TOPICS > Nation

William Montalbano London Bureau Chief, Los Angeles Times

July 7, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a foreign correspondence, our new occasional series of conversations with correspondents from American news organizations about the places and stories they’re covering. Margaret Warner has tonight’s.

MARGARET WARNER: Our foreign correspondent tonight is William Montalbano, London bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. He’s been in London since 1995. He’s been a foreign correspondent since 1967, reporting from Latin and South America, Asia, and elsewhere in Europe. Welcome, Bill. Tell us about this Tony Blair phenomenon. I mean, what’s London–give us a sense of the atmosphere, the mood in London now that he’s taken over.

WILLIAM MONTALBANO, Los Angeles Times: I think London is on a roll–in some places in London. The economy is very good, and it has attracted many bright, young people from all over the world, lots of entrepreneurs. The Thatcher years reasserted the superiority of the private sector and has made it kind of a go-go place, great music, great fashion. And here comes Tony Blair, a newcomer, a man very much riding the wave. He brought a labor party, which was based on trade unions, from the left into what he calls the radical center, and is part of and now the leader of this bold new London, a Britain that is very much on the move.

MARGARET WARNER: And what kind of style has he brought to governing?

WILLIAM MONTALBANO: He took office after 18 years by the opposition conservative party, and he won an election on the 1st of May, and on the 2nd of May, he took power. The transition team in Britain is a moving van. And by the end of the 2nd of May he had appointed an entire government of ministers who–all of whom were prepared, all of whom who knew more or less in advance what ministries they would represent. And he has gone from there. He expected to win a 40-vote majority in the House of Commons. He got 179. And so the answer–I guess the direct answer to your question, he’s moving very quickly in many different ways in particular areas of priority that he established before he was elected.

MARGARET WARNER: Would you say–is there a generational difference? I mean, in America, if you have a new President who–in Tony Blair’s case, he’s what–the youngest prime minister in 150 years or something–there’s a great fascination in American culture with the youth of this new leader. Is there a similar phenomenon in Britain?

WILLIAM MONTALBANO: There is, and the phenomenon I think extends throughout the society at the moment; that it is a lively place in which young people are making their mark more perhaps than ever. The rigid structures which have always characterized Britain, the class structure, and the pompous–pomposity–we think of as pomposity–they think of as correctness–both of those are breaking down. And it is a much looser place and a much more comfortable place for young people who are, for example, in command now of major newspapers, whereas, in the past, there would have always been older folks.

MARGARET WARNER: And so what do you think–because what you’re saying is Tony Blair is much more a symptom of all these changes, not the cause–tell us a little more about what caused this, what brought this about, this change.

WILLIAM MONTALBANO: I think part of the change was the recognition that Britain had gone too far down the road of a welfare state and it was becoming inefficient, out of touch with economic trends in the 80’s and the 90’s, and it was yanked, rather abruptly and rather uncomfortably away from that by Thatcher. And there are people who will tell you that Tony Blair is Margaret Thatcher’s greatest legacy. And I don’t think Margaret Thatcher would say that. And perhaps neither would Blair. But Britain is a country which seems to me to have discovered itself and is very comfortable with the new image of itself more as a centrist society and more as a modern society.

A function of that has been a fact of the huge opening that Britain has made to the world. It’s impossible now to find a London tax driver who hasn’t been to Disney World. It’s cheaper to go to Disney World often than it is to France because London is such a center–it’s hard to find a major bank in the world without a big office in London. And with that office comes all sorts of expertise and ideas and young people to help run it.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, not for Britain but for Tony Blair, what could burst this bubble, this honeymoon he’s having?

WILLIAM MONTALBANO: Well, the Achilles Heel, of course, is Ireland, and I think it’s fair to say the age of innocence ended in Portadown on Sunday. It–he came in with new ideas, a way of trying to bring some momentum to the peace process which has been moribund since it began 13 months ago; got a lot of good press, a lot of good murmurs, but then the IRA started killing people again, killed two policemen, and the–Ireland is a funny place. It is a place in which Catholics and Protestants will say to you and mean when they say to you that what they really want is peace. And that is the message that Clinton got, for example, when he went there–this very memorable visit in ’95. That’s true when they say that, but what they don’t also say, which is also true, is that they want peace on their terms.

The real secret to understanding Ireland, if there is one, and I don’t pretend to possess it, is to understand that the Irish people in Northern Ireland, both the Protestants and the Catholics, believe in getting their retribution in first. And this is what we’re seeing. They’re unable to come to any sort of accommodation on these marches, and I fear the peace process is going down the tubes.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, you know, you look at these news clips and you see–I don’t know–really the hatred in those faces, the marchers and the rioters or protesters. Does any of that ethnic–that sort of tribal conflict, does it spill over into Britain, or is it just between Catholics and Protestants?

WILLIAM MONTALBANO: No. I think Britain, it’s much less apparent there. The–there is no antagonism that I have been aware of between Catholics and Protestants in Britain, but in Britain there is a very sharp feeling against the Catholic IRA and the IRA’s actions because Britain, itself, what they call the mainland, though it’s still an island, has been so often the victim. It’s a bit spooky to ride through a city and know that at some moment a car or a truck may go off and may explode and kill everybody in the neighborhood, you know, do 50 or 60 or 80 million dollars damage. So there’s a lot of hostility in Britain now to the IRA. A lot of people think that this government, like the major government, has bent over backwards to bring the IRA into peace talks, and they’re not–simply not interested.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, another vestige of the British empire, Hong Kong, was given back last week. How was that reported in London, and how did average Brits that you talk to feel about it?

WILLIAM MONTALBANO: Well, my–my story said that there was more nostalgia than tears. India was for Britain the apogee, jewel of the empire, and that went back in 1947. Since then I think there have been almost 50 other lesser territories in British minds which were returned, and Hong Kong was just one more. I mean, Hong Kong is a great fascination to Britain. It’s a great fascination to the world, but it was not a great emotional issue, at least from what I could see.

MARGARET WARNER: No great pangs of loss of empire?

WILLIAM MONTALBANO: The empire is gone, but you see, the new Britain doesn’t mind that so much. You see, Britain was diminished or felt diminished by the loss of its empire. The new Brits don’t seem to care because there’s so much else going on.

MARGARET WARNER: A new world. And for you, as a foreign correspondent and a foreign correspondent for 30 years, polls even in newspapers here keep saying after the Cold War Americans don’t care about foreign news. How does the end of the Cold War and the non Cold War environment change your job, change the way you report? Does it make it harder for you to sell your stories back home?

WILLIAM MONTALBANO: Well, you know, it used to be that the foreign correspondent’s responsibility was to be the first someplace because there was so much urgency. I mean, the Communists were advancing here, the American government, the American-supported governments were under pressure here. Nowadays I think that the foreign correspondent’s first responsibility is not to be first but to be smartest. And I kind of like that, and I think that, you know, the new era, which is the end of Communism, the end of ideology, the dawn of the information age, gives a foreign correspondent the chance to do the sorts of stories he could never do before because we were out there in the trench coats and bars of the world worrying about where the Commies were coming from. But now I can go out and talk to poets and architects, and I can write about music; I can write about food. And these are the kinds of stories, I think, that people are interested in reading. It’s a whole new world.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, thank you, Bill. It’s interesting having you.

WILLIAM MONTALBANO: Nice to be here. Thank you.