Tony Blair praised Israeli democracy, called for a return to centrist politics and attacked the “plague” of social media at an event on Monday night.
Speaking at the Spencer House event, the former UK prime minister also paid a heartfelt tribute to the late Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who he described as a friend, mentor, teacher and “my rabbi”.
In conversation with journalist Matthew d’Ancona, Mr Blair said he would “would talk about Israeli politics” with Lord Sacks, who died aged 72 last November after being diagnosed with cancer.
“Israel has managed to continue to make progress because there is a core of things that hold people together and because they are prepared to debate vivaciously,” he said. “In the end that is a strength, not a weakness, in democracy, provided that the core – which I think is a profound attachment to Israel’s security – remains in common.”
Mr Blair, who served as prime minister from 1997 to 2007, called for a return to centrist politics in the UK and the USA. He said that there was a “demand” from centrist voters, but little “supply” from political parties.
“Most elections are won from the centre,” he said. “It is a supply problem – because activists in political parties pull their parties further to the left, or further to the right. I don’t think you’ve got a demand problem.”
He added: “The question is how you deal with the supply problem in circumstances where all over the Western world, traditional political parties have got a bad dose of ideology.”
Mr Blair, who said that under his premiership he deliberately kept policies brought in by former Tory prime minister Baroness Margaret Thatcher, said: “One of the great ironies of twenty first-century politics, is at the very moment when the solutions to the world’s problems have never been more practical – the world has got a bad dose of ideology.
“It’s a shame because in politics I found those things got in the way.”
He added: “When you are conducting politics of blame, and one group of people want to be victims of another group of people, it’s a totally counterproductive thing.
“It’s never how you get on in life. You get on by working with people.”
Criticising former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose leadership was riddled with accusations of antisemitism, Mr Blair said that ideological entrenchment and refusal to work with another political party “worries me sometimes.
“It did when frankly the Labour Party was under its previous leadership, that if you end up seeing your opponents in that light, ultimately you do undermine democracy because you delegitimise them as political actors.”
Mr Blair also described social media as a “plague for politics”, but praised the Abraham Accords, the US-brokered accords encouraging peace between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan.
Mr Blair was speaking at an event hosted by The Rabbi Sacks Legacy Trust.
Delivering the inaugural lecture, Mr Blair spoke at length about their friendship.
He said Lord Sacks’ emphasis on “values” was “an immensely valuable instruction,” adding: “A lot of what I used to do with Jonathan, was frankly, learn from him.”
Speaking to the international audience, Mr Blair said the late Lord Sacks was a teacher, guide, mentor and friend. “It was the teacher role, which for me, stands out…
“He was a Jewish rabbi, but he was also a rabbi for the universe. His teaching grounded in Judaism… but never constrained by it.”
He said: “I regard him as my rabbi too. I know he will continue to inspire future generations, Jewish or not.”
Mr Blair recalled a conversation they had on a plane 26 years ago, after the assassination of former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
He said: “One of the first conversations we had in depth together was flying out to the funeral, where he just gave me the most wonderful exposition and lesson in biblical scholarship. And it made a deep, deep impression on me. And it really was the beginning of the foundation of our friendship.”
He added: “Conversations were Jonathan’s speciality… bringing those in discord into dialogue”.
He said: “In a world often dominated by debate within the frequently poisonous confines of social media, his calm reason… accessible manner and intellectual curiosity, reminds us of how conversation, even over the most sensitive subjects, should be conducted.”
Noting that Lord Sacks was not a politician, he still acknowledged that: “His polemic against antisemitism remains one of the finest explanations of why it happens, why it matters to Jews and non-Jews alike and why it requires early confrontation to avoid catastrophe.
“But even here his case is made with passion for sure, but also logic and reason and philosophical depth.”
Lord Sacks’ widow, Lady Elaine Sacks, thanked participants and organisers at the close of the event, saying it had been “an emotional year.”
At the event, Mr Blair was joined by his wife, barrister Cherie Blair.
Trust Chairman Henry Grunwald, the former president of the Board of Deputies, congratulated the Blair family on the birth of their grandson, born hours before the event on Monday, wishing them a “Mazel Tov”.
HRH Prince Charles has written the foreword to a new hardback book, The Power of Ideas, which brings together for the first time some of Lord Sacks’ most impactful writings, broadcasts and his landmark TED Talk. Described by Blair as “excellent”, it was compiled by the former Chief Rabbi’s long -time communications chief Dan Sacker.
The heir to the throne said: “As an avid reader and follower of his work, I am therefore delighted to see the publication of these broadcasts, articles, speeches and lectures by Rabbi Sacks.
“Although this volume represents a mere fragment of his contributions during his lifetime, it demonstrates, once again, Rabbi Sacks’ unique capacity for interpreting the present and predicting the future through a profound understanding of the past.
“Rich in learning and rooted in humility, this collection includes the lightness of touch, inclusive approach and elegant wit that Rabbi Sacks was so renowned for.”
The event was streamed online. Watch it, here:
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