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

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses