I’ve been watching Blair and Brown: The New Labour Revolution on BBC iPlayer and I can’t get enough of the silences.
Tony Blair says his piece, the camera lingers and we get to watch his face as he replays it all in his head. The words, the gestures, the phrases. Did it come out as he intended? How would it be spun? Did we hear his truth?
Tony Blair is obsessed about his truth. He’s desperate for us to keep believing what he used to say, that “he’s a pretty straight guy’.
But since the Iraq War there’ve been doubts. Every word, gesture and phrase is gone over for flippancy or regret or deceit.
We heard a lot less from Gordon Brown and what we heard was more guarded. He too seems intent on shaping his legacy, shutting down talk of his fundamental flaws and banishing and suggestion of an inner anger. Writing in The Times Daniel Finkelstein doubts him:
“the contributions of Brown to the programme seemed on repeated occasions to be epically dishonest. His ridiculous contention that he wasn’t really in a position to contribute to decision-making over Iraq, for instance. Or his amazing assertion that he wasn’t agitating for Blair to stand down after 2005. However, I suspect this was him deceiving himself as much as anything”
As an epitaph on Brown and New Labour “Epically dishonest” seems pretty accurate. If John Major’s government had the hint of sleaze about it, the accusation levelled at New Labour was all about spin.
It’s naive to say that spin began with New Labour or that before Brown and Blair, politicians were above reproach. The bare faced liar of my generation was Bill Clinton but every generation had one. Maybe yours was Richard Nixon or John Profumo or Anthony Eden.
The difference with New Labour was that there seemed to be an intent to deliberately spin or mislead. Profumo, Clinton and many others lied when the net was drawing in and they were afraid of getting caught. But New Labour seemed to think it was just part of the game. They blamed the media for savaging Neil Kinnock and damaging Labour’s electoral chances, and seemed to think that made spinning ok.
So, throughout the documentary two or three of the major players are shown footage of themselves saying something on the television from their time in government. Reflecting now they seem quite happy to admit that they lied. None of the examples are big, none made them rich through fraud or won an election through duplicity but nonetheless they said one thing while knowing the opposite was true.
Today those same people, particularly Alistair Campbell, explode with rage at the loose way that Boris Johnson handles the truth but their condemnation is hollow— they played the game and played it well, it comes over as sour grapes to complain that others have learnt the rules.
The documentary builds up to the Iraq War dedicating an entire episode to it. The great debate will forever be over whether Tony Blair lied to parliament and the country in the events running up to that war.
For what it’s worth I have time for Tony Blair, I believe he is earnest when he says he was trying to do the right thing and I can understand the conviction with which he went to war having seemingly done the right thing in every preceding engagement he’d been involved in from Kosovo to the initial attacks on the Taliban. He was a product of the post Cold War sense that having broken Communism we had a moral duty to lead people to the same sunlit uplands we enjoyed. But I believe too that he had a messiah complex and that he probably enjoyed the stardust that came with partnering with America and that that blinded him to reality of what he was getting involved in.
You may have a very different view of this. You may have marched against the war with your Tony B.Liar placard and feel vindicated by your decision to do so. Either way, it’s hard to argue that New Labour, for fair means or foul, deliberately overemphasised certain things to persuade people of the rightness of their cause. You can call it lying or you can call it spin or you can call it persuasive politics but they weren’t straight up with people and the consequence was (and is) that people felt lied to and doubt the veracity of the things they hear from authority, to this day.
Today we argue about everything. Covid. Vaccines. Brexit. Petrol. The climate. Even the battles we thought were over are being fought again and again. How do you find solid ground to fight on when you’re arguing with a flat earther? Give it a go. Try arguing with a sceptic. Tell them to trust politicians or media or books or experts or even the evidence of their own eyes and you know what you’ll get back. But if you you can’t trust the government, or the media or the news on your Facebook or the words of the chief medical officer or the BBC or your doctor or your teacher, who can you trust?
I loved watching Blair and Brown: The New Labour Revolution but for all the talk I wasn’t absolutely sure what they were proud of actually having done. Sure Start has been abolished. New Labour’s centrist leaders were followed by Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn. Civil Partnerships have been replaced by David Cameron’s Equal Marriage reforms. And as for Blair’s determination to play a stronger role in the EU, you might have heard something about that since his day.
The one mark they made is their attitude to truth. Reshaping the story, repackaging the facts, getting hold of the narrative. They left their mark on truth and what we can trust, and that’s left a mark on the country.