Blair: The Inside Story

Tuesday, February 27, 2007 by

Much as how an entire generation of people grew up under Mrs Thatcher, so an entire generation has grown wise under the present prime minister. Wise to the ways of the world, wise to compromising youthful ideals with the practicalities of getting older and paying the bills, wise to the manner history seeks to recast the events of the past as niftily defined, neatly digestible chunks.

In both cases it’s the same generation. The person who started school the same year Maggie arrived in Downing Street is the same person who left university the year Tony clocked on, and who has just spent a decade, similar to the man who’s about to clock off, trying to define their place in the world. And just as the Blair industry goes into overdrive to find suitable ways to commemorate his 10 years in office, so you’re left wondering where the last decade went and whether, as was the case with Mrs Thatcher, the mood of finality abroad signifies the end of an era or merely the changing of the guard.

If anyone can enlighten us, it’s Michael Cockerell. Having spent almost 20 years crafting political documentaries that filter the passage of events through the perspective of a particular individual, he’s tackling his biggest subject so far. Not just any old member of any old government, but the chief.

Moreover, someone still in power. Usually Michael waits until his quarry is safely into retirement. Not this time; here he’s drawing up the balance sheet for someone who’s still trying to buy political currency, who’s supposedly got only a few months left in Downing Street, but who still refuses to name the day and as such belongs wholly to the present rather than the past.

Cockerell dealt with the early years of Blair’s tenure last week, perfectly recreating that now-eerily euphoric atmosphere which circled around the government in the aftermath of its 1997 victory, then equally effectively explaining when and how those sentiments evaporated away. In this episode, he chose to give over the entire 60 minutes to what, he argued, will be the one issue with which Blair’s stint as prime minister will be forever remembered: his wars.

Regardless of your opinion of the man and his works, the simple statistic that Blair sent British troops into battle five times in six years – more than any of his predecessors since Winston Churchill – is grounds enough for pause for thought. That Cockerell placed this fact alongside footage of Blair proclaiming, mere months after taking office, how “mine is the first generation able to contemplate the possibility that we may live our entire lives without going to war or sending our children to war”, made for a simple yet vivid juxtaposition.

It introduced Cockerell’s main theme: the gulf that has come to separate the substance of Blair’s words from his deeds. It also implied the man was blessed with a capacity for simultaneously embracing romantic generalisations and salty pragmatism. This was a capacity, the programme encouraged you to believe, which grew more profound as time went on, with devastating consequences.

The evidence was compelling; here was where the titular “inside story” showed its hand, as legions of familiar faces from the last 10 years queued up to go on the record about Blair’s wars. John Prescott, demob happy, readily attested to his boss being a man with a mission, seized by a missionary-like zeal to recast the world in his own image. David Blunkett shared a toe-curling treacly story of being inside No 10 when word came through of Slobodan Milosevic’s defeat in the Kosovo war of 1999, and how, flushed by the news, he instructed one of Blair’s sons “to go and hug your dad”.

Former Metropolitan Police Commissioner John Stevens revealed how it was expected an attempt would be made to assassinate Tony Blair during the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations in 2002. Footage duly followed of a steely looking PM attending the commemorations alongside a distinctly nervy-looking John Stevens. Erstwhile UK ambassador to the US Christopher Meyer had some rather less inflammatory indiscretions, including his inability to shake off his impression of Blair and Bill Clinton, when greeting the public together, resembling a tribute act to the Blues Brothers.

It all made for a heady brew of individuals willing to point fingers and settle scores before the ashes of Blair’s rule had even been collected let alone scattered. But likewise jostling for our attention was an equally potent collection of clips: iconic political TV moments from the past decade, re-run for the benefit of Cockerell’s case and his contributors’ vanity.

Here was Blair during the Cool Britannia years in a bike race with other NATO leaders; here he was addressing the nation on how it’s “simply the right thing to do” to go war in Kosovo; there he was striding into the US Congress after the invasion of Iraq to be acclaimed as if he’d just returned from Mars; and there he was, teary-eyed, telling Michael Parkinson how God will exercise judgement over his military prowess.

Pick up any of today’s newspapers and chances are you’ll find a reference somewhere in its pages to how our country is currently in a mood of “transition” or “paralysis” or “inertia” or some such similar adjective. Just as much copy is being generated about the manner in which Blair is leaving his job as what he’ll leave behind. So to encounter as retrospective a series as this, defiantly ushering the prime minister into the annals of history before he’s even out the door, has been a curiously refreshing experience.

That so many appeared willing to contribute is testimony both to the respect in which Cockerell is held, and to the sheer volume of people Blair has managed to variously excite, exile and ex-communicate during his reign. That the series casts such a spell over its viewers, meanwhile, is as much to do with the story as storyteller.

The Blair decade has been an astonishing one, a slow fade from the most inclusive, classless premiership since World War IIto a fiercely divisive beast polarising the country not along class or ideological lines but old-fashioned, almost quaint notions of probity, trust and civility. That this is the fault of one man, Cockerell implies, rather than a particular system of government or set of ideals, is evidence enough that we are now approaching the end of a defiantly tangible era in our history.

To be a prophet without honour in your own country is a curse for subject and citizen alike; to be a leader without honour in your own country is a blessing for as exemplary and sure-footed a documentary maker as Michael Cockerell. Let’s hope that he, for one, is still around the next time Britain gets taken to war.


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