Back in the late 1990s, odd as it may seem now, the UK was an optimistic place. We hosted Euro 96, the Spice Girls were top billing, Cool Britannia wasn’t ironic and, believe it or not, Tony Blair was a deeply popular politician.
He was a vessel for the hopes and aspirations of a majority seeking an end to 17 years of a Conservative government that looked tired, sleazy, riven over Europe, and unfit to govern on any sensible metric – not least the electability of John Major, who was yet to be exposed for setting high standards in public life while himself popping out for a Currie, but considered uncharismatic enough and so devoid of ideas that his most memorable policy initiative is still the ‘Cones Hotline’.
The Thatcher revolution was on ice, the ‘wets’ were back in charge, and New Labour had embraced the market economy, business, and cultural elitism. Think of politics today as being like the regional musical theatre version of this Hollywood epic movie, but perhaps with untrained child actors.
During this pre-Obama ‘hopey-changey’ milieu the media’s treatment of Blair was supine. Interviews, with a few honourable exceptions, were typically along the lines of ‘oh Tony why are you so brilliant?’, to which his stock ‘um gosh thank you for saying so, but I’m just a regular guy’ shtick is what amounted to public scrutiny of the future Prime Minister.
That is until Frank Skinner’s interview in December 1996. Skinner is an actor, host and comedian, most famous as the co-writer of ‘Three Lions’, the iconic tribute anthem to the underperformance of the England national football team and associated misery theatre. His meteoric rise to stardom in the 1990s, rooted in his blokey normality, was entirely unaffected (at least then), and led to him getting his own late-night chat show on BBC1 which back in those pre-internet, pre-streaming days was regularly getting audiences between 5-10 million.
The Christmas Special began conventionally enough. Skinner was in awe, deferring to the ‘Blair as the second coming’ narrative with some easy openers. I believe I recall him saying ‘wow Tony Blair’ at one point. But they moved on, and the question of whether Tony Blair was really a Labour Leader arose around the theme of his roots.
Strange as it may seem today, Labour used to be a party of working people, not just attention-seeking lawyers and social workers agonising about their carbon footprint before jetting off for a skiing holiday. This still mattered then in the 1990s and Anthony Charles Lynton Blair of Fettes College Edinburgh and St. John’s Oxford was not a natural ‘horny-handed son of toil’, despite being utterly typical of the middle-class MPs who had always actually run the Labour Party and still do today.
So they were chatting away about what it meant to be working class, and Skinner opined ‘the best rule-of-thumb definition is, if you grew up with a bucket in your bedroom, you’re working class’. Blair looked puzzled and replied ‘Bucket in the bedroom? What for?’. Skinner then explained precisely what for (you can read here), and it was a beautiful TV moment. For the first time someone had unsettled the sainted one. While he was still walking on water you could at least see the glass walkway beneath the waves and note he had wet feet. Or ‘cringe’ as we might say today. He looked at that moment like he’d rather be anywhere but live on TV, being interviewed about night conveniences in the 1960s.
If this seems like an elaborate way to get the words ‘piss-bucket’ into a serious piece of free society analysis, you may be correct. However, the test remains valid today. Not the specific imagery or Marxist class analysis, but the value of authenticity in public life. It is said of Blair that he never lied about the case for a war in Iraq, he just convinced himself that his reality was the truth. His reputation never recovered. Skinner, though, was the first to put a crack in the carefully scripted narrative created by Alistair Campbell and others to convince the public that Labour had changed and ‘their guy’ was different. Blair’s reaction was an awesome foreshadowing of what was to come, and the central role catching fakery now plays in public life.
So, we alongside the ‘Paxman Test’ – broadly ‘why is this lying bastard lying to me’, sadly missed from BBC Newsnight since his departure show in 2014, we present the ‘Skinner Test’: ‘Is this politician the genuine article, or Frank’s bucket’? If you’re looking at any politician today and seeing the bucket you have your answer. If you’re the politician in question and seeing the same thing, perhaps it’s time to think again about your choice of career.