History is a funny business. Interpretations change over time, but early verdicts do carry weight. As the Chilcot enquiry unfolds, with its strange mix of blandness and cunning from the panel, most of the ministers, plus “Bad Al” Campbell, as Guido likes to call him, have seemed evasive and essentially minor figures. When you consider Jack Straw’s CV in government he really should come across as a major league hitter, the “big beast” of cliche, but he presents a sorry specimen. Perhaps he should have kept the big glasses.
More substantial figures are coming into play, the main event being Tony Blair, this week. One gets the impression that he and his successor are more than a little exercised by their place in history. They are substantial people, but primarily because of their failures, and the legacies thereof.
There are at least three different attributions for the memorable comment by a Chinese statesman, possibly Zhou Enlai, who, when asked what was the significance of the French revolution, replied that it was “too early to tell”. Even so, only a few years down the line it seems inevitable that the Iraq war will be the death of Tony Blair’s reputation, however he fares in a few days time.
Oddly enough, a war has enhanced the reputation of one of his predecessors. Harold Wilson did little of value for Britain, in The Knife’s opinion, though he did punch BBC man John Simpson in the guts one day, and invent the gnomes of Zurich. His other main achievement was to keep Britain OUT of a war, Vietnam, despite being wooed ardently by President Johnson, and history will applaud him for that. Not that The Knife thinks Vietnam was a bad war particularly, just that Britain was better off out of it.
Likewise, there has been a bit of interest in Richard Nixon of late, with the Frost stuff, Oliver Stone’s biopic and so on. Nixon was superficially unappealing and a maverick, but he did achieve a lot – rapprochement with China and Russia, ending the Vietnam War, the space programme, civil rights and desegregation. Everyone mentions Watergate, which Nixon bitterly regretted, but history will recall the foreign policy triumphs.
His buddy Kissinger, still alive and thriving, seems to me a thrilling figure, fit to match his hero Metternich in many ways, yet he was never the main event. When an fundamentally dishonest schemer and a failure at the top levels, like Peter Mandelson is regarded as the most interesting figure in British politics, then you realise just how low the bar is now set.