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The Apprentice

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It would probably be tactless to suggest that Tony Blair start thinking about his place in history this week, just as history seems to be beckoning him a little more urgently. But if he is minded to wonder about a lasting monument to his achievements, a bequest that will convey to future generations exactly what Blair's Britain was like, I have a humble suggestion. He should dig a hole in the ground, lowering into it an airtight box - inside which would be a DVD boxed-set of the BBC2 hit of the season, The Apprentice.

Forget all the knick-knacks that usually go inside a time capsule; the bubble gum and copies of the Times. The Britons of 2106 would need only gawp at the antics of Syed, Ruth and Paul Tulip, under the gimlet eye of Alan Sugar, and they would know all they needed to know about our national life at the start of the 21st century.

First, they would discover something we now take for granted about television itself. They would see that the medium's favourite form is reality, training a camera on people who are not actors but regular folk placed in an extraordinary situation. Such TV was all but unknown 20 years ago; in the last decade it has come to dominate.

Watching The Apprentice, now building towards its climax, you can see why. The show serves up plenty of reality TV's drug of choice: stand-up rows and full-throated conflict. The programme is all but designed for it. Each week the candidates to serve as Sugar's £100,000-a-year apprentice are split into teams, charged with a money-making task: they might have to design a calendar, rent out flats or take over part of Topshop. Whoever makes the most money, wins. The losing team is summoned to Sugar's boardroom, where they receive a dressing down from the boss before he lights on the weakest performer, jabs a finger and delivers the programme's signature phrase: You're fired!

Locked in fierce competition, forced to live and work together for weeks on end, with only an occasional call home to friends or family, these are men and women on the boil. Hence the screaming matches, usually between a luckless "project manager", dubbed the PM, and a frustrated team-mate/rival.

From those, the viewers of the future would learn something useful about the mores of the age. Four-letter swearing is now entirely routine; an hour of BBC television given over to an unending stream of it without a bleep to be heard. That too marks a change of sorts, one mirrored in workplaces across the land.

No less significant is the diversity of the group on offer. Last year's final four were all from migrant backgrounds of one kind or another: Tim Campbell, a black Londoner, duked it out against Saira Khan, a gobby saleswoman from Birmingham, while Paul Torrisi and James Max boasted Italian and Jewish roots. This year, Saira's heir as the big personality has been Syed Ahmed, Bangladesh-born and raised in east London, a man whose belief in himself verges on the religious. Knocked out last week, his arrogance lit up the screen.

This is one of the prouder traits of Blair's Britain, where a visible ethnic mix has become part of the cultural landscape. Not everywhere, of course, but certainly more than ever before. What's more, in keeping with the rhetoric of Britain's post-1997 politics, The Apprentice implicitly celebrates this ethnic variety. Both Syed and Saira presented their migrant heritage as a strength; it had taught them dynamism and resilience. Tim, who won last year and continues to work for Sugar's Amstrad company, also insisted that his hard-scrabble background had equipped him well. And it was quite true, last year at least, that the white, middle-class candidates seemed blander by comparison.

In this sense, The Apprentice embodies what has been a favourite New Labour theme. It promises meritocracy, insisting that what matters is not your background but your talent and drive. Watch as the MBA graduates fall by the wayside, their places taken by those who rely on their wits and street savvy. So Mani foundered when he didn't let his group just get on and brainstorm ideas, but insisted on drawing up business school "criteria" first; once he got talking about "convergence" and "divergence" they were lost - and so was he. More striking still was the fate of Alexa, the Cambridge economics graduate who could not work out the correct change owing to a customer who had bought a slice of pizza - even after three attempts. Though that might illustrate a less welcome aspect of the Blair era, namely the weaknesses of our national education system.

That's not the only gloomy light the programme sheds on today's Britain. The balance of the sexes is revealing too. Among the initial 14 candidates, there were equal numbers of men and women. But it tended to be the women who were eliminated earliest. Those who stayed were often marginalised or patronised by their male colleagues, forced to elbow their way into strategic discussions and barely respected when placed in charge. This too reflects a wider picture, the enduring gender inequality laid bare in February's women and work report, which found that women working full-time still earn 17% less than men.

A truism of our age declares that this is the era when deference has been banished, yet The Apprentice shows that's not quite right. For the contestants, even when exhausted and hurling abuse at each other, only ever refer to their taskmaster and would-be boss one way: he is Sir Alan. Never "Sugar" or even "Alan Sugar", but Sir Alan. Not for him the modesty affected by other knights of the realm - "call me Alan, please" - his title has merged with his name into a single moniker: Surrallan.

What this suggests is that deference is far from dead, it's just that now there is a new class to be deferred to - the aristocracy of wealth. And in this new nobility, Alan Sugar's blood is purest blue.

The programme buys into that notion in a deeper way. For it rests on, and reinforces, the ideological assumption that has underpinned politics since the 1980s - that the only goal that really matters is profit. The tasks set by Surrallan may be varied, ranging from fashion shows on cruise ships to selling petrol cans, but they only ever have one objective. The rules are simple and unbending: whoever makes the most money wins.

A decade ago, thinkers around New Labour were dreaming of a new bottom line. Instead of companies pursuing only short-term gains for their shareholders, what if they started considering the wider interests of their "stakeholders", including their workers, the larger community and even the environment? What if their success was not measured solely in pounds, shillings and pence, but in the social and environmental benefits they brought and costs they exacted? Wouldn't that be the true mark of a radical Labour government?

The Apprentice is confirmation that that dream died, if it ever lived. Surrallan gives no points for being nice, to each other or to the planet. Only money talks. For in Blair's Britain, no less than Thatcher's, profit is to be worshipped: it is the only currency that counts.

Make no mistake, the programme is great to watch; London, shown in loving aerial shots, never looked so good. It will be a fitting reminder of the Blair years. Perhaps that will be a comfort when the Labour party finally turns to its own PM and says: "You're fired."


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