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What is it like to take a course in Blair studies?

By Victoria King
Political reporter, BBC News

image captionThe culmination of this year's Blair Government course was a chance to quiz the former prime minister himself at his London offices

With the ink barely dry on his page in history, university students are already able to study a course on Tony Blair's government. During the past year they've had the chance to quiz some of his ministers, mandarins and even the man himself.

"One of the exam questions was, 'Was Alastair Campbell the best in the business?' That was the one Tony Blair enjoyed hearing about the most," jokes 21-year-old Sian Cleary.

"I think it's his own quote so maybe that's not surprising!"

Sian is one of 12 students who took the Blair Government course at Queen Mary, University of London this year.

It has been running since September 2007 as a third-year specialist subject and covers everything from public service reform, to spin and the Iraq war.

Taught by historian Dr Jon Davis and John Rentoul, chief political commentator at the Independent on Sunday, it is soon to expand into a broader Masters degree, entitled New Labour in Government.

The students analyse speeches, manifestos and policy documents, but most important of all they get to question some of the people who ran the country during those years.

image captionSian, Marie and Jon relished the opportunity to quiz former ministers and senior civil servants

Guests include ex-ministers like Ed Balls, Lord Mandelson and David Blunkett, and right-hand men like Jonathan Powell - Tony Blair's chief of staff for 12 years - and Alastair Campbell. Among the other figures to talk were former Cabinet Secretary Lord Wilson and former top civil servant at the Ministry of Defence Sir Kevin Tebbit.

"It's one thing reading about something in a textbook, but for you to be able to hear it first-hand... that's amazing," says 23-year-old Marie Kemplay. And they were definitely a bit disarmed. They were much more frank than we expected."

Sian adds: "It was great timing too because a lot of them have recently released memoirs so we could say, 'You've said this here, do you still think that?' And what was interesting was how many of them said, 'Actually, no I've changed my mind.'"

'Grasp of history'

The students are split on their favourite guests - but they agree that several really surprised them.

"For me, it was Peter Mandelson," says 21-year-old Jon Boulton (no relation to Sky News journalist Adam Boulton or his wife, former Blair aide Anji Hunter).

"He always puts out this sinister image but when you get him face to face he's quite a decent chap. He's quite funny and he's very eloquent."

Marie goes on: "It was the same for Ed Balls. He was the complete opposite of his media persona. He comes across as not very personable at all. But he was really nice and helpful."

Sian adds: "What was different with Ed Balls was his grasp of history. He was thinking about the historical relevance of what we were studying. He really thought all of his answers through, they obviously weren't rehearsed.

"But for me, some of the senior mandarins were the most interesting. You know what a Charles Clarke is going to think about a certain issue, but often these people have never had a platform before, or if they have, they've always stayed very neutral. They were the most revealing of all."

The students didn't just meet former politicians. One of their speakers was Universities Minister David Willetts, who went ahead with his appearance despite taking a hammering that day for suggesting rich families might be able to pay to guarantee university places.

"We were expecting him to be a bit world-weary by the time he got to us, but he was really on the ball," says Marie.

Jon adds: "He was even questioned about the row and he didn't duck the question. He just took it on and said, 'This is why I think it's right.'"

Beyond the 'froth'

But famous faces aside, why did they choose the Blair course? Was it to learn more about a political hero - or to gather ammunition about a political bogey-man?

"I think I had quite a balanced view of him when I came in, sceptical about some things... but I think I became pro-Blair by the end of it," says Sian.

"It was especially because of Northern Ireland. I didn't know anything about that, and to me, when you look at the policy and negotiations that he led you see a huge amount of good."

Marie agrees: "Throughout the course I actually came to admire him. When I began, I was keen to get behind the spin because that's all you hear about, but that's not who he is, that's just the froth that's going on above him.

"He was a strange one in that he was the only prime minister who's ever chosen his own exit date and that says a lot about him. A lot of people acknowledge that by the end of his premiership he was at the height of his confidence and his command of the civil service, and I just think that's really interesting, so I have a lot of admiration for him."

image captionBlair arrived fresh - or not so fresh - from a long flight to face questions

Conservative-supporter Jon says: "I came to it disliking Blair.

"I liked the foreign policy side, I thought Sierra Leone and Kosovo were great successes, but I wasn't a fan of his domestic policy and I wasn't a fan of him as a politician. I thought he was very showy, lacking substance.

"But the more I learned about him the more I saw there was a grounding there and I've become slightly more approving of his domestic policy. A lot of Conservatives see Blair as this very negative figure but there's a lot more subtlety to it, he did good things and bad."

And what was it like meeting the man?

"He's definitely still got it," says Jon, laughing.

"There's a reason why he's the most successful Labour politician ever. He seemed genuinely intellectually intrigued that we were studying his government and wanted to know all the questions on the exam paper."

Sian agrees: "You can be cynical and you can say he's very polished but he'd got back at two o'clock in the morning from a flight, so he hadn't rehearsed. He'd also had [his son] Leo's birthday.

"I like to think he was impressed by our questions and enjoyed answering them. His responses were frank and he came across very well."

'Top PMs'

As young people, one might assume their views were inescapably coloured by the issue of Iraq, but in fact the students say that wasn't the case.

"It's very easy to look at the headlines of the Blair government and start there," Sian says. "But we go behind that. We scrutinise documents and process."

Jon agrees: "We're asking things that no-one else does ask. Everyone talks about Iraq, but when you study the Blair government in the sort of detail we do you see there are so many other things that no-one pays attention to.

"Those are the things that changed this country far more than Iraq did and they're clearly the things he wants to be remembered for. That was obvious when he talked to us."

Dr Davis agrees: "I don't think any prime minister is perfect, but I think that when history starts to calm down, emotions calm down, I confidently expect he will come to be seen as one of the top three prime ministers since the war.

"We're a more tolerant, stable society in the 21st Century than we were in the 20th and I think much of that is down to the tone Blair set."

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