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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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.