John Rentoul: Why it's not too soon to study Blair
Thursday 29 January 2009
It was 19 months ago that Tony Blair left office with a quizzical, "That is that; the end", and yet it feels like a different era. His government already seems to have moved from current affairs to history. Just as well, really, because Queen Mary, University of London, has launched a course on the Blair government for final-year history students. It is an unusual venture, bringing contemporary history right up to date, and building on the tradition established by Peter Hennessy, the department's leading professor, of historical inquiry based on primary sources and first-person testimony.
As one of those teaching the course, I was unsure what to expect of the students. I thought the subject might attract political enthusiasts who wanted to argue about the Iraq war, but, of the 13 in the class, only one was emphatically anti-Blair. At our first seminar, I canvassed their views, so I knew what I was up against, and this student's criticism was that Blair had become obsessed with his legacy and had neglected domestic challenges. Another, who had been "very anti", said that now that he compared Blair with Gordon Brown, he found himself "respecting Blair a bit more".
Two more students found it difficult to offer an overall verdict, positive or negative, not because they had no views but because they were aware, with a rigorous sense of academic detachment, of the arguments for and against. At the other end of the spectrum, one student declared himself "quite a fan", saying he had signed up for the course partly because he wanted to argue Blair's case with more knowledge.
The remaining eight felt positive towards Blair to varying degrees. Interestingly, this had less to do with specific policies than with his consummate skills as a politician, and not just his communications technique but the way he shaped the landscape and forced the Conservative Party to change. That, of course, is a measure of a leader's historical significance – just as the Tory party accommodated itself to Attlee's postwar settlement, and Blair himself marked Labour's accommodation to Thatcherism. And to those critics that might say that it is too early to make those kinds of historical judgements of the Blair years, I would say that, on the contrary, the passage of time erodes our collective memory just as much as it lends us perspective.
What impressed me about the students was that they were all able to explain and defend their points of view, while being open-minded. One said: "I quite like him, but I think my mind could be changed." Contrarian that I am, I immediately took that as a challenge.
I could make a start by getting these students to look again at their perception of Blair as a conviction politician. The phrase "strong convictions" came up more than once in our discussion; most disagreed with him on Iraq, but one said, "I respect his absolute conviction, that he believed it was right". I was aware that, for these students, Blair is the dominant model of what a prime minister consists of, just as Thatcher was for my generation, but it was only when one student said he was 10 years old when Blair came to power, that I realised that, for third-year undergraduates, Blair is almost wholly defined by his post-9/11 persona. They see him as a global statesman who defied domestic and world opinion for what he believed was right.
Yet, for those of us for whom 1997 was the culmination of a process rather than a creation myth for the beginning of one, Blair was an all-things-to-all-people big-tenter for much longer than he was a leader with "complete inner confidence in the analysis of the struggle we face" – a quotation from Blair's Pebble Beach, California, speech of August 2006 that horrifies Professor Hennessy.
Perhaps I'll set them an exam question like: "9/11 was the moment that Tony Blair was waiting for. Discuss."
The writer is chief political commentator for 'The Independent on Sunday', and a visiting fellow at Queen Mary, University of London
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