Technology is key to combatting the surge in populism in the West that has led to both the election of US President Donald Trump and Brexit, according to former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Speaking at Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal, yesterday, Blair argued that technology’s world-changing potential created a host of policymaking opportunities that could combat the growth of populism.

“I believe ultimately, the answer to these populist challenges and to the rehabilitation of the West as a place of values, and decency, and good politics and the future lies in the cooperation between technology and the world of policymakers,” explained Blair, now executive chairman of the Institute for Global Change and head of the Tony Blair Global Institute.

He argued that the current rise of populism was the result of an atmosphere of pessimism, which technology had the potential to change significantly.

“For me, the single most important thing is for the type of politics that I represent, which is on the progressive centre left side, is for us to take this technological revolution and weave it into a narrative of optimism about the future,” he said.

“Because in the end the populism, whether it’s the election of Donald Trump in the US, Brexit in the UK, if you look at European politics, the same strands of populism – left and right, actually – that are occurring, populism exploits pessimism.

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“When people are pessimistic about the future, they look for people to blame. If you’re optimistic about the future, you’re looking for the opportunities. And I’m actually optimistic about the future because I think this technology revolution will yield enormous benefits if we manage it correctly.”

Tony Blair on turning technology into a catalyst for optimism

Despite his belief in the potential of technology to change the political narrative, Blair does acknowledge that it needs to be appropriately implemented for this to happen.

“We need to manage it; we need to handle it; we need to think imaginatively about it. But this is why for me the key to defeating the populism is around this technology question,” he said.

Giving a number of examples of how technology could improve the lives of regular people, Blair made the case for it being a potentially life-transforming tool.

“When I look at the constituents I used to represent in the north of England, in respect of healthcare, I can see how much you can change their lives. In respect of education, I can see how much you can change their lives. In respective transport, even law and order, I can think of whole ways we can reimagine the welfare system, the pension system,” he said.

“Through the use of technology, I can see government having a completely different interaction with the citizen as a result of technology. I can see, for example, how an electronic and biometric identity can allow us to resolve some of the challenges around immigration.

“So in each of these areas, I see technology as the way – if we don’t just let it happen, but if we applied values and reason, and rational analysis and good policymaking – I can see how this technological revolution can be turned into that narrative of optimism.”

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