Only got better? David Stubbs on the Blair “revolution” of 1997

Only got better? David Stubbs on the Blair “revolution” of 1997

This is part one of an edited extract from 1996 and the End of History by David Stubbs, published last year by Repeater. Part two coming next week. 

“For the future, not the past. For the many, not the few. For trust, not betrayal. For the age of achievement, not the age of decline.” – Tony Blair, Labour Party Conference, 1996.

“I think if we win the election, the greatest burden on Tony Blair and the rest of us will not be delivering on the economy so much as the huge expectation that we will somehow be the agents of a different ethical order.” – Jack Straw, 1996.

In 1996, the Labour Party were regularly commanding leads of over 30 in opinion polls against the Tories. The party was in a unique position. In the past, it could only hope to achieve power when the incumbent Conservatives had made a hash of the economy, or plunged the country into darkness through their industrial relations incompetence. In 1996, however, this was not the case. Mortgage interest rates had dropped from double figures in the 1990s to under 7%. John Major’s administration had put the brakes on some of the worst, conspicuous excesses and injustices of Thatcherism. There was already a feelgood factor in the air. As the Guardian airily put it,

Unemployment is down, people are shopping more (car sales are up more than 10%), house prices are rising, the London Evening Standard says ‘Suddenly, Britain is feeling really good’, building societies are soon to create millions of new shareholders

And yet, fewer and fewer people felt good about the Tories. A series of allegations of sleaze involving Neil Hamilton and Jonathan Aitken, amongst others, spoke of a party who had done themselves too well and for too long at the political high table. Major himself cut a greying, weary, beleaguered figure. His risible, high profile Cones Hotline, in which members of the public could report apparently unnecessary traffic cones, had been quietly closed in 1995, having fielded fewer than 20,000 calls in its three- year life (a figure that frankly seems remarkably high). Major’s wistful visions of a Britain of warm beer and “old maids cycling to church in the morning mist” seemed to belong to the credits of some Sunday evening middlebrow period drama rather than a Britain whose heartbeat was pounding assertively with the delirium of the End of History. This was a dead man talking.

What’s more, the social liberalism regarded as loony in the 1980s had now become mainstream, with even Richard Branson looking to join in on the victory lap. 1996 was the year Virgin Vodka would introduce an ad featuring two men kissing. As for the Tories, Michael Portillo was obdurately upholding a ban on gays in the armed services.

Thing is, the country was not falling to pieces. It felt buoyant. There was simply a crying need for new faces at the helm, to displace an old guard who felt disassociated with the sense of self-confidence and triumphalism of Cool Britannia. “Things can only get better”, the refrain on which Labour would surf to victory in a year’s time, implied that the country was at rock bottom – but it was not. The feeling was more like: “Things are good – but they could be even better”. It was into this breach that Tony Blair stepped, a saviour for a country that did not particularly need saving – or certainly did not require the salvation he had in mind. It was as if he were being gifted the Premiership.

In 1996, Tony Blair was presented with the opportunity to present David Bowie with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Brits. You sense it was a slightly invidious task; as Chris Evans introduces him to the stage with customary half-wit (“foot-tapping, pop-loving, he’s got nice hair, Tony Blair”), the sound system strikes up facetiously with Bowie’s “Fashion”, as he descends the stairs in an estate agent’s suit and orange polka dot tie, his hairstyle, like Glenn Hoddle’s, having weighed anchor somewhere in 1978 and receded ever since. The half-soused crowd greet him with no great enthusiasm; there’s a low, mocking drone as he takes to the podium which he tries to ignore in that rictus way of his that would later become more pronounced when facing angry members of the Women’s Institute. And then, as if addressing the CBI rather than some of the dimmer bulbs of the Britpop alumni, he speaks:

It’s been a great year for British music. A year of creativity, vitality, energy; British bands storming the charts, British music once again back at its rightful place at the top of the world.” He talks of how new bands are able to draw inspiration from “the bands of my generation – the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks – and the later generation, the Clash, the Smiths, Stone Roses.

It could well be that Tony Blair, former guitarist with Ugly Rumours, was sincere in this tribute. But, coated in a politician’s unctuousness, the words seem today to proceed from his mouth in an utterly stilted fashion, all the more so because when he actually took office, he was far too busy waging global warfare to monitor and extol the health of British music. It’s probable that this was the very last time he uttered the words “Stone Roses”. The list encapsulates far more shamelessly, loudly and clearly than any mumbling, equivocal frontperson corralled under its banner the guiding principle of Britpop; the history of music in the UK as a retrospective series of white lines down a grey, established road, a tribute to British heritage, enterprise and industry. Interesting who is missing from the list: Joy Division (too despondent – they were on the other side of the sun of the 1990s), the Sex Pistols (too anarchic, despite the fact that they removed the sting from their legacy by reforming for purely financial reasons in 1996), and, strangely, Oasis, despite their own, fulsome praise for Blair.

It wasn’t the only effusive comment Tony Blair made about British pop during 1996, as he brazenly sought to associate his forty-two year-old self with the crest of the Britpop wave in a way the late John Smith could never have done, and John Major never hope to do. Blair was all over pop in 1996, as energetic as a ligger in his attendance of awards ceremonies, always ready to talk up the energy of British pop, as if to imply, by osmosis, that he was a key generator of the broader energy it represented. “Rock’n’roll is not just an important part of our culture, it’s an important part of our everyday life”, he claimed, as if rock’n’roll were as vital to his daily routine as cleaning his teeth and saying his prayers. He wasn’t always selective in his upbeat praise; he described Morrissey as being part of our “vibrant” culture – Morrissey, with the possible exception of Alan Bennett, probably the least vibrant human being on earth, then as now. And, killing three birds with one stone, he sought to conflate rhetorically the rise of lad comedy, the England team of Euro ’96 and the trad indie du jour by alluding to the “Three Lions” anthem thus: “Seventeen years of hurt / Never stopped us dreaming / Labour’s coming home.”

Embarrassingly, however, Blair dazzled in 1996. This extended to to vast swathes of the electorate, including many who would marvel that they hadn’t known better. The lefty tanktops pooh-poohed him, but then, those malodorous malingers would, wouldn’t they? Meanwhile the Tories hired Charles Saatchi to rework his 1979 magic with their “New Labour, New Danger” posters, in which a grinning Blair was depicted as red-eyed and demonic once you peeled back a strip from his plausible veneer. They convinced absolutely no one of the Red Terror he represented; they might as well have waved garlic at him. For many of us sceptical about Britpop, we were affected by the New Sanguine of which Blair felt a part; he blazed white like the blinding light in a doorway to an uncertain future – an exit point at least. And he mentioned the Stone Roses. My God, a future Prime Minister mentioned the Stone Roses! This was surely something worth clutching at.

The prospect of finally ridding the country of the Tories intoxicated even some the most hard bitten. Noel Gallagher was the most conspicuous example, as:

There are seven people in this room who are giving a little bit of hope to young people in this country. That is me, our kid, Bonehead, Guigsy, Alan White, Alan McGee and Tony Blair. And if you’ve all got anything about you, you’ll go up there and shake Tony Blair’s hand, man. He’s the man! Power to the people!

He later sheepishly confessed he’d been “off his head” when he bellowed this pronouncement, in which the Oasis members effectively amounted to a shadow cabinet in waiting, but he wasn’t the only one. In co-opting the English Euro 96 anthem he wasn’t just piggybacking on a pop moment, he was tapping into the snarling sense of frustration still festering from the 1992 disappointment, when, despite leaning about as far to the right as seemed feasible without toppling over, Neil Kinnock still lost to John Major. Next time, anything would do. An ugly tap-in, a penalty shoot out, a Blair administration, so long as we won.

I was among those who had suspended my leftist qualms and joined in the chant for Blair, another who should have known better but found the urge to back this gift horse irresistible. Or was he a Trojan horse? Suppose, I told myself, Blair had dropped Clause IV, was cosying up to Murdoch by having Labour’s front bench trade and industry team abandon its support for a tough regulatory regime on the ownership of newspapers and television broadcasting in favour of a freer market, simply so as to deceive the public, business and the media that the party was deliberately forfeiting its leftist teeth, that it was the party that would no longer bite? And then, once in power, use his overwhelming mandate to exercise a full-blooded, socialist transformation of the UK? Be the New Danger the Tory posters depicted him as for real, after all? In any case, wasn’t that what Margaret Thatcher had done prior to her election in 1979? She certainly hadn’t frightened the British public by detailing the full extent of the right-wing programme with which her name would become synonymous. Might Blair have a similar trick in mind?

There was no excuse for such inebriated, wishful thinking. One had only to read, if one could be bothered, Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle’s The Blair Revolution, published in 1996, which set out in no uncertain terms what kind of “revolution” New Labour were planning, one that certainly would not involve hordes of cloth-capped proletariats storming the gates of Downing Street à la the Winter Palace in 1917. No – what would be really revolutionary about the Blair Revolution is that it would be entirely non-revolutionary, making it the most revolutionary revolution of all. A revolution no one need fear, least of all our latterday Tsars.

This is part one of an edited extract from 1996 and the End of History by David Stubbs, published last year by Repeater. Part two coming next week.