Tony Blair Interviewed on Today 16 September 2005

Interviewed by Jim Naughtie 16 September 2005

Unofficial Transcript by Owen Barder (

Ed Stourton: He [Jim Naughtie] started by asking him about terrorism. Wasn’t it striking that the UN couldn’t even agree on a definition of what terrorism was?

Prime Minister: I think this is one of these times when … the definitional issue is less important than it really seems. I mean, in fact the vast bulk of people can agree on exactly what it means: it means killing of innocent civilians deliberately and even some of those countries because of their particular issue for example Pakistan over Kashmir, the problems of definition were fully in agreement with that personally I wouldn’t make too much of that I think that … there is a coming together in the international community around the need to fight terrorism and fight it not just at the level of security but at the level of taking on and defeating the ideas of these people and the idea that in any shape or form they have a grievance that can possibly justify what they do.

James Naughtie: But the problem with the definition is that you are being technical when you legislate to say that people should not glorify it, because the courts are going to have to decide what it is. So it isn’t an irrelevant question. It is one thing to say well people know it when they see it, but you are going to legislate to potentially send people to prison for talking about it. And if we don’t know precisely what we mean, that it means different things to different people, there’s a real problem. Doesn’t it illustrate the difficulty you’ve got with how you legislate at home on these important matters?

PM: Do you really think people have a difficulty with defining terrorism? I mean, it is the, it’s the, killing of innocent people, um, deliberately, innocent civilians. And when people go on a bus or on the underground or in a café or a bar or a restaurant and kill as many innocent people as they possibly can quite deliberately that is something I don’t think it is just that people sort of recognise it when they see it. I think in practical terms most reasonable people have no difficulty with this definition.

JN: Do you think it would be easy for the courts to decide when someone was glorifying it or not?

PM: Before there is a prosecution the Attorney General gives … his consent so … you know, there is that stage and then yes the courts are going to have to take a view about that. But again I think that in situations where people for example are going out and saying look, if you go and kill people and killers and people and terrorist acts you are doing something that is a great thing, you are doing something that will secure your place in paradise and so on, I think again most people have not much difficulty deciding that.

JN: Twenty years ago, when Ken Livingstone led standing ovations for Gerry Adams at Labour Party fringe meetings, when there were IRA bombing campaigns in London, presumably with legislation like this he could have been arrested and thrown into jail for glorifying a terrorist?

PM: I don’t think that is true in fact because – oh look, I can’t … to be absolutely frank you may have a better recollection of exactly what Ken was saying in that particular time than me – erm, but, let’s be absolutely clear: there will be all sorts of people who say for all sorts of reasons: “look, I understand why the terrorists do it, and you know, you can sympathise with their motivation.” Now I happen profoundly to disagree with that, but I am not suggesting that you make that a criminal offence. Er, what I am suggesting should be an offence is somebody who in effect by glorifying is inciting and is saying to people – particularly impressionable people – and we know, look, that this is a modern phenomenon that we have, this extremism based on a perversion of Islam – is in effect saying to impressionable young people: this is something you should do.

JN: And in pursuit of that, are you happy that you are moving in the direction that Dame Eliza Manningham Buller of MI5 laid out the other day that we are moving towards a kind of stage in which we have to accept, probably in perpetuity, that liberties that we have traditionally enjoyed are going to be suspended?

PM: Again, I think it is important that we don’t exaggerate this. Virtually every country in Europe following terrorist acts has been toughening up their legislation. And I think that, for example, the fact that someone who comes into our country and maybe seeks refuge here, the fact that we say look, if when you are here you want to stay here: play by the rules, play fair, don’t start inciting people to go and kill other innocent people in Britain. I think that, you know, when people say this is a abrogation of our traditional civil liberties I think it is possible to exaggerate that. I mean, as far as I know people have always accepted that with rights come responsibilities. And if people want the right, whether it is the right to stay here or the right of freedom of speech, there are always limits on that. There are limits to inciting racial hatred, there are limits er, to, er, inciting people to commit offences against other people. You know, there has never been an untrammelled right erm, to what people accept as as as human liberties it has always been qualified by some sense of duty or responsibility.

JN: Do you think on that level these discussions this week have got us anywhere? There has been a great discussion about whether the proportion of hot air to real change here is greater. Do you think we have moved on that issue?

PM: I think the summit has marked the culmination of a process in which the international community, yes, on the issue of terrorism, there is no doubt the attitude is different today. It is quite different. I mean, I know people say …

JN: What examples would you give?

PM: Well, I don’t think you would have got the UN Security Council coming together in quite the same way on such a tough resolution that attacked not just terrorism itself but inciting it, erm, the, the, preaching of it, the educating of people in extremism, erm, a few years ago. I don’t think that you would have found quite the same consensus that terrorism cannot in any set of circumstances be justified. Now, you know, leaving aside for a moment the issues that you raise, quite rightly that one or two countries had with the definition of terrorism, basically that international consensus is there.

JN: On the broader questions raised at the UN Summit here, on development for example, it is true isn’t it that its really been a holding statement, a confirmation of what we already knew, not the drive forward which for example Kofi Annan himself said was really necessary to give the UN strength and legitimacy in this century.

PM: I think that is fair enough. Er, fortunately on the development goals we had the G8 summit at Gleneagles and that gave us a solid platform and we safeguarded that in its essentials. Again, it is difficult: you’ve got 191 countries they’ve all got to reach a consensus. On the other hand I think that the problem with this is that people always see it as black and white terms: it is either a triumph or it is a complete failure. Actually, if we do what we said we are going to do at this summit, if we carry it through, it will make a big difference. Because you will have the Gleneagles G8 summit commitments on development carried through, you will have a Human Rights Council that is an effective body not what we have had before…

JN: Well with respect, on the Human Rights Council, I mean the declaration says that it will be up to the General Assembly to decide how that’s put together which is a much much weaker prescription than the Secretary General wanted and I think than you wanted .. and that really could go into that you know traditional huge patch of long grass that surrounds the UN building.

PM: You know but in a sense that is what I am saying. I mean if we carry through what we are supposed to do then it will make a difference. The Peacebuilding Commission will make a difference. The first time that the UN has said that we have a responsibility to protect citizens – even if that means an interference with the sovereignty of countries, which is a breach of the traditional international understanding, and long overdue in my view, if we carry these things through then we will make a difference. But I agree, the issue is will we carry them through.

JN: Will we carry them through … you see the President of the United States made a speech yesterday saying that he would lift trade barriers and get rid of agricultural subsidies the more other countries erm did the same, Now Peter Mandelson, your old colleague, the European Trade Commissioner, was on the programme yesterday, being openly sceptical and saying well, we’ll believe it when we see it, because American farmers aren’t going to allow it to happen. So we’ve got rhetoric, but you know and I know that one is not going to change.

PM: Well we are going to see at the meeting in December. But on the other hand it is better that the commitment is given and we can then argue about how it is carried through than that the commitment is not given at all. I mean, look, with any of these things because you have got very delicate negotiations, and a lot of conflicting interests, as I say, there is a tendency for people to say because not everything has happened, nothing has happened. If the Americans follow through on what the President has said that will be big, the Europeans should do likewise. Other countries like Japan the same and we’ve got coming up over the next few months a lot of tests for the basic principles of the agreements, in particular the ones we entered into in Gleneagles, you’ve got the IMF/World Bank discussions on debt relief, you’ve got the African Peacekeeping Force and the question of whether we can develop that which is central to resolving the problems in Africa, erm that’s coming up again in the discussions in the next few months, and then of course you’ve got the World Trade Organization in December which will be definitive, frankly, of whether the world is prepared to opt for free trade or not.

JN: That’s a big statement, saying it is definitive on the move to free trade. I mean, are you yourself said these things tend not to be black and white. Do you really think that you can get a deal in December that marks a change in the pattern of the last hundred years?

PM: I think, I don’t know whether it will mark a change in the pattern of the last hundred years, because in a sense there has been movement, world trade has opened up significantly. But can we get a significant step forward in free trade, in December, yes we can but at the moment it is obviously very difficult and there is no doubt, you know, that the fact is that there are big disagreements still that have to be resolved, but our determination should be to try and resolve those. And my point again is that the thing about the G8 summit and again here at the UN summit is that at least the commitment is there, now the question is, is it done, is it carried through, and it should be because the benefits will be felt in some of the poorest countries in the world but also in the general increase in trade and commerce that is jobs and prosperity for everyone.

JN: Isn’t it inevitable at a gathering like this, where you are working quite often quite closely with President Bush and taking a similar line on most issues that you feel,you know, the heavy hand of Iraq on your shoulder … that it marks you out from so many other countries here, that you’ve take a line on this which they profoundly disagree with?

PM: I don’t think now in the international community that disagreement lingers on. I think that now people realise for the last two years there has been a UN-backed process in Iraq for Iraqi democracy and British and American troops and the other 30 countries that are there, are there with the full backing of the United Nations.

JN: I understand that but we’ve also got a huge number of deaths.. in the last 24 hours many more. You must constantly be aware that you have to prepare people for a much longer engagement than you had envisaged, and perhaps an engagement that is going to cost a lot more. This country has spent more than 300 billion dollars in Afghanistan and Iraq already – more to come. How much have we spent and how much would we spend if it was necessary, in your judgement?

PM: Well we have spent money; err, on Iraq and Afghanistan and we are engaged in a major strategic battle in both countries, because this international terrorism has decided to make both countries a battle ground. I think the reason for that is very clear. This is why I said in the Security Council yesterday: this international terrorism is a movement, it has got an ideology, and its got a strategy; and its strategy is to prevent us establishing in those two muslim countries the democratic state that their citizens want because they know if we do establish that democratic state it is a huge blow to international terrorism, whereas alternatively if they can tip both countries into chaos and instability then they have a chance of bringing benefit for their own warped ideology but that is why it is important. And this is a strategic battle ground. And we didn’t decide to, to, engage them for example in Iraq in that way; they made the decision.

JN: But you see in the way it plays out at home you find the cross party consensus beginning to break down on your latest proposals for the time someone can be detained. And there is real disturbance on the other side of the House about this. We have had a lot of cross party consensus and you can see the strains. And here is a quote “It is all too easy for us to respond to such terror in a way which undermines commitment to our most deeply held values and convictions”. Now to be fair to you, that is Cherie Booth QC talking. It is a widely held view.

PM: It is just as well you told me that before I responded!

JN: I shouldn’t have.

PM: Yeah, see, but, of course it is important that we don’t respond in a way that damages the very fabric of our democracy, but again my plea to people is keep a sense of perspective about this. We are asking for tougher anti-terrorism measures. They are very much in the line with measures throughout the rest of Europe and the, the western world. We are not advocating something that is absolutely unheard of. Part of these measures grew out of a study of what other countries are doing but we have got to face something in our country. We have in my judgement not been tough enough or effective enough in sending a strong signal across the community that we are not going to tolerate engaging in extremism or propagating it or inciting it and that is something that is necessary to do to protect the most basic civil liberty of all which is the right to life on behalf of our citizens. Now I tried for several months before the election to get tougher terrorism legislation through, a lot of people said this was scaremongering and so on; people don’t say that now, of course we’ve got to keep a sense of balance and perspective the whole time in what we do but it is important that that is an improcation (?) that is given not just to me but to people on the other side of this debate as well. And don’t let us talk when we are taking tougher measure on terrorism as I say that would find echoes in most European countries that we are somehow engaged in the destruction of our basic civil liberties, because we are not.

JN: You are talking here about what you still want to do: what do you still want to do, above all domestically, before you take your promised retirement?

PM: The key areas are the seeing through of the reform process in the health service and in our schools so that you keep absolutely true to the principle of equality in terms of access to the health service, in terms of equality of opportunity in our education system. But you make that a reality for today’s world. And so that so that people whatever their wealth can gain access to high quality health care, to high quality schooling and don’t have to be wealth to afford the best.

JN: Do you want to make those changes irreversible before you leave office .. or irreversible in the short term anyway?

PM: I want to put a framework in place, yes, that makes it irreversible that gives us the chance to … you say irreversible, look, anyone could come along and take a different policy decision .. but if what you mean is: do I want to put these changes in place in a way that is really bedded down, yes I do, because I think that is important, because I think for example in the health care system, where again there is massive change going on, the fact is it absurd that people can’t get the opportunity to go elsewhere for their health care treatment if the waiting list is full at their local hospital with their local GP.

JN: I think Prime Minister that you know perfectly well what I mean. What I mean is this: that want to make changes of the sort that couldn’t be reversed by a successor very quickly.

PM: Well obviously if you believe in changes you want to see them last. But if you really mean: do I think that Gordon or anyone else is going to turn around and reverse those changes, no, he is fully behind the change programme both in health and education … erm I think it is important to realise that these are not policies simply that I am behind these are policies taken through by the whole government. And the reason we take them through is that they are working. That is why you have had the massive falls in waiting lists. Look in the few years before we came to power, there was a four hundred thousand increase in waiting lists: they have now fallen by three hundred and fifty thousand and they are falling more.

JN: I assume that means you think he will be your successor?

PM: Well, I’ve said what I have said on that on a number of occasions. I am not going to get back into all those statements again, but I think you know rather than talking in code to one another, let’s just be blunt about it: I want to see a situation where the big changes we are now engineering in our public services, yes they are bedded down and then they can be taken through over time and that is important. And it is important because it brings opportunity to people. And it is completely in line with our basic belief in a more just society because if you are … if too big a gulf comes between what people are able to buy in health care and schools and what they perforce have to accept in the state system that is a huge inequality

JN: And not talking in code you are confident that he sees eye to eye with you on those reforms?

PM: Yes I am, as he said during the course of the election. You know, as I say, this is something that has taken through by us together and by the Government collectively together.

JN: Finally, you have just come from a Bill Clinton fest across the other side of New York , he’s got the great and powerful around discussing the future of the world. Is that what you will are going to be doing in three years or two years or 18 months or whatever it is when you have left office?

PM: I haven’t the faintest idea, Jim, and that is not what I am concentrating on. You’ve got to get on with the job at hand and let the future look after itself.

JN: Prime Minister, thank you very much.

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