Tony Blair, former prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, delivered the Lives of Liberty Lecture at Lafayette College April 8. His opening remarks included praise for former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who died earlier that day.
Blair’s action-packed visit included a spontaneous seminar with seven students, photographs with more than 100 people, and a robust, revealing lecture about being a stable world leader in an increasingly unstable world.
The former British prime minister prefaced the 2013 Lives of Liberty Lecture by honoring another former prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who had earlier died that day. Speaking in a filled Kamine sports arena, he called her “a remarkable and towering figure . . . who pursued a course of conviction” and will be remembered for far more than being the United Kingdom’s first female prime minister. Blair said he will remember Thatcher for teaching him one of his earliest lessons in politics when he was a junior member of Parliament: Always be prepared for any argument from any document, even a 1944 white paper prepared for Winston Churchill during his time as prime minister.
The visit was one of three from world leaders to be hosted by Lafayette this month. Renowned primatologist and conservationist Goodall will deliver the Thomas Roy and Lura Forrest Jones Visiting Lecture for 2012-13 April 11. Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States, will deliver an address on “Reflections on Human Rights and Democracy” 4 p.m. Monday, April 22.
In his speech Blair addressed the complexities of leading during an era of “almost uniquely low predictability.” Bank meltdowns in Europe, terrorism in Africa, the threat of nuclear weapons in Iran—no wonder politicians are caught in the cross-hairs between short-term politics and long-term policies.
Blair supports intervention in foreign crises, an understandable position for an envoy to a quartet of world powers charged with promoting peace in the Middle East—“a region in revolutionary turmoil”—and making Palestine a state. It’s important, he said, to help unstable governments evolve rather than revolt. It’s particularly important to generate new jobs for young people. For example, in the Gaza Strip, the average age of the population is 19, and a quarter of the population is under the age of five.
“Unless the economies are going to move, we are storing up enormous problems for ourselves,” he said.
According to Blair, new governments must be trained “to tolerate dissent and discord.” The ultimate goal is establishing a “true democracy” with not only open voting but open thinking.
Blair sees many signs of optimism. In Africa, for example, the number of democracies has significantly increased while the number of malaria deaths has greatly decreased. Global poverty has been halved, partly through the efforts of Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative.
Blair ended the lecture with a story from a Holocaust memorial service he had attended the night before in Jerusalem. He said he was humbled and inspired by an 84-year-old who helped fellow Jews fight the Nazis in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. He encouraged students to admire her courage for “taking on evil in the name of good.”
In a session moderated by Lafayette President Daniel H. Weiss, Blair answered several questions that had been submitted by members of the Lafayette community. His most difficult decision as prime minister? Sending troops into Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and other foreign territories. What are the world’s most important jobs? Uniting a European Union divided by a currency crisis; building trust between Palestine and Israel, Muslim and Jew; and preventing Iran from importing nuclear weapons and exporting terrorism.
Blair revealed his core philosophy while discussing his Faith Foundation, which promotes understanding among supporters of major religions. “We’ve got to learn to live with each other and learn from one another,” said Blair, who was 12 or 13 when he met his first non-white person. Leaders need to promote the idea that “a wide variety of colors and faiths is actually a strength for our world and not a weakness or a threat.”
In his welcoming remarks, Weiss saluted Walter Oechsle ’57 for his longstanding commitment to and support for globalizing the experience of Lafayette students.
“In addition to providing scholarship support for international students for many years, he made it possible for Mikhail Gorbachev to visit our campus in the fall of 2011, and this past Saturday, we held the groundbreaking for the impressive center for global education that will be constructed on our campus thanks to his support. He has also graciously underwritten today’s lecture,” Weiss said.
After the lecture Blair shared a rather unusual photo op, posing for individual pictures with more than 100 members of the Lafayette community: trustees, faculty, administrators, even a journalist alumnus with an English mother. He engaged his 15-second partners with a skilled politician’s tools: fixed smile; easy eye contact; firm, gentle handshake; gentle, firm small talk.
During a reception Blair led an impromptu 15-minute summit on world politics with seven students. He discussed international currency with Yang Li ’13 (Haiyan, China), an international affairs and economics double major, who is writing a paper on the dollar’s global power. He discussed giving more sovereignty—but not independence—to Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland with Hamish MacPhail ’13 (Bedford, Mass), a government and law major who last year interned with the Scottish Parliament.
Government and law major Sara Shahmirzadi Yeganeh ’14 (Hillsborough, N.J) was impressed by Blair’s defense of intervention as a weapon against corruption and revolution, even though she opposes it. She was also impressed by his point that an effective leader helps citizens decide what they should think. It’s a point, she added, shared by Nelson Mandela.
Paul Hadzewycz ’13 Morristown, N.J.), a double major in policy studies and Russian & East European studies, was struck by Blair’s “reasonable” explanations of his controversial decisions. He also enjoyed Blair’s enthusiasm for telling humiliating stories about himself. Blair clearly relished recalling that one of his first acts as prime minister was tripping into Queen Elizabeth’s lap.
Rachel Davidson ’13 (Bethesda, Md.), a double major in international affairs and government & law, regarded Blair’s speech as a public-speaking blueprint. She’ll try to remember his unique ability “to deliver thoughtful responses without taking the time to think” on Thursday when she presents her first paper at an academic conference.
Joel Shelton, visiting assistant professor of government and law, declared Blair a “masterful” mix of strategist, storyteller, and educator. He talked up, rather than down, to students. Confessing his doubts about invading Iraq, said Shelton, “makes him more human at the end of the day.”