I’ve been watching the re-run of the BBC documentary series on the history of New Labour (now on the BBC iPlayer, which means normally accessible only to people in the UK) and finding it gripping. It’s partly because it’s an opportunity to re-visit stories that I thought I knew — but now with the 20/20 vision of hindsight realise that I hadn’t known the half of it.
The second episode was particularly gripping. It open with the night of the 1997 election and New Labour’s landslide victory. And then it recounts how Blair and Brown set about governing.
Two things stood out. The first was how assured they were — especially given that none of them had ever served in government. The film shows Gordon Brown arriving at the Treasury, being greeted by the assembled staff and then meeting in his new office with the most senior officials, led by (Sir) Terry Burns.
The officials were clearly expecting a tea-and-biscuits getting-to-know-you sort of meeting. Instead, Brown says to Burns (the Permanent Secretary) that he has a draft letter with him, addressed to the Governor of the Bank of England, informing him that from now on the Bank would be responsible for setting interest Rates! Talk about hitting the ground running.
The other remarkable thing was that Blair came into office determined to sort out Northern Ireland. The senior officials were stunned by this level of ambition. How much did the Prime Minister know about NI asked the Cabinet Secretary. Blair replied primly that his mother was an Irish protestant. The Cabinet Office officials clearly thought that this idea of his was Mission Impossible. They didn’t twig at first that he was deadly serious, and the film did a brilliant job of conveying how determined he was to get a deal between the warring tribes.
And dammit, on Good Friday 1998 he got it. It was a stupendous achievement.
As Mr Naughton points out, if Tony Blair hadn’t taken the UK into the Iraq War in the face of public opposition he would today be hailed as one of the greatest British political leaders of this century, and perhaps the 20th too. As it is, not only did the Iraq War stain him forevermore, but it created a gaping wound within Labour that had never fully healed. And while Blair was able to win the 2005 General Election, that wound would ultimately see him resign a few years later, and then dog Gordon Brown until 2010.