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Monday, November 19, 2007 

The bash Brown years.

You would have thought, what with Alastair Campbell and although perhaps not by his own consent, but not without his condemnation either, Tony Blair during the Dr David Kelly row attempting to in effect destroy the BBC's independence that they might not view the two in that favourable a light. While the Hutton report continues to cast a shadow across the corporation's current affairs output, Campbell nevertheless had a sycophantic 3-part dramatisation/documentary of his piss-poor diaries produced by BBC2. Now, with only just six months gone since his departure, BBC1 is treating us to the Blair Years, a three-part look back over his tenure which, to judge by the first part last night on the Blair-Brown relationship is going to be similarly unquestioning and toadying to a fault.

The BBC will of course justify the lack of critical rigour in the programmes on the basis that Blair was hardly likely to co-operate with a series that lambasted him as a man who like all other prime ministers before him, fell into the delusion that he was the only one who could force through his "reforms", and who with it shed an inestimable amount of blood. Less easy to justify, if again the first one is anything to go by, is the way in which Gordon Brown is getting it in the neck from all his former enemies, with hardly anyone to defend him from their accusations and scarcely hidden loathing.

More surprising is that Blair and even Campbell are in fact the most magnanimous towards Brown, while the real sniping is left to the Blairites now out on their behinds, left outside of "Stalin's" age of change. Whether this is because of loyalty towards the party, the decision not to make things unnecessarily difficult for Brown or give propaganda to Tories, or out of monetary concern, with Campbell to eventually release an unedited version of his diaries and Blair yet to write his own memoirs it's difficult to tell, but it leaves Blair ironically being one of the very few in the programme to defend Brown. It gives a different side to Blair from the man we thought we knew, but it leaves the portions with him being questioned by friendly Iraq-war supporting hack David Aaronovitch less than thrilling, the platitudes being exchanged only highlighting the lack of interest displayed by Aaronovitch in getting to anything near the truth.

Around the only real criticism of Blair comes right near the beginning, where Lord Butler makes clear his contempt for the sofa-style of government practiced by Blair. It turns out neither Blair or Brown asked the cabinet what they thought about making the Bank of England independent; Blair replied that he knew they'd agree. After that mild ribbing, all the attention turns to Brown, but strangely as the programme went on you gained more and more sympathy for the clunking fist. Blair, for instance, notoriously stole Brown's NHS-funding budget announcement by going on Breakfast with Frost and bringing it up out of the blue, leaving the Treasury officials to do the sums involved at home on a Sunday, having to beg, borrow and steal in order to do so. No one had thought to consult the Treasury; yet Alan Milburn justified it as the right thing to do because of the constant negative press coverage of the NHS which needed to be replied to. Blair denied that Brown shouted at him "you've stolen my fucking budget", but his body language and failure to even look slightly sincere betrayed the reality.

That set the theme: Brown was always the stick in the mud. He objected to foundation hospitals, not according to Milburn again on practical grounds, but due to ideology, as if that somehow made it worse. The New Labour project, famously shorn and lacking in any principles or guiding background, held up thanks to Brown's daring to think of something as dispensable as dogma! Tuition fees was history repeating; Brown and his allies (Ed Balls was mentioned) plotted and conspired in the background, while the noble Blairites who were breaking the manifesto promise not to introduce top-up fees were only doing what was right and needed. Two of the Labour rebels on both policies popped up to say how if Brown didn't come out with his opposition, everyone knew full well what he thought and that his friends were themselves organising the opposition, with the programme implying this somehow amounted to high treason. One of the most unsympathetic Blairites, the whip Hilary Armstrong, voiced her belief that it was all more or less down to Brown. When the tuition fees rebellion got out of hand, with almost everyone believing the government was about to lose, it was only then that Brown and friends starting urging those they had previously encouraged to vote against to turn again. The only really new piece of information was that Blair confirmed he would have resigned had the vote been lost; in the event, they won by six votes, and Brown again had "bottled" it.

Thing is, on almost all these things that so angered the Blairites, Brown was right. To go on a television programme and announce a policy that the chancellor had long been planning just to turn the headlines, without even informing him of what you were about to do, is about as low as you can sink. Foundation hospitals, a pet project of Blair and Milburn's desire to force through change for the sake of it rather than for actual practical reasons were toned down from their initial incarnation thanks to Brown's opposition. A graduate tax, the policy that Brown offered instead of top-up fees, was far fairer and more egalitarian than having to pay over £3,000 a year up front through loans, which the well-off could pay immediately while everyone else was left with the debt hanging over them, the system which tuition fees introduced. Frank Field's sacking, a man much more at home with the Conservatives, over his intentions to chop welfare to the bone after his appointment by Blair, was more than welcome. Most of all, Blair had promised Brown that he would go at the end of his second term. When he decided that he was in fact going to stay on "to drive through his reforms", Brown was more than justified in telling Blair that he could never believe a single word he said again, even though the country at large had already long before came to that conclusion.

Instead, Blair was presented as having to put up with Brown's moods, sulking and general surly behaviour. Geoffrey Robinson was around the only former minister who contributed who was so much as slightly sympathetic towards Brown. Never was it suggested that Blair wasn't receptive towards Brown and that he had a right to have a say; something denied almost anyone other than a believer in the necessity of Blairism. You kept waiting for Hazel Blears or Tessa Jowell to pop up to fill the quota for gormless and hapless keepers of the faith. For them to feign anger when the "September coup" was brought up, as if Blair's hanging on for his own vanity's sake wasn't hugely damaging both the government and the Labour party, was the final straw.

Next week we're treated to Iraq, and how George 'n' Tony simply had to invade Iraq. If it's anywhere near as one-sided as last night's Tony show, expect it to end at the "mission accomplished" part.

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