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Meet the academic who helped bring 'breath-taking' new series to TV screens

As a new documentary series examines the relationship between former UK prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Professor Jon Davis, who acted as a consultant on the series, shares his thoughts on why this fractious relationship continues to fascinate...

When a documentary series charting the highs and lows of the Blair-Brown relationship and the New Labour movement hit television screens earlier this month, it was an especially satisfying moment for King’s academic Professor Jon Davis.

Not only was it the culmination of many pandemic-interrupted months’ work as series consultant for the BBC, it brought to life at last an idea that first formed in 2008, mere months after Tony Blair stepped aside as prime minister and handed over the reins to his chancellor.

“The perception of Blair even at that time was so far out of kilter,” Jon said. “When he left office we thought ‘actually, we can do something here to rebalance it’ and that’s where we started.”

Together with The Independent’s chief political commentator John Rentoul, Jon devised a new taught module focussed on the ‘Blair years’ which was the first of its kind on the subject and, as he recalls now, “like walking with history”.

“We had so much material,” said Jon. “The national discussion about Blair’s premiership was unrealistic, the facts people were touting were just wrong. You had the combination of Iraq, next to the birth of social media, next to a clamour for change and those really added up to a sort of rage against Blair.

“We thought there needed to be a re-balancing.”


Since those first forays, Jon, director of the Strand Group at King’s, has expanded the Blair module (now helmed by Dr Michelle Clement) and invited a host of the key players from those years – from civil servants and former cabinet ministers to the protagonists themselves - to speak to students and shed light on the dynamics that made the Blair-Brown relationship one of the most speculated about and pondered on in political history.

A book followed, Heroes or Villains? The Blair Government Reconsidered, which won glowing praise from the likes of Alan Johnson, former Labour cabinet minister, and Sir Michael Barber, who served as head of the prime minister’s delivery unit under Blair, before, in 2019, Jon and John were approached by the BBC with a view to expanding the work done in the book into a TV series.

Blair & Brown: The New Labour Revolution was the result and it premiered on BBC2 on 4 October, with Jon and John acting as series consultants.

I’ve had so many nice messages since the first episode aired, from family and friends, some from friends I haven’t spoken to in years – it’s been quite incredible and wonderful.– Professor Jon Davis

I think it’s breath-taking,” Jon said. “It’s a perfect demonstration of what the BBC is about. They have thrown the kitchen sink at it and it’s superb. Including the editing process, I must have watched it eight or nine times by now but the way, for example, they present the peace process in Northern Ireland in the second episode still chokes me up.”

And the series has been well-received by critics too. Piers Morgan called it ‘riveting and enlightening’, while journalist Sebastian Payne, of the Financial Times, called it a “total triumph”.

Jon said: “I’ve had so many nice messages since the first episode aired, from family and friends, some from friends I haven’t spoken to in years – it’s been quite incredible and wonderful.”

At the heart of it all – the module, the book and now the TV series - is the famously fractious relationship between the prime minister and his chancellor, a relationship that continues to fascinate more than a decade after Brown left Downing Street.

For a generation becoming used to the politics of a new era, Jon believes the Blair-Brown relationship is a hark back to a time when things were done differently.

He said: “[Blair and Brown] were the two big beasts of their era. This was Disraeli and Gladstone except they were in the same cabinet. When you have two colossal figures who dominate the political scene for a decade, you can’t help but be fascinated.

“And, as well as being very good, I think the TV series reminds us that politics is just not as serious as it once was. That’s not to say that a relationship like Blair and Brown’s could never happen again, though, because there is that long history of tension between number 10 and number 11.”

Though the TV series is yet to run in full, Jon believes there will be plenty more still to come from the Blair years with the release of cabinet papers, which are made available to the public by the government after a 20-year period. These, he believes, could yield new insights into foreign policy, war, and national security – as well as the relationships around Blair’s Cabinet table.

But, remaining at the centre of it all, will be the relationship between prime minister and chancellor that will continue to fascinate long into the future.

  • Heroes or Villains? The Blair Government Reconsidered is available on Amazon here.
  • You can find out more about the Strand Group and its available modules here.

In this story

Jon Davis

Jon Davis

Director of the Strand Group

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