing new, that you're just carrying on with what you've been trying to do.

TONY BLAIR: Well you're always trying to make sure that the Health Service gets better and the education service gets better, but the point is there are decisions that have been taken in this last couple of years, and are being taken even over the next few weeks, that will secure the long term changes for the future.

JON SOPEL: Are you trying make, take decisions now that will bind the hands of your successor?

TONY BLAIR: It's nothing to do with binding the hands of the successor, it's to do with doing what's right. And what we've got, look, if you talk to people and you get them to take a step back, what will they say. They'll yes, we agree, a lot more money has gone in to health and education, but has it delivered the result. And what we've been doing over these past few years, is putting in place different structures for both the health service and the education service.

You take that RCN report that we've just listened to now on the news, which is about job losses inside the National Health Service. Now, leave aside for a moment the fact that the claims are you know, greatly exaggerated and actually they've been I think only about three hundred clinical jobs lost. The fact is however, today we have a work force that is three hundred thousand more than it was in 1997, and as a result of building up that capacity and as a result of the changes, although there are difficulties in putting it in place, you will get to the situation where by the end of 2008, the issue of waiting, that was the issue in the health service when we came to power in '97, is effectively dealt with.

JON SOPEL: Okay, well let's talk about another area of your legacy. I mean you came to prominence in sort of the early '90s when you, after the Jeremy Bulger killing, and you said you've got to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. And here you are, ten years as Prime Minister, we see kids going around knifing each other in London, shooting carried out by children. Isn't that an area of failure.?

TONY BLAIR: Well it's certainly an area of huge challenge, but surely the most important thing for a government is whether crime has fallen or risen since the time we've been in power.

And there is only one government since World War II, that will end its time with crime down not up, and that's ours. Crime under the last Conservative government doubled. It's fallen under this government. I mean, take the British crime survey, not some you know, government statistic as it were.

If you look at these knife and gun crimes, yes, they're horrific, but it's their very exceptional nature that is horrific, and as I've been saying recently, I don't personally think this is a general problem... (interjection)... I think it's a very specific problem.

JON SOPEL: Injuries from gun crime, doubled since 1998 and 1999.

TONY BLAIR: Well, it is true here and in many other countries, you've had a rise in some of the really ugly nature in violent crime. On the other hand, as you will have seen, for example in London, partly as a result of the measures we introduced a couple of years ago, violence involving guns is down and not up and down incidentally quite significantly. But anyway, that's not to say, you know, you can argue about the statistics and crime, yes it's still a huge challenge, but what is interesting for example is on an area like anti social behaviour, when we have introduced legislation, we have been ridiculed for this notion of anti social behaviour legislation.

I could take you to communities literally a couple of miles from here that have been changed dramatically as a result of that legislation. Do we still have an immense and distance to go, of course we do and you always will do.

JON SOPEL: But you know, you go back to that, what happened after Bulger - you know, tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime, and you then said you know, there would be no forgotten people, no no-hope areas. And yet you're describing the situation in London in certain communities, as if it is a no-hope area.

TONY BLAIR: No, no I don't say it's a no hope area and this is why I say it's absolutely crucial to get this right and it's a big difference from a few years ago. I was in Moss Side recently in Manchester, which would traditionally have been an area where people would have said, well there's a fundamental, problem area - actually what's happened in Moss Side over the pass few years is remarkable.

There's been a huge amount of re-building, a great deal of regeneration. The majority of people there want to live there, are happy to live there and are law abiding people. It is not a general social breakdown that is happening in an area like that. It's very specific, often to do with highly dysfunctional families that are actually beyond the normal bounds of the government policies that you know, when Sure Start or New Deal or Inner City Regeneration can help many families, so these aren't no hope areas. Unemployment in these areas is down dramatically, the schools are improved, dramatically.

But, and this is the challenge for the future, this is what you know, the next generation of politicians have got to take on, is that there are groups of people, you can call them socially excluded if you like, who are left out of societies mainstream and the general run of policy is not dealing with those people, and that's why I'm saying to people, I know it's very difficult to do it, to say it and very controversial in certain areas, you won't deal with these families unless you recognise you've got to identify them when the children are young, when the families maybe are first in contact with social services and the police and you've got to put them within a structured disciplined environment, that completely alters their way of life, otherwise they end up a few years later, and they're stabbing people and killing them with gun crime.

JON SOPEL: Okay, is that why you're going to fail to meet your target on poverty which was saying that you were going to...(interjection)...

TONY BLAIR: (overlaps)... fail to meet our poverty target...

JON SOPEL: Do you think you'll get half of all children out of poverty by 2010.

TONY BLAIR: Well, that's our aim. I mean...

JON SOPEL: Are you on course?

TONY BLAIR: Well, well hang on, we've lifted, what is it, six hundred and fifty thousand young people out of relative poverty, who - we've lifted actually I think round about two million people out of absolute poverty. Now it's a relative poverty target, so it's very tough.

But again, before we just write off what's happened in the last ten years, when we came to power, child poverty had doubled. For the first time in two decades that trend has been reversed and if you take the minimum wage or - and the tax credits or the fact you've got two and a half million extra jobs in the economy, there's been a huge amount done. The extra child benefit. So you know, in the end... (interjection)

JON SOPEL: But the difference in life expectancy for example, between the poorest and the richest is widening. You know... (interjection)... You know parts of Glasgow, your - a life expectancy of fifty three years old, East Surrey or somewhere like that, East Dorset I think it is, you're likely to live to eighty one.

TONY BLAIR: Yeah but hang on a minute. If you go to Glasgow, I mean the areas that people are talking about there, yes, it's true, they're areas of very very high depravation, where you've got, building up over a long period of time, a whole set of social problems.

They are being dealt with but they'll show up in life expectancy figures, rather further down the line. But you know, if you end up looking at life expectancy overall in the country, I think it's risen not fallen... that's not just because of the government but I mean...

JON SOPEL: Sure...

TONY BLAIR:... that's happening round the world.

JON SOPEL: But on the poverty issue in general, have you achieved as much as you hoped you would.

TONY BLAIR: I don't think you ever achieve as much as you hope you would. If you'd said to me in 1997, when as you say, you know I come in looking rather younger to all that, that praise. If you'd said to me then, ten years in to a Labour Government, you will have put another two and a half million jobs in the economy, given us the longest period of economic growth we've had.

Taken waiting lists down from a maximum of eighteen months, down to six months and less on route to a maximum of eighteen. Improved every set of school results in the country and cut crime. If you'd said that to me, and lifted six hundred and fifty thousand kids out of poverty, and brought in a minimum wage, and done all of the legislation that we've done for example for equality, in respect of gays or women and so on, I think I would have been saying, okay, I'll take that.


JON SOPEL: Let's try another area. I mean this is specifically now from Debbie Laming in Bristol: I'm thirty three years of age and have a reasonable salary of twenty five thousand, the average price of a house in my home town is roughly two hundred thousand, can the Prime Minister please advice me on how I can afford to buy my own home. I don't have wealthy parents, can't save forty thousand pounds for a deposit, so what do I do.

TONY BLAIR: Yeah. It's a really good point that as a result, I'm afraid of the strength of the economy, low interest rates, house prices are far higher, so there is a real problem and this is why the challenges shift. You know, when we came in to power the big issue was boom and bust, recession, negative equity. Right, that is not the issue today.

There hasn't been a recession since we've been in power, there's been interest rates half of what they were under the Conservative government, so she's absolutely right, the challenge now, and this is what we're going on to address, is how do you help couples particularly young couples, trying to get their feet on the first rungs of the housing ladder. It's why you want... (interjection)...

JON SOPEL: Made more difficult by all the people going in to the buy to let market in Bristol. I mean one could even say the Prime Minister, buying flats in Bristol.

TONY BLAIR: I'm sure you can but in respect of those young couples, we need things like shared equity schemes which we're introducing. We need to be releasing land quicker for development but here's the other thing and this is the test for the future, we also need I'm afraid, to build more houses in the south.

Now we say we have to do that, the Conservatives say they don't want any more built in the south. In which case, her problems are going to get worse. But all I'm saying to you really is this. When you come in 1997, you have certain groups of problems that you have to deal with.

Ten years on, the problems have shifted, partly cos as a result of what's happened in the ten years. So, for example, you know, if you go back and... (interjection)

JON SOPEL: I just want to try one other area.

TONY BLAIR: Yeah, Okay.

JON SOPEL: This is another email from someone who's planning for their retirement. Thanks to Gordon Brown's, this is from Helen Chadwick, thanks to Gordon Brown's raid on pensions, so many people have lost on their company and personal pensions. But Tony Blair will walk out of Number 10 with a pension pot apparently of 4.3 million, which we, as taxpayers have paid for. Isn't this criminal she says.

TONY BLAIR: Yes but again, let's just deal with pensions and this idea that the problems that people have in company or occupational pension schemes, as a result of Gordon getting rid of the tax credit on dividends. It isn't - the reason why you've got a problem on company and occupational pension schemes is the same reason as you've got a problem in America, in the rest of Europe, everywhere.

People are living longer. And if you look at the amount of money, additional money we have given to pensioners, in for example, not just increases above the rate of inflation and basic state pension, but in the pension credit, in the winter fuel allowance, in the free TV Licences for the over seventy fives and so on, there's been a - we've put in - more money in to pensioners that dwarfs the money that was taken out by the change in tax credits on dividends and the real reason, as I say, that you had this problem on pensions.

I mean, if you talked to people who are experts in the industry, they will say to you look, the two biggest factors have been people are living longer and the correction in the stock market in the year 2000, that wiped two hundred and fifty billion pounds off the value of the, the shares.

JON SOPEL: Prime Minister, we've talked about a range of domestic issues and your legacy there.

TONY BLAIR: And incidentally, that's an interesting point, just while I'm on it. Pensioner poverty was the issue. You know, we got a report the other day on the NHS

JON SOPEL: Briefly.

TONY BLAIR:... and a winter crisis, there is no winter crisis now. There used to be one every year. Pensioner poverty was the issue that we had to tackle in '97. How many stories of the pensioner poverty do you get in the same way today as you did ten years ago?

JON SOPEL: I just want, we've talked about the domestic areas of your legacy, I mean don't you sense though that your legacy is going to be judged primarily by Iraq.

TONY BLAIR: I think that you can never tell how people make these judgements over time. And it's true, you know, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Sierra Leonie, we have had a hugely interventionist foreign policy, a different type of foreign policy than the one that has gone before, that's true.

But I believe it's justified and right, you know I reflect again as we, as we've lost forces in Iraq today and you know, for the families this is always a terrible time and a time of great grief and anguish, but what our forces are doing there, what British forces are doing in Iraq, in Afghanistan, is they are fighting the same forces of terrorism and extremism that are operating around the world today and I believe in time, people will understand why it is important that we fight these people where ever they are and that the front line I'm afraid for that fight, is in Iraq and Afghanistan at the moment.

JON SOPEL: And just what can you tell us about this incident today?

TONY BLAIR: I mean I can tell you no more than has just been on the news really.

JON SOPEL: But what do we know about what's happened?

TONY BLAIR: Well, we simply know, as the Ministry of Defence has said, that we believe it's almost certainly an accident, that it happened north of Baghdad as has just been described.

JON SOPEL: And what about what you're hearing from the Conservative leader, David Cameron, that there ought to be a board of inquiry in to all the events sounding - the taking of the sailors in Iran.

TONY BLAIR: Well there will be an inquiry, the Navy always do conduct an inquiry if their people are taken captive in that way and I'm sure as the Navy has already said, that they will look in to it very carefully, see what lessons can be learnt. Let's not forget the essential thing, is that fifteen of our personnel were taken capture and they were returned safe and unharmed and let me emphasise to you there was no deal made, there was no trade, there was no offer from us.

We got them back without any deal at all and we got them back safe and that was the priority we had throughout. And it's obviously a very difficult time for the Navy, a very traumatic time for the people concerned, but the important thing is that we did get them back.

JON SOPEL: I just want to ask you a bit of a legacy question which is sort of may be a bit more personal, and that's the legacy of your wife Cherie Blair, cos she was also, played a prominent role, first wife to actively pursue a career in Downing Street. How do you think she'll be remembered?

TONY BLAIR: Well I hope people who met her, as opposed to read about her, will remember how she actually was and we're in the Downing Street state rooms today, where the receptions are held for charities and she's probably done as much if not more charity work than anyone and I'm very very proud of what she's done.

JON SOPEL: And I'm just interested in the way you said about what people have read about her because of course there's been an awful lot of press attention that she's had and we've had the same thing this weekend surround Prince William and Kate Middleton, do you have a certain sympathy that the press have been excessive in this case.

TONY BLAIR: I think, look, everybody in public life knows that you will get a certain amount of press attention and that's just the way it is. My experience of it actually is that what concerns people is not so much the invasion of your privacy as such, because I think most people in public life accept that you, you're bound to be a public issue and a public item in that sense.

I think it's more that usually, whatever is discussed about you publicly, is surrounded by a whole lot of stuff that is either unfair or sometimes completely untrue, and that is I think the thing that really gets people down and you know, I think in respect of Prince William, I mean they're a young couple, we've had the announcement, fine.

They should be left alone now, without reams of stuff being written that, I can assure you from my experience of all the stories, most of which will be complete nonsense, so I think now it's been announced, they should just be allowed to get on with their lives.

JON SOPEL: Okay, and let's just talk about you if we may. This weekend we see the Chancellor having a one to one meeting with the President. Will the President find Gordon Brown easy to work with?

TONY BLAIR: Well I'm sure he will yes. Absolutely. But if you're trying to get me in to the leadership issue, and I'm - I've now discovered virtually every way there is possible for me to be got in to this issue, I'm not discussing it until I announce I'm going.

JON SOPEL: Okay. Would David Miliband make a good Prime Minister if Gordon Brown were run over by a bus.

TONY BLAIR: Yeah, and that one is too obvious. You were better with the first one.

JON SOPEL: Okay, how do you rate David Miliband?

TONY BLAIR: Yeah, exactly. So let's just move on.

JON SOPEL: You said he was a...(interjection)

TONY BLAIR: No, I'm not even, not even by the - what I've learnt about this subject is that if you raise an eyebrow in the wrong place it's... (interjection)

JON SOPEL: Look, can I quote you what you said in Cardiff this week. You said you were going to lurch in to total frankness.


JON SOPEL: You're lurching in to total obfuscation of this issue.

TONY BLAIR: I'm not obfuscating, I'm just telling you I'm not saying anything.

JON SOPEL: Right. There's nothing more to say...

TONY BLAIR: Right. I'm being absolutely frank about that. I'm not.

JON SOPEL: Okay, I just want to finally ask you a question then - cos clearly we're not going to get anywhere on this particular point. Correct, he says. We're launching a competition on our web site for people to vote, what has been your greatest triumph and your single biggest mistake. If you were voting what would you vote on. What would you say?

TONY BLAIR: I mean I'm very sorry to end with yet another not going there. There's no point in me doing that cos I'm the person who's the author of the triumph or disaster or whatever, so there's no point, let other people make that judgement.

I mean you've got to understand, when you've been Prime Minister for ten years, you - I mean I'm not a different human being from what I was ten years ago, but I'm a different type of politician and in the last few years I've tried to do what I really think is right, take difficult decisions on behalf of the country, that I think are in the country's long-term interests and in the end, that is, I'm content to be judged in the long term, and we'll just wait and see and whatever remarks people make at the moment, they can make. It's not, it's not something for me to go and comment on.

JON SOPEL: Prime Minister, thank you very much indeed. Thanks.


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The Politics Show Sunday 15 April 2007 at 12.00 BST on BBC One.

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