Tony Blair salutes new freedom fighters

SARASOTA -- While visiting Sarasota with his family and doing what most British tourists do -- “got sunburnt the first day” -- former British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Wednesday told a packed house at the Van Wezel that he has also been “in touch with the extraordinary and world-changing events playing out across the globe.”

“Our way of life is the way of the future. People in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen want the same freedoms we have,” Blair offered in a speech for the Ringling College Library Association’s Town Hall lecture series. “There are modern democratic forces there, but they aren’t very well organized.”

Blair said Islamic extremism has been allowed to take hold in the Middle East and in North Africa because the citizens of those countries have been living under dictatorships for so long that “the political energy of the people was siphoned off into deep Islamic beliefs.” Those forces use terrorism to get their way, Blair said.

But with access to technology allowing a view of democracy and uprisings in surrounding countries, those populations are now fighting for freedom and creating unorganized democracies that are yet to be tested.

“It needs to be the norm for people of different cultures, different faiths, to live together, to create security and diplomacy,” Blair said.

In a world going through enormous change so quickly, he said, the United States and the United Kingdom need to stand together as examples of thriving, strong and secure democracies.

The simple test of a country and its way of life, said Blair, is: “Are people trying to get out of it or into it?”

“We all have different traditions and policies, but what unites us is much more fundamental,” Blair said. “We need to keep our alliance strong in a world that is changing so much. In security and the economy we should stick together.”

While he offered his insights on weighty issues, Blair laced his lecture with humor, telling anecdotes about his gaffes as a prime minister and balancing family and political life.

Still, he largely focused on the global issues, the future and the alliance between the United States and Europe, particularly Great Britain.

As the 21st century moves into the second decade, he said, Americans and the people of the UK need to recover the confidence that “we are strong in character and confident enough” to make sure that we are shaping ideas and policies around the economy, security and freedom to create a better world.

One of the great battles of the 20th century was the fight over the ideology of liberals versus conservatives. Now, the great battle must and will be over free trade versus protectionism, Blair said.

Blair, who left his position as prime minister in 2007, also touched on some of the things in his new book “A Journey: My Political Life,” mostly in answer to questions from the audience.

Some asked him for his take on issues like national health care, his opinion on President Barack Obama and former president George W. Bush, his wife’s influence during his 10-year tenure as prime minister, the problem of Somali pirates and his thoughts on his own legacy.