Ian McEwan’s latest novel, On Chesil Beach, returns us to the summer of 1962, and to the hopes and aspirations of a young, newly married couple in a stilted and repressed Britain that is soon to be transformed for ever by the political and cultural turbulence of what we simply know now as “the Sixties”. They are from respectable, upper-middle-class families, and yet they long for convulsive change and a new kind of politics.
“Edward and Florence would be voting for the first time in the next general election and were keen on the idea of a Labour landslide,” McEwan writes. “In a year or two, the older generation that still dreamed of Empire must surely give way to politicians like Gaitskell, Wilson, Crosland – new men with a vision of a modern country… If America could have an exuberant and handsome President Kennedy, then Britain could have something similar – at least in spirit, for there was no one quite so glamorous in the Labour Party.”
In the event, Labour won the general election of 1964, but it was no landslide. We had to wait two more years for a more comprehensive victory, in the election of March 1966. We had to wait even longer, until the emergence of Tony Blair, for a truly exuberant and glamorous leader who, for a short, tantalising period, seemed to embody all our yearning and desire for progressive change, beguiling us with his vision of a modern country. If he was not quite our Kennedy, he was something entirely new in British political history.
His extraordinary popularity did not last. In retrospect, it could not have lasted, because party politics is, ultimately, not about ideals and truth; it is about compromise and obfuscation. It’s about being pragmatic, and working out what is and what is not possible in a capitalist liberal democracy in an age of globalisation, and of intense media scrutiny, when the richest members of any society are intent on paying as little tax as possible and the rest of us often demand of others what we are not prepared to do ourselves.
Yet those early weeks that followed the Labour landslide in May 1997, with their jingly-jangly Britpop soundtrack, now have a strange, drifting, dreamlike quality, as if we were all high on the opiate of change and possibility, as if we had all been sprinkled with a kind of magic dust. How different Tony Blair seemed from the grey man he had replaced at Downing Street: he was our first politician-as-celebrity, articulate in the language of popular culture, at ease on television, whatever the cultural register of the programme on which he found himself, relaxed in the company of rock stars and the new rich, and apparently uninhibited by the old class anxieties.
“London swings again!” announced Vanity Fair in 1997 on the cover of an issue showing the then husband-and-wife partnership of Patsy Kensit and Oasis’s Liam Gallagher lying on a bed, wrapped in a Union Jack duvet. According to Newsweek, London was the most exciting city on the planet, offering a “hip compromise between the non-stop newness of Los Angeles and the aspic-preserved beauty of Paris – sharpened to New York’s edge”.
We were living through the historical moment known as Cool Britannia when, for the first time in my lifetime, mainstream party politics had something of the allure of rock’n’roll, and Labour was the hegemonic power. In July 1997, Noel Gallagher of Oasis and Alan McGee, founder of Creation Records, the band’s record label, were among numerous arts celebrities invited along for a drinks party at 10 Downing Street. Afterwards, Gallagher, who was photographed drinking champagne and chatting with Blair in one of the defining images of that year, and indeed of the entire new Labour first term, announced that “Blair’s the man! Power to the people.”
Not long after that Downing Street party, I received a call from an old university friend. He is a remote and austere figure, religious and resolutely uninterested in the culture at large. But that afternoon he wanted only to talk about the new government, its promise, its sense of purpose, its “ethical” foreign policy, however misunderstood that notion turned out to be. Like so many of us, my friend believed in Tony Blair and in his mission to remake the country. He knew nothing of the dirt, struggle, grind and compromise of political life. What he did know was this: that there was a sense of optimism in the country such as he had never experienced before, and it was leading him away from his books and music and back into an active engagement with wider society.
Nowadays, once more in retreat, my friend seldom speaks about politics, except in distraction and sorrow. He would have enjoyed last week’s issue of this magazine, grandly titled “Blair: the reckoning”. The presiding tone was one of powerful regret, and even of rage. The political philosopher John Gray predicated that, after ten years in power, Blair would “bequeath to Labour a long sojourn in the wilderness”. The barrister Helena Kennedy suggested that, with the “war, the erosion of liberty, the absence of egalitarianism”, Blair had “blown it”. The writer Natasha Walter was even more direct: Blair, with blood on his hands, was “truly evil”. And so it went on: so much sadness and loss in this shadowland.
Much of what I read struck me as ludicrously pessimistic, the usual leftist dissatisfaction at the failures of a Labour government to liberate itself from the influence and hold of the United States and effect a radical remodelling of society.
“New Labour suffered from an exaggerated sense of expectation, just as it is now suffering from an exaggerated sense of disillusionment,” says Matthew Taylor, a former director of policy at 10 Downing Street who is now running the RSA, the royal society for the arts.
“We are always that much more disillusioned by the failures of parties of the left, because we expect so much more of them,” says Peter Wilby, who has published a study of Anthony Eden and the politics of the 1950s. “I recall how excited I was when Wilson came to power, ending 13 years of Tory rule. I felt that sense of excitement and possibility much more strongly in 1964 than in 1997, when I didn’t have past disillusionment to mollify my enthusiasms.”
This seems to me an important observation – and one that, in addition to anger at the catastrophe of Iraq, helps to explain why there will be little fanfare to accompany Gordon Brown’s arrival at Downing Street. Disillusionment has mollified our enthusiasms. Our expectations are no longer so unrealistic. The magic dust has long since been removed from our eyes.
Brown understands this, which is why he has talked about a turn towards a less ostentatious and frivolous style of politics. “I think we’re moving from this period when, if you like, celebrity matters, when people have become famous for being famous,” he told the Guardian. “I think you can see that in other countries, too – people are moving away from that to what lies behind the character and the personality.”
Less celebrity and more substance: is this what we now want from our politicians in the immediate post-Blair period? Can this move away from celebrity, if it is really happening at all, help to reinvigorate our interest in mainstream party politics?
Matthew Taylor, for one, believes that we are experiencing what he calls a profound shift in our politics. “People don’t want politics to be about something government does to them; they want it to be about how life and society feels to them. We need to be less government-centric, and begin to speak more about the kind of society we want to live in and what we can do as citizens to achieve it. For too long there’s been a social aspiration gap – between the society we want to live in, and the society we are able to create through our actions. I think David Cameron is closer to articulating this shift than any other politician. Of course, being in opposition allows him the freedom to speak as he does.”
In conversation, Taylor uses phrases such as “civic altruism” and “citizen voluntarism”. He asks how we can “reconceptualise social change” and calls on “citizens” to be more “self-sufficient”. What he is proposing is a different “model of democracy” from what we have now: less centralised and more flexible, and one that demands more responsibility and participation from the citizen. This seems appropriate for an internet-dominated culture, which offers so many ways of social networking and methods of instant communication: the email, the text, the blog, the chatroom. After all, among the most popular sites on the web – YouTube, MySpace, Facebook – are those for which the content is mostly provided by users, and which encourage not passive consumption, but active responsibility and interaction.
“There is a long-term secular trend of disengagement from party politics,” Taylor says. “In this sense, the period from 1994 to 1997, associated with the political phenomenon that was new Labour, was a blip. I think people felt in 1992 that they had been conned in some way into voting Conservative, and they didn’t want that to happen again. They became engaged. But we must distinguish between cycles and trends. The new Labour phenomenon was a cycle. The trend is towards disengagement.”
In 2005, the journalist John Harris published a book called So Now Who Do We Vote For?, which was about his own alienation from and disillusionment with the new Labour project. An earlier book by Harris, The Last Party, had smartly chronicled the rise of Britpop and explained how the movement, if it could be so described, began to fracture as soon as it became associated with the Labour Party and with Tony Blair in particular. The NME led the counter-attack against the government in its celebrated issue of March 1998, with the dramatic cover line: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” The subhead was: “Rock’n’roll takes on the government.”
The NME is notoriously impatient and capricious. It was inevitable that, before too long, it would turn against Blair and his new Labour Party. But few could have predicted how quickly the magazine would position itself in opposition to the government; that party at Downing Street with Noel Gallagher was at once the apotheosis and the beginning of the end of the cult of Cool Britannia. It was indeed the last party.
“I was 27 in 1997, and I was caught up in the euphoria of Labour’s victory,” Harris says now. “When I wrote Now Who Do We Vote For? I felt terribly disillusioned with politics, and shut out and at odds with the new Labour project. I felt the lunatic Blairite fringe was winning.”
He is less disengaged now. “I’ve rejoined the party, yes. I no longer feel that modern social democracy is a cause that has been lost. Ed Miliband, Yvette Cooper, Ed Balls – you feel that they’re committed to social democracy. I’m guardedly optimistic that we can begin to have a conversation again. What I want from politics – and this is the way to get young people more interested again – is to have a clearer sense of difference, of a clash of conflicting ideologies.
“We’ve got to get away from fake politics. Across the world, when people feel there’s something at stake, turnout rises at elections, as it did in France. Watching the French presidential elections – the dialogue taking place between Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal – you had a sense of something meaningful being talked about. They were talking about what kind of society France should become in relation to globalisation. And you had a clear sense of choice between the two.”
Genuine policy differences, opposing ideologies, class conflicts, a clash of ideas: these are what first attracted me as a teenager to politics in the early 1980s, as Margaret Thatcher radicalised wider society with her market reforms and ideologically driven attack on the postwar consensus. The Labour Party moved, disastrously, leftwards in response to Thatcherism, and the divided party had to split as well as suffer many defeats and humiliations before it began to make its long journey back to the political centre, a position from which it could once more contemplate winning elections.
Can party politics ever be cool again? That, I think, is the wrong question, especially if being cool means drinks parties with rock stars at Downing Street as well as winning and maintaining the support of the NME. In fact, to be cool is, almost by definition, to be fleetingly fashionable. Far better, as Gordon Brown understands, to be a politician of moral authority and of permanent ethical values.
There is no doubt that even as membership of political parties continues to fall exponentially – Labour would not tell us for this piece how many of its members are aged 35 or under – engagement with political issues, such as climate change and third world debt and poverty, continues to rise. There is a craving for seriousness, for hard political action, would that we were prepared to grasp it and act, in the image of Taylor’s active and responsible citizens.
At present, Westminster politics is defined by its ideological convergence; there is very little difference between Blair’s Labour and Cameron’s new-model, more socially liberal Conservatives. With the arrival of Gordon Brown as prime minister, and with the nationalists so strong in Scotland, we may be entering a period of upheaval, with the Labour government defining itself not so much against the Con servatives, the official opposition, as against its previous leader. Tony Blair was our first true politician-as-celebrity, and we once loved him unwisely and too well, just as we now loathe him ardently and, perhaps, too much.
Jason Cowley is the newly appointed editor of Granta magazine