TONY Blair has issued a vehement defence of New Labour’s immigration policy during his decade as Prime Minister, insisting the arrival of large numbers of people from overseas during the 2000s has been “good for Britain”.
In a rare appearance in Westminster at a lunch of political journalists, the former Labour leader said immigrants have been a force for good in British society and suggested he had no regrets about failing to limit immigration from eastern Europe following the expansion of the European Union.
Mr Blair went on to warn that any discussion of leaving the EU is “dangerous” and “immensely damaging” to the UK, and dismissed UKIP as “the party of scapegoating, not solutions”.
In a wide-ranging question-an-answer session, the 59-year-old also refused to rule out a return to frontline politics in the future, but insisted he is “not aiming for it, wanting it or positioning for it”.
His intervention on immigration comes just days after the current Labour leader, Ed Miliband, made a major speech on immigration in which he criticised aspects of New Labour policy.
Mr Blair warned the Doncaster North MP that it is a topic he should “handle with care”.
The former Prime Minister said: “As a matter of principle, my party leader is always right.
“But I just want to say very emphatically – and I’m sure, by the way, that Ed would fully agree with this – that the type of politics that ends up with scapegoating people, not solutions, is not a politics that appeals to me.
“Someone said the other day I’m out of touch with people on this... I’m not out of touch on this, I know exactly how they feel.
“But the fact is immigrants have contributed a lot to our country.
“There are real issues, we should deal with those issues, but in the end I think the politics that says the problem that Britain has is to do with immigration, I personally think it is not correct.”
Mr Blair said immigration is now a question for “every major country” in the western world and that Mr Miliband was therefore “absolutely correct” to address the issue and set out what action he would take.
But he said the issue must be dealt with carefully to avoid polarising the debate.
“I think it can very quickly spill out what I think is just a false view, that immigration is our problem,” Mr Blair said.
“People look back and say maybe you should have done more to restrict particularly eastern European immigration. I look back on that, and you can have a debate about it, but I think personally the Polish community brings a lot to this country.”
Immigration was just one of a number of subjects touched upon by the former Prime Minister.
“I think talk of leaving is dangerous, and immensely damaging to Britain’s long-term interests.
“I think the UK has an opportunity to play a part in shaping the new Europe and we should seize it, and we should neither have an empty chair, nor empty gestures.
“I remain absolutely emphatically in favour of this country playing its full part in shaping the Europe of the future.”
“Of course it has to be controlled, and illegal immigration has to be tackled head-on. It’s important that we do that.
“But overall I would like to say that I think immigration has been good for Britain. Most immigrants have assimilated well. So don’t make them a scapegoat for our problems.”
On climate change
“Changing weather patterns globally make it absolutely essential that we take action on it.
“It should be part of our economic recovery, so that we’re trying to create new jobs and new industries and technology around it. “It should not be a casualty of the financial and economic crisis.”
On being Prime Minister
“One of the most extraordinary questions I get asked in different parts of the world now is, ‘Don’t you miss Prime Minister’s Questions?’
“The answer is emphatically not.”
On fresh trouble in Northern Ireland
“These processes always require working on, and you should never take them for granted.
“But I do keep in touch with people in Northern Ireland, and I think and hope this is a very small minority. What it means is you redouble your efforts.”
On the Leveson report
“I basically agree with the Leveson report. The most important thing that comes out of this is something that’s independent of government, Parliament and media. How you do that, I’m kind of open-minded about – but that’s what’s got to come out of it.”
On council services
“Inevitably there’s going to be a huge amount of change. It’s important we protect investment that is investment in our future, but anyone providing services today is going to have to find new and imaginative ways of doing it.”
On the rise of UKIP
“The UKIP phenomenon will garner a lot of protest votes. But they are a party built on scapegoating, not solutions. I don’t think our problem is Europe, or foreigners. I would be very hesitant about trading policy with UKIP, because I think frankly when you analyse what they’ve got to offer it’s a cul-de-sac.”
On a return to politics
“Of course I don’t rule it out. But I’m not aiming for it, wanting it, positioning for it or any of the rest, and I doubt it’s ever going to happen. And the Presidency of Europe is gone – Mr van Rompuy is doing it.”