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“Literally the Lennon and McCartney of the Labor Party.” You can argue with the ‘literally’ controversy in this statement of Tony Blair’s speechwriter Douglas Alexander, but Blair and Brown looks like one of the endless music documentaries where there used to be hunks, which are now like little characters in the Lord of the Rings franchise, reminiscent of their biggest hits.
Blair seems separate, and it seems quite sincere when he talks about the ‘deep love that no dispute could ever erase’ he feels for Brown. The story begins in 1983 as Labor leader Michael Foot stumbles to an election defeat and the party loses 60 seats. “We made people angry,” admits Foot’s successor Neil Kinnock. “Our policy was out of touch with our values.” But two young guns won their seats in Sedgefield and Dunfermline East and left for Westminster to hold an out-of-touch party.
Gordon Brown was already rector of the University of Edinburgh (there is a wonderful photo of him in the official chair), ‘an effortlessly impressive young man’, according to Kinnock. The newcomers shared a cluttered windowless office; Patricia Hewitt, Kinnock’s press secretary, claims that this happy proximity was the key to the founding of New Labor. But it was Brown who was first seen as the rising star with his ‘thankful intellectual dominance of discourse,’ Kinnock says in the program.
After another disastrous result in the 1992 general election, Blair, who had stayed up all night, voluntarily volunteered the next morning to do the post-mortem on TV. He, more than the saturnine Brown, started pulling media attention. “I think it’s my turn,” John Smith said of the party leadership. It has become commonplace to see Brown’s friend and mentor as a tremendously lost figure, but Smith is described here as more of the unelected same guy.
Since the miners’ strike in 1984, Labor has been a triumph for the macho unions, with a “nationalize everything, tax everything, destroy the economy” agenda. Brown was with Smith the night before he died of a heart attack in 1994, remembering his poignant plea: “The opportunity to serve is all we ask.” Brown’s grief is still alive, but Smith’s death paved the way for the modernizers.
By this time, Peter Mandelson had arrived from his TV job to remake the party – “new Labor, new Britain” – with Brown visibly scraping at the expense of providing red roses to the shadow cabinet for their buttonholes. Episode one ends with the victory of Labor during the 1997 election, but the cracks in this winning songwriting partnership are already starting to show.
On BBC2 from 4 October at 21:00
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