Loyola Magazine

Prime experience

An unforgettable evening with Tony Blair

When former prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland Tony Blair delivered the inaugural Hanway Lecture in Global Studies at Loyola University Maryland on Tuesday, April 9, he addressed a crowd of nearly 3,000—including 1,300 students.

Speaking off the cuff and fielding questions gathered in advance, Blair offered both amusing and poignant stories of his experiences and opinions on past, present, and future issues around the globe. He kept his audience entertained and engaged at every moment. Blair briefly praised Loyola for its study abroad programs—in which 2/3 of students study abroad—and for its commitment to Jesuit principles. But he used the evening primarily as a time to share his perspective, speaking of current international relations and ways he believes developed nations can make decisions for a better future for the whole world.

Here are a few moments captured from the evening.

’Tis the Easter Season

As Rev. Brian Linnane, S.J., Loyola president, was introducing Tony Blair, he came to a line in Blair’s bio where Father was supposed to say, “resignation.” Instead, the line came out, “By the time of his resurrection.” And Father stopped—as the audience of nearly 3,000 laughed. “His Resurrection. It’s the Easter season,” Father said. “I’m going to be in trouble with my speechwriter.” Moments later when Blair stepped to the podium, he said, “Thank you, Fr. Linnane, for that extraordinary introduction, and for resurrecting me so unexpectedly early, to be frank. I’ll take it.” After Blair’s remarks, he answered questions from the audience asked by Marianne Ward, Ph.D., associate professor of economics. As Fr. Linnane approached Blair and Ward, seated in armchairs on the stage, to tell them it was time to end the evening, Blair said, “Father, you look as if you might be bringing divine intervention.” Without missing a beat, Father delivered a reply that brought down the house: “It’s the moment of your Ascension, actually.”

You say “football,” we say “soccer”

Blair had been well-prepared for his visit to Loyola University Maryland, referencing the University’s “great men’s lacrosse team.” But he didn’t stop there. “And you have the stadium across the way for lacrosse and soccer, which in time to come, the Americans will realize, is really football. It’s football.”

On winning the election

Fr. Linnane was living in London during 1996-97 when Tony Blair first ran for prime minister. He remembers seeing a billboard flashing “New Labour, new danger,” and then showing an image of Tony Blair with “demonic red eyes.” When it was time to think of a speaker to give the first Hanway Lecture in Global Studies, Fr. Linnane was among those who championed inviting Blair. Blair admitted that he had forgotten about that particular billboard until Fr. Linnane reminded him. Then he shared the story of how he began his term as prime minister, the day after the election. He described the tradition of the staff lining up in the corridor at 10 Downing Street to say goodbye to the outgoing prime minister and welcome the new prime minister. “My party had been out of power for 18 years…so I was going down the line shaking hands, and the staff were crying,” said Blair, recalling how he walked down the hallway and into the cabinet room where the cabinet secretary—a non-political appointment—was waiting. “I remember in that very sort of clipped British way he motioned me to sit down, he said, ‘Well done. Now what?’ And basically the whole of the next 10 years was trying to discover the answer to that. Now what?”

How things operate

Blair recalled how at the height of the discussions about national health services reforms, he had to have an operation. And he remembered lying on the operating table with a medical professional standing over him with a large needle. “His opening words were, ‘Prime minister, this may be the last time I have the opportunity to say this to you,” Blair recalled. “I have to tell you I’m totally opposed to your health services reforms.” Blair knew it was difficult to make those structural reforms, he said, “but it had to be done.”

No tougher time for leadership

“I don’t think there is a tougher time to be a leader than now, and the challenges are very deep and very critical,” said Blair, touching on how technology has changed the world. “The chief characteristic of the world today in my view is the scope, the scale, and the scheme of change. Things are happening very fast. Very often, the best short-term politics are in collision with the best long-term policies. The single toughest thing for leaders is to make sure they’re following the policies that are right for the long-term interests of the country rather than simply giving in to the pressures of the short-term politics.”

On the Middle East

“Syria is in the process of disintegration,” Blair said. “We look at the Middle East and we look eastwards and westwards and we see chaos all around.” In both the United States and the United Kingdom, citizens want their nations to disengage from the problems in the Middle East. “I understand that totally. But I think we only have to look at what is happening in Syria today to realize that at a certain point if these crises are not contained, then we’re going to end up with these crises no matter what,” he said. “We have to recognize that this crisis is out there, if it erupts above and beyond our ability to control it.” Blair discussed the roles of the U.S. and U.K. in addressing these problems—even before they begin. “First of all I think we need to help countries that are not in a state of revolution to have a state of evolution,” he said. “We should be helping those countries that haven’t yet seen that turmoil to ease them into a better form of government.” For example, he said, a quarter of the population in Gaza is under the age of 5—and that nation has other qualities, such as a lack of jobs and resources, making it susceptible to extremism. The United States and the United Kingdom have a role to play there before problems take root. “True democracy is not just a way of voting. It’s a way of thinking,” he said.

Remembering Margaret Thatcher

Blair described Thatcher’s kindness to him and what she taught him about politics. “She was a big larger than life leader, that’s absolutely for sure, but she’s also someone who had a big global impact,” he said. “In the end, she was a genuine and a true defender of liberty—and this concept of liberty, which is a great thing which your country holds up as a beacon for the whole world.”

Natural hunger for freedom

Blair, who had just been in Jerusalem two nights ago, described attending a Holocaust memorial service, commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. A woman who had survived the Holocaust as a teenager gave a powerful speech about her experiences in the Warsaw Ghetto. “She and many of the people she was working alongside knew she would be killed, but nonetheless they were determined to do it,” he said, recalling that she said, “Whatever the oppression that was upon us, one day we would be free.” “It’s not really a value of the United States of America or the United Kingdom. It’s a value of the universal spirit, and it’s what gives us hope in the opportunities of the future.”

On climate change

Asked about climate change, Blair spoke of the importance of worrying about the environment. As developing countries industrialize, however, it is difficult to tell them they can’t grow their economy and provide needed jobs for their citizens because they need to protect the environment, he said. “Telling people they can’t consume is not going to work. We’ve got a debate in the U.K. about whether we’re going to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport,” he said. “I say to people in the next year the people in China are going to build 70 new airports. I don’t think our third runway is going to be the thing that tips the balance.”

Reflecting on his tenure

Asked which of his accomplishments as prime minister he is most proud of, he said, “Well if you asked my children, they would say it was my guest appearance on The Simpsons, which was truthfully the only thing I did that they ever liked.” Getting serious, he mentioned the Gleneagles Summit and the introduction of the first minimum wage in the United Kingdom. But he didn’t want to identify any one achievement. “The thing that is interesting to me as a politician who’s been out of office a few years and now I see the world is how much I didn’t know, which is really shocking,” he said. “My advice to my own children and the students here is go out and explore. The world is changing and we are going to have to share power. We are going to have to understand the way the world is changing.” Today, as he looks back on his tenure as prime minister, Blair said he sees education as the single most important area government can address. “The real divide is between the open-minded and the closed,” he said.

Becoming a Catholic

An undergraduate student had submitted a question about Blair’s conversion to Catholicism after his tenure as prime minister. “Well, it had been coming for a long time for me. My wife is Catholic and my kids were raised Catholic, and I used to go to Mass but not as a full communicant. Someone once said to me, ‘Did you not dare to do this while you were prime minister?’ and I just lapsed into absolute honesty and said, ‘That’s right,’” he said. “It felt like being at home for me.”

Striving for peace

Blair believes a peace agreement in Israel and Palestine is possible. It’s what keeps taking him back to that part of the world. “It is possible. And when I go back there in a few days’ time, I think it’s my 99th visit since leaving office. And as my wife says, ‘It’s not the number of visits you make, it’s the progress,’” he said. “And I will go thru my 99th visit and another 99 if I have to try.” The key to the modern world, he said, is finding a way where people of different religious faiths can learn to live alongside each other. “We’ve got to keep striving for that.”

A memory of Bill Clinton

“When I was leader of the Opposition, I had the chance to go meet with Bill Clinton. This was a big moment for me. You’re going to meet the president of the United States, the big deal, you’ve got to get it right. You go into the Oval Office, and the president sits down, and there are scrums of journalists that come in and they click away and they throw questions.” The meeting was right before Clinton’s 1996 election. Blair recalled sitting there nervously, thinking ahead to the election in 1997 when he hoped to be elected prime minister. “One of the journalists shouts out, ‘Mr. President, do you think you’re next to the next prime minister of Great Britain? And I absolutely freeze because what is he going to say?” If Clinton said yes, that would be an international relations faux pas, Blair said. But if he said no, how would that hurt Blair’s reputation? But Clinton was ready. “He said, ‘I just hope he’s sitting alongside the next president of the United States,’” Blair recalled.

About the Hanway Lecture

An endowed series made possible by a gift from Ellen and Ed Hanway, ’74, chairman of the University’s Board of Trustees, the Hanway Lecture in Global Studies brings noteworthy leaders to campus to share timely relevant insight into today’s global society.