“To the historians … the life of Blair was simply too good to be true. No more satisfying historical model existed than the great man who, achieving extraordinary triumphs through his own efforts, yet fell from power and influence and, in the end, was murdered through treachery. He was a hero …., who seemed once to hold the …world in his palm only to be brought low by his own weak judgment and Brown.”
This is not in fact a pre-emptive life of Tony Blair, but comes from the Wikipedia entry for Pompey Magnus, with Blair as Pompey and Brown as Julius Caesar. The context is how history treats the once-great.
Michael Cockerell’s three-part documentary on Tony Blair ended last night. Those aspiring to make documentaries should be force-fed Cockerell’s work and not just for the intelligent, balanced comment. Shots are run for long enough to have meaning, without frenetic jumps so we can absorb the point and hear what interviewees have to say; the commentary is crisp, non-patronising and without the (apparently deliberate) repetition which is inflicted on us by nearly all television today; the music is used sparingly and aptly, not just aural wallpaper but carefully-chosen to fit the context.
Blair will not, I think complain at the picture painted of him. Most of the content concerned triumph or disaster, and Blair is good on those big occasions, whether scripted, like his last conference speech, or ad hoc like his reaction to the London bombings. One reason why he comes across well on those occasions is that he speaks like the educated British gentleman he is. Because of their context, none of the clips showed him doing his celebrated impersonation of a Canvey Island DJ which (like Patricia Hewitt’s painfully acquired layer of 1950s schoolmarm diction) implicitly signals that the content is as false as the accent.
“Always be sincere, whether you mean it or not “
Like him or loathe him (and I am firmly in the latter camp) you cannot deny his qualities on occasions like these. They are actorly qualities, however, political only in that politics is a stage. “Always be sincere” as Michael Flanders said “whether you mean it or not”. And that is the problem. Blair is so patently insincere in so much of what he says, that moments of true conviction are met with a cynicism which he appears unable to comprehend.
If Cockerell’s programme intended to show the rounded picture, it fell short in one major respect. This is inevitable – you cannot cover ten years in three hours without omissions – but the bits left out are the bits whose omission Blair will be grateful for. There was nothing on the hum-drum failures.
We saw education as the close-run battle over top-up fees, not as a wasted decade of rigged targets, semi-literate school-leavers, the betrayal of special needs children in the name of inclusivity, or under-supported teachers grappling with discipline with one hand tied behind their backs. Estelle Morris’s complaint about the endless stream of “initiatives” handed down to her department made a generic point, not one specific to education.
The NHS failures appeared only in a clip of Patricia Hewitt being booed by nurses, with nothing about the incongruity of her empty boast about the “best year ever for the NHS” or the background of rigged waiting lists, cancelled operations, filthy hospitals, unemployed doctors, emigrating nurses, failed IT schemes or any of the other reasons why Hewitt was booed. Nor, come to that, was there anything on why New Labour is so devoid of talent that Hewitt is employed in any capacity, let alone as a secretary of State.
We were shown Charles Clarke under siege over foreign prisoners, but there was nothing on how a Prime Minister who came to power claiming to be “tough on crime” presides, ten years later, over a country in which routine, debilitating crime increases at the same rate as civil liberties are eroded, so that ordinary law-abiding citizens are treated as criminals whilst real criminals go free.
Michael Cockerell was right to focus on the salient points of Blair’s 10 years. Over the longer term, however, these are not the things which will shape history’s perception of his period of office. Longer term historical perspectives tend to flatten out most of the highs and lows.
I am reading about Pompey at the moment, in Tom Holland’s riveting Rubicon. If Pompey is remembered now, it is for being defeated and killed by Julius Caesar – that is, he appears merely as a stepping-stone in Caesar’s rise. Yet he conquered the world from Spain to furthest Asia, earning his title Magnus – the Great – for a mixture of military prowess, magnanimity in victory, political skill, and business acumen.
There are differences of course: Pompey was a logistical and administrative genius who followed his plans through to completion. In Holland’s words, he “demonstrated that the concerns of business could be squared with the ideals of the senatorial elite” and he saw to it that “bureaucracy was no longer to be uninhibitedly laissez faire”. Blair is bored by the need to follow up and initiative, and couldn’t manage a pub quiz; his dealings with business are by turns uncomprehending, sub-servient and apparently tawdry; bureaucracy has become an expensive end in itself.
The point of the Pompey reference is not just to compare a figure from the past with one who “was the future once” as David Cameron put it, but to anticipate what history will say.
References to past prime ministers – Thatcher, Wilson, Callaghan – become short-hand for the defining characteristics of their periods, which over-ride the main achievements or disasters. Key events – Iraq for example – will be remembered, but the rest will be a generalised picture of unfulfilled promise and broken promises, of corruption and patronage, high taxation and declining public services, an era in which a man who could have done so much stood by as health, education, transport, pensions, law and order and civil liberties went down the pan, before being knifed in the back by his successor.
Pompey may have failed in the end, but he did everything he set out to do on the way. His ambition and his abilities were a match for each other, and his achievements were mighty. But still he is remembered as a defeated man, knifed in the back by his own side. Memory’s shorthand for Blair will be of the man who squandered opportunity.
Michael Cockerell’s television biography is likely to be as good as it gets for Tony Blair’s memory.