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