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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

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