His legacy? We are a society in pieces

Ten years ago, we saw ourselves reflected by Blair as young and energetic. Now we are broken down, i

Where you end up depends on where you start. The mantra of the Blair decade should have been education, education, education, but ended surely as location, location, location. People droned on about property and got agitated about the precise location of those pesky weapons of mass destruction. Location matters. In terms of social mobility it still does. You may be able to fly anywhere in Europe for a tenner, but changing social class is more difficult than ever.

So where were you on that night when a new, young, modern country was being reborn? Were you optimistic? Are you now, just ten years older, a bit grumpier and looking for someone to blame? Or were you really duped by Tiggerish Tony who promised you a land of casual clothing and free extra-virgin olive oil?

The current "structure of feeling" has moved inevitably from hope to disillusionment, but many of the decade's underlying social changes would have happened regardless of who was in government. Blair began by presenting himself as an agent of change, which was attractive, though I never was convinced by him. Easy as it was to hate Thatcher and everything she stood for, there was something about Trust Me Tony that was not quite right. Or too right.

Mostly, I just didn't get the "big tent" deal, the fantasy of inclusiveness. Third Way strangu lation seemed to rest on the deluded idea that all conflicts would vanish if only we were able to come together. The Third Way, which hadn't worked for Bill Clinton in the first place, operated under the assumption that the powerful won't always protect their own interests and that the market always gets results.

I needn't have worried. We never got the big tent. We got the Dome . The man said to have his finger on the pulse of popular culture overruled the begrudgers and decided to impose the Dome on "the people", as he used to call us. There was obviously no real idea of what should be inside this big tent. No plan B. We were simply to gawp in shock and awe. A portent of things to come, this reckless belief in his own visionary power? As Blair's certitude increased, ours diminished. Was it really the case that we spent his first term wondering if he stood for anything at all and that his biggest crisis was the fuel protests? The man who didn't seem to believe in anything in particular morphed after 9/11 into one of the scariest conviction politicians ever. We failed to understand that his style was substantial enough to win three elections and take us to war.

Blair leaves behind a country in fragments, despite a "strong" economy. The coalition that brought him to power - public-sector workers, aspirant middle classes and core Labour voters - has fractured. Some of this fragmentation was beyond his control. With our changing relationship to technology, we now communicate endlessly and have increasing access to information without going outside the front door. Half of all UK adults have broadband, 40 per cent have read a blog and more than two-thirds of us have tried "some kind of digital activity". As a result, our definitions of public and private space have been redrawn. We enter the world already in one of our own, with our own soundtracks, sharing our most intimate thoughts on the bus, sending images of our bums, our babies, our business plans into cyberspace.

Blair was always keen to get us wired up. Laptops for all! He had seen the future and would deliver it unto us. Gordon Brown helped with tax breaks and the consequences are every where. In cyberspace, individual consumer choice is sovereign, unlike actual public space, which involves negotiation. Such rapid social change required a unifying narrative, one that enabled social cohesion and was beyond the reach of the market. New Labour has never provided a satisfactory one. Blair was for "progress" and against the "forces of conserva tism". The logic of consumer capitalism remains neutral in Blairite discourse.

Without a notion of the social, it is unsur prising that antisocial behaviour became a real problem. A generation has grown up acting like it owns the place, unable to share, unwilling to agree a code of what is and is not acceptable. The omnipresent CCTV is a technological and nonsensical attempt to police the streets with no names. Yet there is such a thing as society and it reasserted itself at the oddest of moments, from the mourning for Diana to dancing "flashmobs". Mass ritual and spectacle have not gone away, but now manifest themselves as the return of the repressed. We are technically more connected than ever before, but more of us live alone and many of us feel alone.

The apotheosis of individualism is obviously celebrity culture, which only a fool would declare dead. (Pontificating lefties need reminding that Heat sells more than the Guardian.) The acquisition and maintenance of fame remains a central obsession. All children want to be famous without having any actual talents, not because they are stupid but because this is now possible. You can be famous for being "yourself" on Big Brother. You can be famous for acting famous like Chantelle. Remember the outrage when, in the first riveting series of Big Brother, a public-school boy, Nasty Nick, lied to his housemates. Another portent of things to come?

But Blair has played himself fanatically well, a superlative performer whether on the world stage or in a Catherine Tate sketch. He no longer seeks our approval but, like every other reality-show contestant, refuses to apologise. It is de rigueur for the loser in The Apprentice to declare themselves a winner. Blair insists he will be judged by a higher power than even Alan Sugar.

The comedy of the Blair years was also about a man who performed "himself": The Office. David Brent's "identity" was driven by deluded self-belief and an awareness of the burgeoning celebrity culture, but bore little relation to his actual job and the alienation of his co-workers. He mouthed the new laws of political correctness as he broke them. Ricky Gervais's genius was a comedy of social embarrassment and disaffection at a time when many felt awkward about new codes of behaviour.

Blair's government embraced some parts of the rising social liberalism better than others. The focus on lifting children out of poverty rather than penalising single parents was a break with the past; the provision of some free nursery care and the Civil Partnership Act 2004 remain genuine achievements. Strangely, an ease with homosexuality came to symbolise modernity itself. The Church and the Tories have yet to catch up. The argument that homosexual partnerships undermine heterosexual marriage is difficult to make when heterosexuals undermine around three in every five marriages all by themselves.

The old struggles around identity politics have got even more complicated, hence the urgent need to define Britishness. Racism has been fuelled by the refusal to have a civilised debate about immigration. Only recently have Labour min isters acknowledged that the pressure on public services in certain areas has been unmanageable and that some of our poorest communities have been "unsettled" by it. The result has been the rise of the BNP.

Al-Qaeda and alcopops

Our self-image as "tolerant" has been tested by the 7 July 2005 bombing and our new awareness of jihadi operations here. The question remains: How scared do we want to be? While the government has continually cranked up the threat level, the public is clearly underwhelmed by the idea that an ID card can protect you from a Yorkshireman with a grudge. If Blair thought he could unify us around a notion of the enemy within and without, he has been sorely disappointed.

The unspoken recognition that government cannot act as guarantor of our safety has meant it has resorted to micromanaging our personal lives. Al-Qaeda won't kill us, but alcopops might. We must not smoke, eat junk, drink too many units, or be slothful. Again, popular culture has mirrored this obsession with a zillion programmes telling us what not to eat or wear. We profess to hate the nanny state, but spend much leisure time being bullied by experts telling us to do something about ourselves as we sit with cook-chill meals on our laps watching telly.

In a parallel universe that we may still call the real world, more and more of us seek to get off our heads. We take more and cheaper drugs than ever. The government has done as well in the war against drugs as it has in Iraq, and every few months a venerable body produces a sensible report about this, which is systematically ignored. Unsurprisingly, our prisons are fuller and our mental health is declining, but as such people will never tell all to Hello!, they fall by the wayside.

No wonder that such cultural anxiety has produced a booming nostalgia industry. From yucky Cath Kidston repackaged chintz and our re-embracing of the briny British seaside to our mad pursuit of baking (thanks, Nigella) and the popularity of the daft School Disco - nostalgia, even a sense of loss, remains just below the surface. Old Jean Baudrillard, who fittingly popped his hyperreal clogs at the end of the Blair era, used to call it "accelerated culture". He was right, because now we see young adults getting tearful about things that happened only a few years ago.

The emptiness of the consumer experience, the rise of individualism, the loneliness of cyberspace, the unease on the streets show that though some have made money, all is not well. To deal with climate change requires a much less insular cultural climate. The rush towards the end of Blair's reign to talk about happiness and quality-of-life issues, which David Cameron has picked up, signals the uncomfortable truth about living through Tony Time.

Our lack of trust in all institutions has risen. Yes, we know about the huge sums of money eaten up by the National Health Service, but most of us experience brilliant emergency care and pitiful aftercare. Our schools, even those financed by maverick millionaires, have succumbed to endless targeting, testing and pressurising of young children that has little to do with learning. The damage inflicted by the disaster of Iraq on the Labour Party, on the ideal of humanitarian intervention and on democracy itself needs no rehearsal in these pages.

I would simply say that the catastrophic repercussions of the war on terror mesh with many other cultural trends to form a national mood of distrust and insecurity. Trust only yourself. Thus, the confessional, the emotive, the blogger, the personal continue to dominate. If we cannot speak for anyone but ourselves, then we will speak only of ourselves. We are now entrepreneurs, all selling our unique personalities, in cessantly spinning on behalf of ourselves. Blair taught us this by example.

Those of us silly enough to think that the main job of a Labour government was to make us more equal do indeed look silly. The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently said that "most measures of income poverty and inequality increased in 2005/2006". Not only is the gap between the rich and poor ever more evident, but the gap between the middle class and super-rich is huge.

When Charles Murray's essay on the underclass was published in Britain in 1994, the left gasped in horror. The underclass, he told us, was not about a degree of poverty, but defined by "a type of poverty". Poor people didn't just lack money, "they were defined by their behaviour". It is a sign of how far we have moved that such an analysis is no longer shocking. The underclass, chavs, people on estates, black kids shooting each other will always be with us. The question is how to avoid such people. Some make huge efforts to segregate themselves from those that Murray christened "the New Rabble".

Beggars outside the tent

Somehow this is acceptable, because the dis possessed have simply made the wrong moral choices and we haven't. So much for the big tent when all around the big tent are those begging, smoking crack, hearing voices. These chaotic, confused souls wander through our cities and our lives. The hope that things might change for them dwindles. There is no trickle-down effect from the City bonuses of millions, no social justice for those without advocates.

This is why I say we are a society in pieces. Even those who have a house and kids in college feel insecure about their debt, their mortgages, the top-up fees.

Blair's followers will say he saved the public sector from years of Tory neglect, but where was the promised remoralisation of society? Where was the narrative that emphasised connection, cohesion and active participation; that said, yes, public is as important as private; that insisted on Our Space in a world of MySpace? Did Blair bring harmony where there was discord? Did he leave us wanting more? No. For such a performer, that really is a disaster.

Ten years ago we saw ourselves reflected by Blair as young and energetic. Now we look broken down, grubby, anxious. The progressive narrative has disintegrated, the very goals of liberty and equality are deemed impossible, but still we are told things have got better. We are so disenchanted that we no longer trust that they have.

The spell is broken. I wonder if Blair has made it impossible for it ever to be cast again.

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: The reckoning

MARTIN O’NEILL
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The new young fogeys

Today’s teens and twentysomethings seem reluctant to get drunk, smoke cigarettes or have sex. Is abstinence the new form of youth rebellion?

In a University College London lecture theatre, all eyes are on an elaborate Dutch apple cake. Those at the back have stood up to get a better look. This, a chorus of oohs and aahs informs me, is a baked good at its most thrilling.

In case you were wondering, UCL hasn’t rented out a room to the Women’s Institute. All thirty or so cake enthusiasts here are undergraduates, aged between 18 and 21. At the third meeting this academic year of UCL’s baking society, the focus has shifted to a Tupperware container full of peanut butter cookies. One by one, the students are delivering a brief spiel about what they have baked and why.

Sarah, a 19-year-old human sciences undergraduate, and Georgina, aged 20, who is studying maths and physics, help run the baking society. They tell me that the group, which was set up in 2012, is more popular than ever. At the most recent freshers’ fair, more than 750 students signed up. To put the number in perspective: that is roughly 15 per cent of the entire first-year population. The society’s events range from Great British Bake Off-inspired challenges to “bring your own cake” gatherings, such as today’s. A “cake crawl”, I am told, is in the pipeline. You know, like a pub crawl . . . but with cake? Georgina says that this is the first year the students’ union has advertised specifically non-drinking events.

From the cupcake boom to the chart-topping eminence of the bow-tie-wearing, banjo-plucking bores Mumford & Sons, the past decade of youth culture has been permeated by wholesomeness. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), this movement is more than just aesthetic. Not only are teenage pregnancies at their lowest level since records began in the 1960s, but drug-taking, binge drinking and sexually transmitted infections among young people have also taken significant dives. Drug use among the under-25s has fallen by a quarter over the past ten years and heavy drinking – measured by how much a person drinks in an average week – is down by 15 per cent. Cigarettes are also losing their appeal, with under-25 smokers down by 10 per cent since 2001. Idealistic baby boomers had weed and acid. Disaffected and hedonistic Generation X-ers had Ecstasy and cocaine. Today’s youth (which straddles Generations Y and Z) have cake. So, what shaped this demographic that, fairly or otherwise, could be called “Generation Zzzz”?

“We’re a lot more cynical than other generations,” says Lucy, a 21-year-old pharmacy student who bakes a mean Welsh cake. “We were told that if we went to a good uni and got a good job, we’d be fine. But now we’re all so scared we’re going to be worse off than our parents that we’re thinking, ‘Is that how we should be spending our time?’”

“That” is binge drinking. Fittingly, Lucy’s dad – she tells me – was an anarchist with a Mohawk who, back home in the Welsh valleys, was known to the police. She talks with deserved pride about how he joined the Conservative Party just to make trouble and sip champagne courtesy of his enemies. Lucy, though decidedly Mohawk-free, is just as politically aware as her father. She is concerned that she will soon graduate into a “real world” that is particularly hard on women.

“Women used to be a lot more reliant on men,” she says, “but it’s all on our shoulders now. One wage isn’t enough to support a family any more. Even two wages struggle.”

***

It seems no coincidence that the downturn in drink and drugs has happened at the same time as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Could growing anxiety about the future, combined with a dip in disposable income, be taming the under-25s?

“I don’t know many people who choose drugs and alcohol over work,” says Tristan, a second-year natural scientist. He is one of about three men at the meeting and it is clear that even though baking has transcended age it has yet to transcend gender to the same extent. He is softly spoken and it is hard to hear him above a room full of sugar-addled youths. “I’ve been out once, maybe, in the past month,” he says.

“I actually thought binge drinking was quite a big deal for our generation,” says Tegan, a 19-year-old first-year linguistics undergraduate, “but personally I’m not into that. I’ve only been here three weeks and I can barely keep up with the workload.”

Tegan may consider her drinking habits unusual for someone her age but statistically they aren’t. Over a quarter of the under-25s are teetotal. Neither Tegan nor Lucy is dull. They are smart, witty and engaging. They are also enthusiastic and seemingly quite focused on work. It is this “get involved” attitude, perhaps, that distinguishes their generation from others.

In Absolutely Fabulous, one of the most popular British sitcoms of the 1990s, a lot of the humour stems from the relationship between the shallow and fashion-obsessed PR agent Edina Monsoon and her shockingly straitlaced teenage daughter, Saffie. Although Saffie belongs to Generation X, she is its antithesis: she is hard-working, moral, politically engaged, anti-drugs and prudishly anti-sex. By the standards of the 1990s, she is a hilarious anomaly. Had Ab Fab been written in the past couple of years, her character perhaps would have been considered too normal. Even her nerdy round glasses and frumpy knitted sweaters would have been considered pretty fashionable by today’s geek-chic standards.

Back in the UCL lecture theatre, four young women are “geeking out”. Between mouthfuls of cake, they are discussing, with palpable excitement, a Harry Potter-themed summer camp in Italy. “They play Quidditch and everything – there’s even a Sorting Hat,” says the tall, blonde student who is leading the conversation.

“This is for children, right?” I butt in.

“No!” she says. “The minimum age is actually 15.”

A kids’ book about wizards isn’t the only unlikely source of entertainment for this group of undergraduates. The consensus among all the students I speak to is that baking has become so popular with their demographic because of The Great British Bake Off. Who knew that Mary Berry’s chintzy cardigans and Sue Perkins’s endless puns were so appealing to the young?

Are the social and economic strains on young people today driving them towards escapism at its most gentle? Animal onesies, adult ball pools (one opened in west London last year) and that much-derided cereal café in Shoreditch, in the East End, all seem to make up a gigantic soft-play area for a generation immobilised by anxiety.

Emma, a 24-year-old graduate with whom I chatted on email, agrees. “It feels like everyone is more stressed and nervous,” she says. “It seems a particularly telling sign of the times that adult colouring-in books and little, cutesy books on mindfulness are such a massive thing right now. There are rows upon rows of bookshelves dedicated solely to all that . . . stuff.” Emma would know – she works for Waterstones.

From adult colouring books to knitting (UCL also has a knitting society, as do Bristol, Durham, Manchester and many more universities), it is hard to tell whether the tsunami of tweeness that has engulfed middle-class youth culture in the past few years is a symptom or a cause of the shrinking interest in drugs, alcohol, smoking and other “risk-taking” behaviours.

***

Christine Griffin is Professor of Social Psychology at Bath University. For the past ten years, she has been involved in research projects on alcohol consumption among 18-to-25-year-olds. She cites the recession as a possible cause of alcohol’s declining appeal, but notes that it is only part of the story. “There seems to be some sort of polarisation going on,” Griffin says. “Some young people are actually drinking more, while others are drinking less or abstaining.

“There are several different things going on but it’s clear that the culture of 18-to-25-year-olds going out to get really drunk hasn’t gone away. That’s still a pervasive social norm, even if more young people are drinking less or abstaining.”

Griffin suggests that while frequent, sustained drinking among young people is in decline, binge drinking is still happening – in short bursts.

“There are still a lot of people going to music festivals, where a huge amount of drinking and drug use goes on in a fairly unregulated way,” she says. It is possible that music festivals and holidays abroad (of the kind depicted in Channel 4 programmes such as What Happens in Kavos, in which British teenagers leave Greek islands drenched in booze and other bodily fluids) are seen as opportunities to make a complete escape from everyday life. An entire year’s worth of drinking, drug-taking and sex can be condensed into a week, or even a weekend, before young people return to a life centred around hard work.

Richard De Visser, a reader in psychology at Sussex University, also lists the economy as a possible cause for the supposed tameness of the under-25s. Like Griffin, however, he believes that the development is too complex to be pinned purely on a lack of disposable income. Both Griffin and De Visser mention that, as Britain has become more ethnically diverse, people who do not drink for religious or cultural reasons – Muslims, for instance – have become more visible. This visibility, De Visser suggests, is breaking down taboos and allowing non-mainstream behaviours, such as not drinking, to become more socially accepted.

“There’s just more variety,” he says. “My eldest son, who’s about to turn 14, has conversations – about sexuality, for example – that I never would’ve had at his age. I think there’s more awareness of alcohol-related problems and addiction, too.”

De Visser also mentions the importance of self-image and reputation to many of the young non-drinkers to whom he has spoken. These factors, he argues, are likely to be more important to people than the long-term effects of heavy drinking. “One girl I interviewed said she wouldn’t want to meet the drunk version of herself.”

Jess, a self-described “granny”, is similarly wary of alcohol. The 20-year-old Liverpudlian, who works in marketing, makes a bold claim for someone her age. “I’ve never really been drunk,” she says. “I’ve just never really been bothered with alcohol or drugs.” Ironically, someone of her generation, according to ONS statistics, is far more likely to be teetotal than a real granny at any point in her life. Jess says she enjoys socialising but her nights out with close friends are rather tame – more likely to involve dinner and one quick drink than several tequila shots and a traffic cone.

It is possible, she suggests, that her lack of interest in binge drinking, or even getting a little tipsy, has something to do with her work ethic. “There’s a lot more competition now,” she says. “I don’t have a degree and I’m conscious of the need to be on top of my game to compete with people who do. There’s a shortage of jobs even for people who do have degrees.”

Furthermore, Jess says that many of her interactions with friends involve social media. One theory put forward to explain Generation Zzzz is that pubs are losing business to Facebook and Twitter as more and more socialising happens online. Why tell someone in person that you “like” their baby, or cat, or new job (probably over an expensive pint), when you can do so from your sofa, at the click of a button?

Hannah, aged 22, isn’t so sure. She recently started her own social media and communications business and believes that money, or the lack of it, is why her peers are staying in. “Going out is so expensive,” she says, “especially at university. You can’t spend out on alcohol, then expect to pay rent and fees.” Like Jess (and as you would probably expect of a 22-year-old who runs a business), Hannah has a strong work ethic. She also has no particular interest in getting wasted. “I’ve always wanted my own business, so for me everything else was just a distraction,” she says. “Our generation is aware it’s going to be a bit harder for us, and if you want to support yourself you have to work for it.” She also suggests that, these days, people around her age have more entrepreneurial role models.

I wonder if Hannah, as a young businesswoman, has been inspired by the nascent strand of free-market, “lean in” feminism. Although the women’s movement used to align itself more with socialism (and still does, from time to time), it is possible that a 21st-century wave of disciples of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, is forswearing booze, drugs and any remote risk of getting pregnant, in order to get ahead in business.

But more about sex. Do the apparently lower rates of sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancies suggest that young people are having less of it? In the age of Tinder, when hooking up with a stranger can be as easy as ordering a pizza, this seems unlikely. Joe Head is a youth worker who has been advising 12-to-21-year-olds in the Leighton Buzzard area of Bedfordshire on sexual health (among other things) for 15 years. Within this period, Head says, the government has put substantial resources into tackling drug use and teen pregnancy. Much of this is the result of the Blair government’s Every Child Matters (ECM) initiative of 2003, which was directed at improving the health and well-being of children and young adults.

“ECM gave social services a clearer framework to access funds for specific work around sexual health and safety,” he says. “It also became a lot easier to access immediate information on drugs, alcohol and sexual health via the internet.”

***

Head also mentions government-funded education services such as Frank – the cleverly branded “down with the kids” anti-drugs programme responsible for those “Talk to Frank” television adverts. (Remember the one showing bags of cocaine being removed from a dead dog and voiced by David Mitchell?)

But Head believes that the ways in which some statistics are gathered may account for the apparent drop in STIs. He refers to a particular campaign from about five years ago in which young people were asked to take a test for chlamydia, whether they were sexually active or not. “A lot of young people I worked with said they did multiple chlamydia tests throughout the month,” he says. The implication is that various agencies were competing for the best results in order to prove that their education programmes had been effective.

However, regardless of whether govern­ment agencies have been gaming the STI statistics, sex education has improved significantly over the past decade. Luke, a 22-year-old hospital worker (and self-described “boring bastard”), says that sex education at school played a “massive part” in his safety-conscious attitude. “My mother was always very open [about sex], as was my father,” he says. “I remember talking to my dad at 16 about my first serious girlfriend – I had already had sex with her by this point – and him giving me the advice, ‘Don’t get her pregnant. Just stick to fingering.’” I suspect that not all parents of millennials are as frank as Luke’s, but teenagers having sex is no longer taboo.

Luke’s attitude towards drugs encapsulates the Generation Zzzz ethos beautifully: although he has taken MDMA, he “researched” it beforehand. It is this lack of spontaneity that has shaped a generation of young fogeys. This cohort of grannies and boring bastards, of perpetual renters and jobseekers in an economy wrecked by less cautious generations, is one that has been tamed by anxiety and fear.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war