'Blair & Brown: The New Labour Revolution' (BBC2)
The success or otherwise of literary adaptation to a different medium is a familiar trope of film and television criticism. Increasingly, however, television is beginning to reverse the challenge: specifically, how on earth should a well-known or presently established writer render a documentary in the format of a novel? Even before a pen could hit the page, a problem would immediately present itself. Whilst there is no shortage of adaptations of the novels of Tolstoy, sadly the Tolstoy of War and Peace
and Anna Karenina
is no longer with us.
Which brings us to the BBC's five-parter about the New Labour project and the record of its most well-known protagonists in government. Critics (and cynics) have said the series – which takes the form of a sequence of exquisitely edited post facto
interviews with 'insiders', spliced with original footage from the period – offers little by way of new information. But the epic personal sweep of the tale, which was left in the hands of those interviewed rather than a narrator, made for absolutely compelling viewing.
As well as the large supporting cast of those closest to the action at the time, there was also the extensive testimony of Blair and Brown themselves. The programme did not merely add rich colour to what we already knew (or thought we knew) but revealed the implications of that knowledge, so that by the end of the final instalment some viewers would have been left crying out not so much for an impartial observer as for a deus ex machina
The commonplace interpretation of the Blair/Brown years as a decade of psychodrama does little justice to the large impact both had on the governance of the UK and its public culture. Not that the series shrank from an examination of the increasingly corrosive nature of this most famous of double acts in post-war British history.
Older if not wiser, Blair had lost little of his titanic self-regard which is so effectively disguised by an aura of beguilingly earnest plausibility. On the other side, a deeply un-mellowed Brown continued to bear out Thornton Wilder's observation in The Eighth Day
that 'Scotland is heavily populated with Saturns'. Of the two, Blair was the more willing to cut the other some slack, whereas Brown was simply incapable of disguising his profound jealousy of a man he clearly considers his intellectual inferior, but who nonetheless bested him to the leadership of the Labour Party and won three elections in a row. Not even his own occupation of Number 10 has given Brown a more charitable perspective of his predecessor.
Blair's essential narcissism was corroborated even by some of his closest lieutenants: there was Alastair Campbell's incredulous recollection of his boss bounding in to declare 'I've worked out how to do Ireland', and Jonathan Powell's calm memory of the Prime Minister's messiah complex, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Even the notionally impartial Cabinet Secretary Sir Richard Wilson struggled to reframe Blair's self-obsession as 'pushing the boundaries of his own achievement', and admitted that 'there was a much bigger element of ego in Blair' than in his predecessor Margaret Thatcher. Brown's insistent, virtue-signalling pitch of himself as the much sounder moral conscience of New Labour was, however, simply bogus, while his failure to acknowledge Blair's electoral success as a pre-requisite of his own achievements was worse than churlish.
Yet, to adopt another medium, if Blair & Brown: The New Labour Revolution
worked very well as a series of miniatures, it lacked the depth of a portrait. There was little comment on the key events of those years (with the exception of the Iraq war) and certain instances (such as the UK's demurral to join the Euro) were presented simply as analogues of the growing mutual antagonism between Blairites and Brownites.
Some episodes, such as the aftermath of the Good Friday agreement, were just left hanging. The contributions were dominated by those of the 'special' advisers and other unelected courtiers, all with their own little axes to grind and none accountable to any save the bosses who appointed them. By the end, one almost felt sorry for Brown, at the height of the 2008 financial crisis, subjected to the importunate 24/7 yapping of 'Spads', some of whom clearly thought their own tiny part in the big picture was on a par with the whole.
Tellingly, there were very few contributions from the Cabinet colleagues of either man, nor any from church or other civic leaders. If Brown's policy of tax credits were as transformative as he claimed, we only had his word and that of his claque for it, and the views of the ordinary citizen were conspicuous by their absence.
What was clear, however, was that Blair's determination 'to achieve a radical transformation of the public realm' did not just founder on his own lack of attention to detail, but was actively thwarted by the socialist coterie with Brown at its centre, and which believed that the only things of worth to the citizenry were those that the State was prepared to give to them. The words 'choice' and 'aspiration' were emphatically not in the Brownite play-book.
Who could have captured these remarkable years in the form of a novel? Trollope might have wrestled unsuccessfully with the obvious shallowness of many of the protagonists, although Dickens would have captured the bathos and unintentional humour behind all the earnest high-mindedness. Anthony Powell would certainly have identified the Widmerpools, of which there were quite a few in the massively expanding political 'class'. They even had obligingly Powellish names like Benjamin Wegg-Prosser. But would Forster and Greene have coped with such a cast of characters, of whom far too many thought their motives were pure and their redemption in the bag?
Instead, we have ended up with the turgid monologue of Alastair Campbell's diaries when what we really need is a Waugh, who surely would have skewered the many feet of clay on display and shown that the New Labour 'project' was ultimately brought low by vanity and folly.
But then again, Waugh was writing about grown-ups and for grown-ups, and neither he nor the other leaders of the canon are any longer with us. By contrast, the BBC's 'take' on the New Labour years seemed much more of a piece with the late teen passions and illusions of young adult fiction. For in the terms of our political culture, there was much to suggest in the Beeb's series that the Blair and Brown years were entirely regressive.
Through the sub-Blairite confection of the Cameron years, the culture has been steadily infantilised via Corbyn and May, and is now in the hands of Johnson, a man who gives a powerful impression of being someone who wishes that they never had to grow up. As Harold Wilson said of Tony Benn, 'He immatures with age', so the same could be said of the current state of British democracy. In that sense, Blair & Brown: the New Labour Revolution
really did nail the zeitgeist.
Jonathan Cobb studied History at Edinburgh University. He held a commission in the British Army until 1988, after which he pursued a career in investment management. He was awarded the Ministry of Defence Bertrand Stewart Award and received the Bloomberg/Daily Express International Fund of the Year Award in 1997. He now lives and writes in East Lothian