Time to come clean. The election of Tony Blair as Britain’s prime minister a decade ago was a bloody nuisance. All that hope and hullaballoo smack bang, right in the middle of exams.
Some universities tellingly call the annual exam season “study leave”. My college called it “quiet period”. In May 1997, this was a particularly apt phrase. After doing zilch all year, most of us had no choice but to opt for earplugs and swotting sessions in soundproof libraries to mute the euphoric fanfare elsewhere. As we had grown up during the Thatcher years, it was fitting that by the time of that momentous general election, our individual concerns were frankly more important than those of society.
But my generation graduated into the world as Blair’s children, not Thatcher’s. Ten years later, the difference in our social values and culture is as apparent for us as for those buried in revision this weekend.
In a nutshell, if Margaret Thatcher encouraged Britons to be more individualistic, consumerist and aspirational, Mr Blair has allowed us to feel less ashamed about it.
Under Mrs Thatcher, all those overtly aspirational lifestyle choices still came with a stigma attached. Fine for City boys and yuppies, but for a nation that used to pride itself on understatement it all felt a bit indecent.
Cut forward to today and gone is the embarrassment or guilt when, say, we opt for sushi instead of sandwiches. Or when our spectacle rims betray a luxury designer logo. We are unapologetic about spending £3 on a cup of branded Italian coffee. In fact, forget the sushi and coffee, we now expect British cuisine to get the gourmet treatment thanks to celebrity chefs and “gastropubs”.
We like all this nice stuff, so we will have it. We have even taught time-honoured retailer Marks and Spencer that it can survive only through a process of “Pradafication”.
Part of the reason Blair’s children find all this self-indulgence easier to swallow has little to do with government. Take mobile phones. Technology and the global economy meant these gizmos would never just remain a phallic symbol of choice for stockbrokers in pinstripe suits. Our own self-esteem is now precariously tied to consumerism – a fact we might notice were it not for the way these new forms of electronic communication and entertainment have made us incapable of solitary reflection. Even our secluded hours at the computer are spent conducting cyberspatial social lives and shopping.
But under Mr Blair, consumerism is not just a symbol of progress for the suburban middle classes and the middle-aged. For young urbanites, too, consumerism is now cool. The best way to turbo-charge a cultural trend is for it to become, well, trendy.
This point matters because youth cultures have typically rejected capitalist consumerism. Hence from hippies through to the punk movement and rave scene, they are often called countercultures. By contrast, the hip-hop and R ’n’ B scene that constitutes today’s dominant “urban” youth culture celebrates materialism. So safety pins and sweat bands have been replaced by “bling bling” jewellery and Burberry
baseball caps. Sure, our jeans may still be ripped, but we paid good money for this designer-distressed look, thank you very much. Well, okay, we will do once we have paid off our credit card bills.
Although today’s unapologetic, unbridled young consumers may represent the inexorable rise of the urban music scene and an inevitable metastasis of Thatcherism, Mr Blair was no mere cultural bystander.
Right from the beginning, he jumped at the chance to engage with young people and reconnect us with society. Here was a prime minister who hung out with pop stars, a premier with his fret-board fingers firmly on the pulse of popular culture. Mr Blair duly embraced the Britpop music scene and broader cultural spirit of “Cool Britannia”. Whatever his motivations, prevailing social values and popular culture go hand in hand. If you want to engage with one, you need to engage the other.
Sadly, this preoccupation with Cool Britannia’s art-school designer rock amounted to little more than a fixation with celebrity that seems to have infected us all. It left little counterweight to American hip-hop’s high priests of hyper-materialism. The dominant yet disconnected urban youth culture was not just neglected, but bluntly vilified for its violence.
Meanwhile, David Beckham adopted a rap star lifestyle and the public tuned in to glamorous soap operas about celebrity footballers’ wives. Indeed, perhaps there is a trace of the professional footballer in all of Blair’s children – an infantilised sense of entitlement and super-inflationary expectations that you might call “bling bling economics”. Even if this worship of affluence blurs cultural and class barriers, self-indulgence on steroids is patently not progressive.
But there is hope for us, albeit in the most unhopeful of places.
Discussions of Mr Blair’s legacy tend to get divided into those that leave Iraq aside and those that include it. Taking the war into account, perhaps his most remarkable impact on young people’s culture and values has been inadvertently to counteract the same self-centred tendencies he helped nurture. By uniting so many young people against the war, Mr Blair has politicised them in the process. Individualistic or not, if a general election were held today, Blair’s children would be paying attention. Sod the exams.
The writer is an FT commissioning editor and the author of the novel Londonstani