Before former British Prime Minister Tony Blair took the stage on Feb. 23 to give a lecture at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, strains of music could be heard over the din of the crowd. It was not announced whether the tunes had been preselected by the Right Honorable Mr. Blair or were just a general amalgamation of British Invasion tracks deemed suitable for the occasion by organizers. But hearing the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” was certainly unexpected — if not downright discordant. While it could have been a sign that Blair’s lecture would be a touch out-of-tune, the presentation outlining his visions for the future was anything but.
The talk was part of Ringling College of Art and Design’s Town Hall Lecture Series, a function in its 30th year of operation that benefits the college’s library association. Previous speakers this year have included Greg Mortenson, co-author of the 2008 first-year book Three Cups of Tea, and conservative commentator George Will. With tickets for the series ranging from $200 to $600 and the Van Wezel being nearly filled to capacity for Blair’s morning lecture (his evening lecture was sold out), the event surely raised a pretty penny. In addition, the presentation was sponsored by a slew of corporate donors. One donor singled out was a hotel: attendees learned that Blair and his family stayed at the Longboat Key Club and Resort while in town, a property where rooms regularly start at $575 a night.
Blair was sharply dressed in a dark suit and a red tie symbolizing his former role as leader of the Labour Party, whose color is red. He won the crowd over immediately with a few self-effacing remarks. “It’s amazing how nice people are to you once you stop being prime minister,” he said to laughs from the crowd. “We’ve done all the things that the British do here, like get sunburned on the first day.”
After the niceties, he dove into his speech on the state of the world’s affairs. “If I had to define the way the world works today, I would say that it is interconnected like never before,” Blair explained. “You see this with what is happening out in the Middle East at the moment, which doesn’t just have an impact televisually but of course is making an impact on oil prices and therefore to our standard of living. The financial crisis in 2008 was the first demonstration of the fundamental nature of that interconnectedness in terms of the global economy. Suddenly this name that no one, frankly, in the U.K. had heard of — Lehman Brothers — was everywhere. As I got up to go to my car to go to work that morning, this guy who recognized me stopped me in the street and said, ‘Who are these brothers, anyway?’”
Blair’s initial speech lasted around 25 minutes, covering topics from the rise of China (“The population of China is increasing every year by the same amount as the entire population of the U.K.,” he noted) to how recent events have caused the developed world to rethink things once held true.
“The events of the past few years have also put us in the West in a position where, I think, we feel under immense pressure,” he said. “The economic crisis has somehow weakened our own belief in our own system of the market economy. Governments are under fire and pressure like never before. In foreign policy […] we see beset by forces who are immensely difficult to control and whose desire to push against us seems almost unstoppable. Therefore, the danger in the West is that all of these events […] will seduce us into a loss of confidence — a belief that maybe our way of life that we take for granted and believe in is somehow not the way of the future. My message to you is very simple: our way of life is the way of the future and we should have far more confidence in it.”
Following the speech, Blair took preselected questions from the audience, ranging from his opinions on former president George W. Bush (“He really is a nice guy,” he said) to if the U.S. could learn anything from the U.K’s current coalition government where Labour is in opposition (“No, not really,” he said while smiling).
Though Blair is formally out of politics, the entire event still maintained a politicized air, as some of the lines in his remarks sounded straight out of policy speeches. Overall, the crowd seemed to enjoy the presentation well enough, welcoming the opportunity to hear the thoughts of someone who for a time was arguably the second most powerful man on Earth.