Listen to this article
A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s, by Alwyn W Turner, Aurum, RRP£25, 624 pages
On the morning of May 2 1997, I stood in Downing Street observing the arrival of Tony Blair, the newly elected prime minister. Also inside the gates were hundreds of jubilant flag-waving supporters who, I was among the first to discover, had all been bussed in from Labour party HQ. It was an early indication of what spontaneous enthusiasm would look like under the new regime.
Good Lord, that was 16 years ago – one-fifth of a fairish lifespan. It feels like last week. I did, however, need Alwyn Turner’s A Classless Society to remind me that the following day Britain won the Eurovision Song Contest (with “Love Shine a Light” by Katrina and the Waves), something that had not happened for the previous 16 years and has certainly not happened since.
Turner conflates the two events: like Labour, Katrina and the Waves had won in a landslide – “the goodwill towards Britain was unstoppable”. This is perfectly plausible given both the mood of the moment and the overt politicisation this bizarre conflation of showbiz and democracy (the Eurovision I mean, not the British electoral process) has undergone insubsequent years. Then again, I would not be wholly astonished to learn that the Eurovision voters had also been bussed in from Labour HQ.
Most decades are characterised by the political faultlines of the time. In 1990s Britain there was actually an extraordinary unanimity. Except for a few days before the decade’s other election, 1992, and a few weeks thereafter, the Conservatives were so unpopular that in the middle years of the decade it was perfectly possible to make an overtly party political gibe in any company, confident no one would be offended.
In 1992 the voters had shied away at the last moment from voting in Labour under Neil Kinnock, leading to five weary, scandal-ridden years before the Tories, to their own relief as much as everyone else’s, were finally released from the obligations of government.
But the consensus went deeper than that. Well before the end of the 1980s the voters had become terminally tired of being hectored and bossed around by Margaret Thatcher. Her improbable successor John Major softened the edges of Thatcherism enough to make the party electable one last time against a not yet wholly reformed Labour.
One of the great strengths of this long but very readable and enjoyable book is Turner’s use of the telling vignette. An early one is the story of how Major, a few weeks after becoming PM, crossed the floor of the Commons to kneel beside the old leftie Eric Heffer, who was obviously dying but had left his sickbed to vote against Britain’s involvement in the first war against Saddam Hussein. This sweet and most un-Thatcherite gesture provoked applause in the House, a bipartisan and possibly unprecedented breach of protocol.
However, the essential principles of capitalism über alles, re-established in the 1980s, would remain whichever party was in power. This was not a wholly British phenomenon. The political change in the US did come in 1992 when George Bush Sr was beaten by Bill Clinton, but that master of triangulation was not up for fundamental change either. Similar manifestations could be observed elsewhere.
Turner does not look abroad much. What he does do is bring together politics and popular culture in a convincing manner. For an academic, he is awfully good on his TV comedy and pop music, which he appears to have imbibed from birth rather than as a foreign language. I bet he can even hum “Love Shine a Light”. Many of the political stories are illustrated by a topical TV gag. This approach can get a bit formulaic but many of the jokes are very good: a reminder that one of the many reasons for being nostalgic for the late 20th century is that the telly was better.
Reading A Classless Society is like a safari through vaguely familiar country, illuminated by a shrewd, fair-minded guide with an elephantine memory. It is, however, like Labour in government in being wholly media-driven. As Blair himself put it: “It’s the signals that matter. Not the policy.” And if newspapers are the first rough draft of history, this is a smoother second draft: a synthesis of everything that appeared in the media.
What one would like from a future historian is a broader sense of what was peculiarly British and what was a local manifestation of global trends, and a greater emphasis on the long-term shifts that the media overlook. But maybe that needs more time.
And I was a touch unsatisfied by the title. This is the third in Turner’s trilogy (or maybe tetralogy or more) of decades, following Crisis? What Crisis? (the 1970s) and Rejoice! Rejoice! (the 1980s), titles that sum up the times beautifully. A Classless Society was an aspiration of Major’s, but not a realistic one. I might have gone for “A New Dawn has Broken, Has It Not?”, Blair’s comment on the morning of victory. It had, but in a very British way the weather was about to get crappier than ever.
Matthew Engel is an FT columnist
Be alerted on Non-Fiction