I went to see Tony Blair with my students from Queen Mary, University of London, the other day. They have come to the end of their final-year course called ‘The Blair Government’ which is what we call ultra-contemporary history. Mind you, they were eight when Blair became prime minister, so he is history to them, in a way. I’m not sure he liked that idea.
The first thing Jon Davis, my co-lecturer, and I do with our class is to take them back to how things were before 9/11.
The students start the course with an image of Blair as a conviction politician who defied popular opinion. We have to teach them that, for most of his time as prime minister, until early 2003, he was regarded as a unifying and consensual leader, more often criticised for excessive deference to public opinion.
Blair was always good at commenting on his own government when he was in charge of it, and is still good at analysing it in retrospect, as I found out. He had some interesting things to say about how his “coalition” with Gordon Brown compared with the present government.
The conversation was confidential, although we did film it. He said: “Right, so it’s off the record, but there’s a camera.” The deal was that the video will be available to our Masters students, and Blair may give Davis and me permission to use his words in our book on the Labour governments 1997-2010, to be called The Blair-Brown Coalition. So you only have to wait until next year.
Two days later, the last British troops left Iraq, so I was asked to discuss the Iraq intervention as a whole on BBC radio. I said I thought that the UK ought to be proud of what it tried to do, but should apologise to the Iraqi people for not doing it very well.
Naturally, I thought this was a sane and balanced assessment, but it was a phone-in so I didn’t stand much chance. Blair to the Hague, all about oil and the rest of it. There was no chance of a debate.
I could ask mildly of which crimes against humanity most MPs, who voted for military action, might be guilty, and why Tony Blair should care about US access to Iraq’s oil, which it does not have, incidentally, but I was talking into a gale of righteous anger. There is a lot of it about, still.
It might be considered tasteless to suggest that the Chinese authorities were engaged merely in over-enthusiastic art criticism by detaining Ai Weiwei, responsible for a million pottery sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern.
But I rather like his sculptures of animal heads in the courtyard in Somerset House, around the fountains. I was there to talk to Deborah Mattinson, who was Gordon Brown’s focus group adviser until he decided he didn’t like her advice. Her new company, BritainThinks, has offices there. She did some research into what people think about class, which we featured in The Independent on Sunday.
She found that 71 per cent of people describe themselves as middle class, and that the cafétière is the object most often chosen, unprompted, to symbolise middle-classness. These were copied out eagerly and elaborated, in daily instalments over the following week, but without attribution, by the Daily Mail. Now she’s planning some follow-up research into what it means to be working class today.
Anyway, Weiwei’s sculptures are big bronze caricatures of the heads of animals, one of each of 12 Chinese signs of the Zodiac. They are bold, simple and a little cartoonish. According to The Daily Telegraph, Weiwei said that they are the kind of thing that “even children will enjoy”. Even children?
Before what used to be known as the Whitsun recess, I spent some time in my auxiliary office, in Portcullis House, the annex to the Palace of Westminster that looks (and smells, because of the chlorine in the water feature) like an American Embassy Suites hotel.
In the micro-geography of the House of Commons, the top of the escalator linking Portcullis House to the old bit of the Palace is the new Members’ Lobby – the place to hang around if you want to bump into important people who might want to dictate a column or share a world exclusive news story. So I sit there, in the café with my iPad, waiting for the rapture.
The iPad. Did I mention that? That reminds me of something a Labour MP told me. “How do you know if someone has got an iPad? They tell you.”
John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday