- Geoff Mulgan
Blair, Brown and the judgements of history – some thoughts on the recent TV series
Updated: Nov 17, 2021
I’ve just finished watching the fascinating TV series on Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, screened on BBC. I’m one of the handful of people who worked for both of them. I was chief adviser to Gordon Brown (1990-92) worked in various roles in government for Tony Blair, including as head of the Policy Unit and head of the Strategy Unit (1997-2004), and I almost went to work for Gordon when he became Prime Minister in 2007 (my draft contract described me as ‘adviser on the government’s strategic direction’ – though in the end I didn’t take the job up because I feared the government didn’t quite have a strategic direction).
The series tells the story of a long period of my life. It’s well made, with excellent interviews, and is about as good as a television account of recent political history can be. Indeed, no other medium could capture the subtleties of voice and expression that make the interviews so fascinating.
But it’s flaws are as interesting as its strengths and it raises the question of how TV could do better at making sense of recent history. Some of its flaws were ones of perspective:
Too Blairite: this was very much the Blairite account, reflecting the views of the series’ main journalist advisers who are ultra-Blairite. The benefit of that was a very thoughtful interview with Blair himself. The downside was little hint of more critical perspectives. which was odd given how controversial a figure Blair still is (more on that later).
Too media obsessed: the series has a disproportionate focus on media/press people: journalists are most fascinated by the people who deal with journalists, which over-emphasises dramatic events and communications and under-emphasises slower but usually more important processes of change.
But its main weaknesses went deeper.
Lacking analysis: the most fundamental weakness of the series was the absence of analysis or historical perspective. From the vantage point of 2021, it’s odd that it said nothing on the big questions that historians are already focused on. One, rather big one, is capitalism. Blair essentially saw capitalism as working fine, needing just a few tweaks. Both Blair and Brown had such regard for bankers that they appointed several to run important commissions on health and social policy. After 2007/8 every part of that position became untenable, both intellectually and politically, which was one of the reasons for Labour’s later shift to the left.
Another glaring absence was climate. I worked on the first carbon reduction strategies in the early 2000s which helped the UK to achieve the best record of any G7 country over the last generation, and to become the world leader in offshore wind. This was never of much interest to Blair, Mandelson etc. But again, it seems remarkable not to mention it in the very month of COP26.
No numbers. One of the reasons the series paid so little attention to these more fundamental patterns of change is that it was made by, and focused on, people whose metier is words. There were no numbers, no charts, no diagrams and so no assessment of what happened to the numbers. This is quite common but also quite anachronistic: in general, the media have become much better at handling statistics in the last few years.
No taking stock: as a result, the series ends with no taking stock, whether of big successes (like reducing poverty or reviving public services) or big failures (like misjudging migration or financial regulation). It covers the errors around Iraq well but offers no insights into why politics in the 2010s and 2020s was so different from what the principals expected.
Indeed, it's striking that literally none of the interviewees had anything interesting to say on this – the world of Brexit, Trump and Johnson, of stagnant productivity and incomes. It’s as if history stopped in 2010.
Even on its core ground, the dynamics of the relationship between Blair and Brown, the series is better on description than diagnosis. I always thought their tensions were on balance healthy, though a constant aggravation. They saved each from mistakes - not least GB saving the not-so-economically-literate TB (and Peter Mandelson) from joining the Euro too early, which would probably have made Blair’s a one-term administration (this rather important point isn't mentioned). And, to the extent that the series mentions any of the ideological issues, it focuses on arguments between TB and GB on issues such as choice and academy schools which in historical perspective will look much less important than they did at the time. As description the series is brilliant. As analysis it’s not.
I’ve always tried to stay out of books and programmes like this, partly for fear of being typecast and partly because I preferred to think of myself as a backroom person. I wrote one long piece on lessons from government (which looks fairly accurate 16 years later) and one piece on Blair when he left office, focused on his brilliant capture of the UK establishment and centre ground (I’m told he hated the piece, though I think its judgements have aged fairly well).
20 years on I’m proud to have been part of what was achieved in that period. I’ve great admiration for both Blair and Brown, and was lucky to get to know them well before they had any power. If it hadn’t been for Iraq, the Blair/Brown era would look in retrospect like a golden age of steady economic growth, social progress, sharp cuts in poverty, serious steps on the environment, constitutional reform and active internationalism. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking what an extraordinary drop in calibre British politics has seen since then. But, more than a decade on, a series about them should have tried harder to make sense of things and to be intelligently critical.
So the series is definitely worth watching. But it’s as interesting for what it doesn’t say as for what it does. And it raises the question of how TV could do more analytic takes on recent events – or whether it is inevitably stuck in the ‘just one damned thing after another’ school of history.