At first sight, the BBC’s series Blair and Brown: the New Labour Revolution would appear to prove the adage that when ambition ends, happiness begins. Peter Mandelson purrs. Ed Balls beams. The air around Neil Kinnock is more redolent of something spicy by Jo Malone than of fire and brimstone. Give it time, though. Some are more peaceable than others. Before the first episode is over, Gordon Brown will indeed utter the words “it could have been me”, as if politics is just another reality show, and he has still not got over the fact that in the public vote, he lost out to a guy with too many teeth.
Tony Blair’s multitudinous incisors, incidentally, continue to mesmerise, though perhaps not quite so much as when they were matched with snow-washed jeans and the kind of political enthusiasm that can only come from not having grown up with the knot of vipers that is the Labour Party. Why, you wonder, did he want to get into politics at all? He presents his epiphany as architecture-induced. Visiting the Palace of Westminster, he gazed at the arches of Central Lobby and… boom! “I’ve got to be here,” he thought. But ambition was soon on the march: sly, fatally incremental, impossible to silence. When Brown decided not to run against John Smith for the leadership in 1992, the scenery, as Mandelson put it, “shifted in Tony’s head”. The spear-bearer now hankered to be the leading man. Quick, fetch the panstick and that gold-trimmed toga.
Given how many thousands of words have already been devoted to analysing New Labour – as I write, Alastair Campbell’s diaries alone run to 63 volumes – I’m amazed to find this series so compelling, a fascination that may have to do, somewhat kinkily, with the fact that it’s also deeply chastening. How shamefully fast one forgets the good stuff. Can the Corbynites’ Year Zero attitude to New Labour have corroded even my centrist soul?
But while these films handle New Labour’s early dynamism with dexterity – I’m two episodes in, and already the Bank of England has its independence, the utility companies have been hit by a windfall tax, and a peace agreement has been signed in Northern Ireland – it’s the small, strange things that linger in the mind: Cherie Blair’s fringe (tufty); Patricia Hewitt’s voice (plummy); that Stephen Byers actually existed (crazy).
How glamorous a certain kind of ruthlessness can be – and how reassuring, too, especially in a crisis. Blair, of course, had a particular gift for identifying crises. “This is enormous doings,” he announced to Anji Hunter, his closest aide, on hearing that Princess Diana had died. According to Hunter, a woman who might have bounced straight out of a narrative poem by John Betjeman, this was a favoured phrase: one that signified, for all that it makes Blair sound like a yokel as played by Ronnie Barker, his sense not only of imminent danger, but also of yawning possibility. The initiative, like a constituent’s hand, must always be seized.
Blair is on camera more than most in this series. Why does he agree to be interviewed? Is it a fear of being talked about that drives him? (Better to put your own side.) Or is it just straightforward neediness? Either way, his presence is felt as a kind of absence. His manner is unnervingly affectless. Unlike others, distance from power has brought him no obvious freedom; he seems more ill at ease now than he ever was as a young man.
And yet, there is a bitter honesty here, too. You’d never know, to hear him, that he was Labour’s most successful leader; that he was the prime minister; that he will never need to worry about money again. What is it that he wants, exactly? What to make of his acrid admission that he is relieved not to have shared in the euphoria on the night of Labour’s 1997 election landslide? (“Because it was never going to last, was it?”) Unlike some, I don’t believe Blair is haunted by Iraq; I don’t attribute his blankness to any feeling that there is blood on his hands. But I do wonder at his state of mind. Some vital part of himself has gone missing: the bit that lots of us liked, and which duly allowed him to like himself.
[see also: BBC drama The North Water is bloody and brutal]
Blair and Brown: The New Labour Revolution
BBC Two, 4 October, 9pm
This article appears in the 29 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spirit of the Age