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.