A Classless Society by Alwyn W Turner: Modern social history and Drop the Dead Donkey

This diverting book induces a kind of nostalgia for the 1990s without a jot of desire to relive them.

A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s
Alwyn W Turner
Aurum, 624pp, £25
 
Until that azure September morning in 2001 when Mohamed Atta piloted American Airlines Flight 11 into the north tower of the World Trade Center, you might have been forgiven for believing Francis Fukuyama’s assertion that the 1990s had ushered in “the end of history”. Certainly in Britain it had been easy to think that we were sleepwalking our way through a fairly inconsequential decade, at least until 1997.
 
The events of that momentous year receive substantial coverage in A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s, Alwyn W Turner’s third volume of modern social history. It is not a promising title, nor even a particularly meaningful one, something it has in common with Rejoice! Rejoice!, Turner’s volume on the 1980s. It also continues in his signature style. The book is detailed and expansive but richer in episode and event than theory or analysis. The overall impression is of a decade in which a great many things happened, but that they merely happened, untouched by any larger structural, economic or demographic forces.
 
From the first paragraph to the last, two personalities dominate: Tony Blair and John Major. Early on, Turner offers us the inspired aperçu that the prime ministers of the era embodied the qualities of earlier decades. Margaret Thatcher was, in essence, a 1940s leader, bellicose and Churchillian. Major seemed a man of the 1950s – sober, decent, a little dull – while Blair ushered in a new Swinging Sixties of cosmopolitan glamour, pop stars and relaxed hedonism. Turner’s personal opinion of the two men is never in doubt. His contempt for Blair will come as no surprise; indeed, to express anything else these days is a heresy. What is less predictable, although it is becoming fashionable, is a warm and generous assessment of Major.
 
The grey, pea-eating caricature of Spitting Image is replaced here by a “shrewd and effective political operator” who has a way with the ladies. John Prescott’s wife, Pauline, was said to have found him “witty and charming”. “I could feel myself tingling all over,” gasped Teresa Gorman. “He is a terrible flirt,” said Paddy Ashdown after Major asked Margaret Beckett whether she fancied “a nibble of my mace”.
 
Such is Turner’s enthusiasm for the Brixton boy with the circus lineage that he even makes a brief, spirited case for his associate David Mellor. Here at least was a bright and driven grammar school boy with the common touch, Turner argues, even if he was a difficult chap to like in 1992 (unless, apparently, you were Antonia de Sancha).
 
Beyond these two – and also Ann Widdecombe, for whom he has a clear, if curious, affection – Turner has little time for that final rump of Tory administration. He reminds us vividly of what an abject, sorry lot of incompetents they were, awash with moral laxity, drifting from one scandal and fiasco to the next, from Black Wednesday to BSE to identity cards.
 
A Classless Society is slighter, or certainly less dense, than its considerable heft would suggest and it is readable and accessible to a degree that may make the sniffier critics suspicious. It is the kind of book in which a comment from a character in A Touch of Frost is deemed as worthy and as sound as an academic monograph or a considered piece in the broadsheets. (It probably is, but the approach will infuriate some.) Even the most populist reader will surely feel that there is far too much referencing of stand-ups and sitcoms. One wishes that Turner had got out his copy of Hansard as often as his box set of Drop the Dead Donkey, from which he quotes on almost every page.
 
Structurally, the book is more than a little vague. The chapter entitled “Charters” starts with the “cones hotline”, moves on to satellite TV porn channels and ends up with Harold Shipman, Virginia Bottomley and, inevitably, Drop the Dead Donkey. He is overly fond of using quotations as epigraphs even when – as in this one from Bernard Manning: “If there’s such a thing as reincarnation, I hope Tony Blair comes back as a politician” – they make no sense whatsoever. That Turner finds this trenchant or informative is baffling.
 
Such is his dislike of Blair that it gives him a tin ear. He quotes Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole on the 1997 New Labour election landslide – “a glorious new dawn of optimism and a celebration of the transcendence of all that is best in humankind” – and then pronounces it “absurd”. His antipathy to Blair appears to have blinded him, too; he seems unaware that the line is a joke. Worse, he twice repeats the hoary old canard that Blair lied about watching Jackie Milburn play for Newcastle United at St James’ Park. He said nothing of the sort and a two-minute detour to Google would have told Turner so. That he didn’t bother to check or chose to ignore the truth damages his credibility.
 
Yet this is a diverting book that induces a kind of nostalgia for those times without a jot of desire to relive them. On almost every page, you encounter a name from the past with the evocative tang of an old pop song or TV theme, be it Nigel de Gruchy, Swampy or the Maastricht Treaty.
 
It is an entertaining read, if short on surprises – yet there are a few. You may have forgotten, or possibly never knew, that the one newspaper that stood against the grief orgy following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales was the Daily Sport, which launched a sardonic attack on the sentimentality of Fleet Street and the massed crowds at St James’s Palace under the scornful headline: “Are we happy now?” The author also reminds us how fabulously out of touch our political classes can be with the prevailing mood. “Latin American peasant hagiolatry” is how Boris Johnson saw the nation’s communal sadness at Diana’s untimely death.
 
Most unexpected of all, on page 357, we learn that Prince Philip once made a joke about Jacques Derrida and deconstructionist theory. For this moment of delight alone, any discerning reader will be grateful.
 
Stuart Maconie is a writer and presenter on BBC Radio 6 Music
Posh sports for all: testing Junior's skills at the tenth hole on a crazy golf course in Hastings, 1999 Photo: Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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Owen Smith interview: “I’m pretty red”

The Labour leadership challenger is struggling to win over a left suspicious of his past. 

The south Wales valleys embody the history of the labour movement: its victories, its defeats, its heroes, its villains. It was this resonant location that Owen Smith chose for his speech on the morning of 22 August. Labour Party members had that day begun voting on whether the 46-year-old Pontypridd MP should replace Jeremy Corbyn as their leader.

“Our history, our party was literally hewed from the hillsides around where we sit today,” Smith told a small audience at the Ely Valley Miners Welfare Club in Tonyrefail, a short distance from his home. The Welshman cited the Taff Vale judgment of 1901, which ruled that trade unions could be sued for losses caused by industrial action. It was this decision that spurred on the establishment of a Labour Party in parliament to repeal the law (as it would do in 1906 in alliance with the Liberal government).

Smith spoke later of marching with miners from the Maerdy Colliery as a 14-year-old, on the day they returned to work at the end of the 1984-85 strike. “I saw that they were utterly unbowed,” he recalled. “But they were ultimately defeated.”

Such moments, he concluded, proved the need for Labour to win power and to maintain “a powerful voice in parliament” – something he believes Jeremy Corbyn is incapable of providing. On 28 June, less than a year after Corbyn’s landslide victory, 172 MPs (81 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party) endorsed a no-confidence motion in him. Sixty-five shadow ministers, including Smith (who was then the shadow work and pensions secretary), resigned from the front bench.

Yet though Smith enjoys the overwhelming backing of the PLP, few believe he will prevail among members. He achieved only 53 constituency nominations, against the leader’s 285. On social media, where internal party contests are increasingly decided, Smith’s reach is minuscule compared to that of Corbyn (who has 795,000 Facebook fans to his 14,000).

The day before Smith spoke in south Wales, he won the endorsement of Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London and Labour’s most senior elected politician. He was subsequently also backed by the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale. Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband have trumpeted his cause. Yet Smith-supporting MPs fear that such declarations count for little. “It’s like the Remain campaign and the Archbishop of Canterbury,” one told me, suggesting that Labour members, like Leave voters, ”weren’t listening” to such grandees.

Corbyn’s allies and foes alike are already preparing for the aftermath of the leader’s anticipated victory. The former warn that rebel MPs put themselves at risk of deselection by members. In response, some have threatened privately to form a parliamentary breakaway group and bid for the status of the official opposition.

Smith, unsurprisingly, insists that he can win. “I think the CLP [Constituency Labour Party] nominations don’t truly reflect the views in CLPs,” he told me when we spoke after his 20-minute address. The challenger, dressed in his favoured combination of dark suit and open-necked white shirt, welcomed the black coffee proffered by his aide. “They reflect the fact that some of the people who are new members and are supportive of Jeremy were very organised . . .

“Anybody who knows the Labour Party knows that selections are very often won by the sleepers: the people who don’t go to CLP meetings and don’t necessarily shout from the rooftops.” Smith’s hopes rest on those who share Oscar Wilde’s view: “The problem with socialism is that it takes up too many spare evenings.”

Cartoon: George Leigh

Smith first publicly revealed his leadership ambitions in an interview with me back in January. “It would be an incredible honour and privilege,” he said. I wrote then of a widespread view among Labour MPs that the next leader “will at least need to be from the party’s soft left to be acceptable to the party membership”. When the rebellion against Corbyn came, it was this consideration that proved decisive. Smith was embraced as a Miliband-esque socialist and a parliamentary “clean skin”, untainted by the New Labour years, having been elected in 2010. By contrast, his initial rival, Angela Eagle, had been an MP since 1992 and voted for the Iraq War.

However, Smith proved to have a more ambiguous past than some of his backers anticipated. Corbyn’s supporters swiftly unearthed a series of interviews from 2006 in which their opponent made a notably centrist pitch. Smith, then a by-election candidate in Blaenau Gwent, south Wales, defended Tony Blair (suggesting that they differed only over the Iraq War), supported private-sector involvement in the National Health Service and praised city academies. “I’m not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances,” he told Wales Online.

Since then, he has struggled to reconcile these positions with his increasingly left-wing programme: opposing private provision in the NHS, returning academy schools to local authority control, banning zero-hours contracts and imposing a wealth tax of 1 per cent.

“To be honest, my opponents have extrapolated rather a lot in an attempt to brand me as a ‘Blairite wolf in sheep’s clothing’,” Smith told me. “Well, I’m nothing of the sort, I’ve always been a democratic socialist and I always will be. My views haven’t really changed at all, I’m someone who has been on the left of the party.

“My dad [the Welsh historian Dai Smith] is someone who’s been on the left of the Labour movement all his life. I’m someone who’s been surrounded by people who’ve been on the left of the Labour movement all their lives. It should come as no surprise that I’ve come out of that background and I’m pretty red. Because I am.”

Yet a former shadow cabinet colleague told me that Smith did not stand out as “a radical” in meetings: “The only time that I remember him becoming really animated was over further tax-raising powers for Scotland and the implications for Wales.”

What Smith believes in most, some say, is himself. The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, described him as “one of the most ambitious career politicians I’ve met”. Others have dismissed him as a “Big Pharma lobbyist” because of his past as head of policy and government relations for Pfizer.

“I’m not ashamed that I had a life outside politics before I became an MP,” Smith told me. “Yes, I worked for Pfizer and I also worked as a BBC journalist and as an adviser to the last Labour government on the peace process in Northern Ireland.

“People don’t want career politicians – they want men and women who have had experience of working in business and in the different sectors that make up our economy. Critics may use it against me, but my time in business has helped me understand what’s wrong with it and how we can make it work better.”

Corbyn’s supporters, however, allege that Smith’s left-wing pledges would not withstand contact with centrist colleagues. The degree to which the challenger has rebutted this charge shows that he recognises its potency.

He has offered to make Corbyn party president or chair if he wins, to allow Corbyn to act as “a guardian of Labour’s values”. In his speech, Smith vowed to increase member influence by making conference votes binding on the leadership.

Throughout the 1980s, another soft-left Welshman, Neil Kinnock, struggled to assert authority as the hard left retained control of vital bodies. Smith’s proposals risk replicating this conflict. But he told me that he would respect Labour’s conference even if it endorsed stances such as Trident abolition (Smith joined CND as a teenager but later renounced unilateralism). “I do think in order to reassure members that, under my leadership, we would listen hard to them and act in accordance with their views, conference does need to become sovereign once more,” he said.

Tony Benn’s dream of internal democracy appeared to be within reach. I asked Smith whether he would support other reforms such as a reduced MP nomination threshold for leadership candidates (Corbyn allies have proposed a cut from 15 per cent to 5 per cent). “All of these things can be debated,” he told me. “I’m not sure it should be 5 per cent: I need to look at it when we get closer to it. But I am convinced that the left needs to be able to put up candidates in this contest, I’ve always felt that.”

Smith’s assertion is contradicted by a colleague who described him as having been “furious”, “apoplectic” when Corbyn made the ballot last year (he supported Andy Burnham’s campaign).

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Smith is less equiovcal over the mandatory reselection of MPs. “That would be a really retrograde step for the party,” he told me. “It would be an uncomradely way for us to do business.” He is critical of the Corbyn-aligned group Momentum, some of whose members are spearheading deselection efforts. “I fear an attitude within Momentum that they are a separate organisation and they shouldn’t be,” he told me. “It’s hard to argue that they’re loyal and supportive if they’re organising a bloomin’ great really in the same town at the same time in competition to the Labour Party” (the group will hold its own four-day conference alongside Labour’s in Liverpool).

Some of those close to Corbyn, such as John McDonnell, have unhesitatingly described themselves as Marxists (in 2006, the shadow chancellor named Marx, Lenin and Trotsky as his “most significant” intellectual influences). I asked Smith whether he believed Labour could encompass such views. “Yes, I think we’ve always been a broad church and there have always been people who’ve come from that tradition,” he replied. “There are two broad traditions: the extra-parliamentary tradition, that has always seen parliament as a compromise and parliamentary socialism as a compromise, from [the trade unionist and theorist] Noah Ablett here in south Wales with The Miners’ Next Step through to Ed Miliband’s dad [Ralph, a Marxist historian] ... and the mainstream social democratic tradition that I came from.”

He added: “We’ve had this battle in the Labour Party over the ages, haven’t we? Except now I think it’s more serious because there is a very real danger, with Labour at such a low ebb and politics fragmented more broadly, and so many more parties and so many options for people and such a lesser tribal attachment to the Labour Party, that we can’t afford those fractures.

"If we splinter, there’s lot of other places for people to put their vote.”

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Though they will not say so publicly, some of Smith’s supporters believe Labour would remain unelectable under his leadership. A former shadow cabinet minister told me that he was offering a “warmed-up Ed Milibandism, which was rejected by the voters”. Smith naturally contests this analysis. “I don’t think that we lost the last election because we were too left-wing,” he said. “The proof is that the Tories have engaged in all sorts of these policies ... Theresa May’s opening speech upon becoming leader was to talk about social injustice, economic insecurity, lack of security in the workplace. Labour values, Labour words in a Tory mouth, evidence that the broad story we’re telling about Britain is right.”

Smith said that, unlike Corbyn, he would resign if he became leader and lost a confidence vote by MPs. “Yes - I would [resign]. We are a party that believes in parliamentary democracy and, as such, it is only right that the leader commands the support of his or her colleagues in the Commons.”

Should Corbyn win the contest, as expected, Smith will not return to the shadow cabinet but act as “a loyal backbencher”.  He pledges to resist any breakaway: “I'm Labour, I've always been Labour and I will never stop being Labour," he said. 

Speaking of his fear that Corbyn would seek to remain leader even if the party lost the next general election, he said: “I’m deeply worried about it. I think he’s determined to hang on come hell or high water. And what does that say about him? ... I think he is more concerned with his version of the Labour Party being sustained and being victorious than he is with the Labour Party being victorious in elections. I think he is actually prepared to sacrifice unity and victory - two great words that have traditionally been emblazoned on Labour banners through the ages - in order to secure control of the party.”

The trouble for Owen Smith is that, for all his combative talk and appeal to the left, he is trapped between his past pragmatism and his present radicalism. 

Tony Benn, Corbyn’s late mentor, divided politicians into “signposts” and “weathercocks”: those who shape opinion and those who are shaped by it. He would have branded Smith a “weathercock”. Even if he wins, Smith risks being remembered not as a politician who resolved his party’s contradictions, but as one who embodied them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser