Friday, 11 May 2007

11 May 2007

All right, so what will it be? Peace in northern Ireland, or carnage in Iraq? The minimum wage, or the Millennium Dome? It’s such fun, isn’t it, pretending to be an instant historian, delivering our verdicts on Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, even though he’s still got another seven weeks to go before he has to pack his bags.

We daily news junkies love to make instant judgments. Journalism may be the first draft of history, but I somehow doubt that future historians will be devouring the thousands of words being spewed out now when they come to write their hefty tomes on “The Blair Era 1997-2007”.

But here’s a suggestion for one such future historian: “The role of jeans in European politics: 1997-2007”. Why? Well, I was reminded when I was in Paris on Monday how positively revolutionary it had seemed back in 1997 to see a Prime Minister wearing jeans. Because now, the French have had to come to terms with a President who also wears denim – when Nicolas Sarkozy set off after his election victory for a few days R&R in Malta, he was in unmistakable dress-down mood. Can you imagine Jacques Chirac in jeans? Quite … So there’s at least a PhD thesis waiting to be written, surely: “Jeans as a symbol of political change – Britain and France, two case studies”.

Political reputations have a habit of changing over time. President Jimmy Carter was mocked as an incompetent peanut farmer when he left office in 1981; now he’s hailed as a revered global elder statesman. Clement Attlee is said to have been described by Churchill as a “modest man with much to be modest about”; now, he’s remembered as one of our greatest peace-time Prime Ministers. Once, Ian Paisley was a dangerous, ranting bigot and Martin McGuinness was an IRA commander with blood on his hands. So perhaps we should hold our horses on the Blair front.

What interests me, having talked while I was in Paris not only about the new President but also about our likely new Prime Minister, is the future shape of European leadership. Brown, Sarkozy, Merkel, Barroso … all in their 50s, with no memory of the Second World War, no great commitment to some grand visionary post-war European project. Pragmatists, every one of them. I’m told that M Sarkozy wasn’t quite sure what to make of Mr Brown when they met in London a few months ago (he thought Mr Blair was wonderful, apparently), but he’s keen to move away from the automatic assumption that France and Germany will always work together.

I’ll save my own reminiscences of the Blair years until he actually goes – this may came as a surprise, but he’s going to be PM for nearly two more months – but just one thought for now: as I listened to him doing his “Now is the time to say goodbye” speech yesterday, it struck me that when he described the people of Blair’s Britain (“open-minded about race and sexuality, averse to prejudice and yet deeply and rightly conservative with a small 'c' when it comes to good manners, respect for others, treating people courteously”), he was in fact describing himself. So have we all turned into Tony’s clonies?

And finally, forgive a brief blast on The World Tonight trumpet. Some new audience research tells us that on the “appreciation index” (ie how much people actually enjoy the programmes they listen to) we now come only just below The Archers. And on the index of programmes that people say they make a “special effort” to listen to, we come third out of all BBC radio programmes, after The News Quiz and Five Live Sport. So thank you for your support, and spread the word.

It’ll be nine weeks on Monday since our friend and colleague Alan Johnston was abducted in Gaza – you may have seen the reports this week that the people who claim to be holding him have released a tape containing demands for his release. The BBC’s response was: “We of course welcome any sign that Alan may be alive and well. We profoundly hope that (this) news may be a sign that Alan will soon be safely released." Yesterday, Alan was named broadcast journalist of the year by the London Press Club.

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