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7 May 2007

“I’ve no memories of anything before him”

Sarah O'Connor was 12 when Tony Blair was first elected prime minister. Here she recounts what it wa

By shakeel sadiq

People called 1997 year zero. For me, it really was. I was 12, and Blair’s landslide marked the beginning of my political awareness.

Of course I knew that the Tories were a Bad Thing. My parents (usually Lib Dem voters) told me they had voted new Labour because it was the best chance in years to get shot of them. But I was too young to share the anger Margaret Thatcher had left in her wake. My only memory of the divisions of those years was seeing her effigy burned on the news one night.

Tony Blair certainly looked new and different, grinning amid a storm of red confetti. He was obviously young (a good thing in my book) and it soon became clear he was friends with pop stars (even better). But he annoyed me fairly early on by making entry to all museums free, somewhat devaluing my hard-won Blue Peter badge. Other than that, the good things he did in those years were lost on me. The minimum wage for over-18s mattered little as I babysat three kids for £2.50 an hour. Education spending didn’t filter through quickly enough to reach me – my state school now has “specialist status” and is building a sports hall, but when I was there we did PE in the dining-room, trying to avoid getting chips stuck between our toes.

The first day at sixth-form college was a turning point for me and, as it turned out, it was for Blair, too: it was 11 September 2001. By the time I left college with a clutch of A-levels and a couple of ex-boyfriends, Britain had invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. My apathy towards Blair had turned to deep antipathy, mitigated only by a touch of admiration for his unerring self-belief. Didn’t teenagers have the monopoly on ill-informed self-righteousness?

There was no getting away from him any more. My friends and I would argue passionately about Iraq over our Bacardi Breezers, and though our anger might not have matched that of our parents’ reaction to Vietnam, we did write furious letters, sign petitions, and march. We started paying far greater attention to Westminster politics, which seemed – for a brief moment – to matter. I quickly gave up Blair as a lost cause, and wrote a long, precocious letter to Charles Kennedy urging him to take charge of the opposition.

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In a sense, those years between 9/11 and Iraq should have turned us off politics – our generation had raised its political voice for the first time, and nobody listened. At least, not the people who counted. But, for some of us, that period had the opposite effect. In a way Blair did us a favour: he provoked us, forcing us to look beyond piss-ups and Ucas applications to something bigger. What was happening in the world became more than just a 6pm soundtrack to dinner. We formed an Amnesty group at college, and I found myself trading Heat magazine for the Guardian. This Week became one of my favourite television programmes and I even started listening to Radio 4. In short, Blair made a geek of me.

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My first chance to vote came in 2005, halfway through my time at Cambridge. Like most of my peers, I voted Lib Dem, while the Etonian types went for the Conservatives. Only ambitious members of the student Labour Society voted new Labour. That night, students crammed into the common room to watch. I was 20 now and there was no one to send me to bed this time, but by 2am we were bored and dispirited. We sloped off home.

My generation might not feel the bitter disappointment in Blair of those whose hopes were so high in 1997, but we’ve suffered in our own way. We have never known any politics but his. He made us angry, engaged and eager for change. But there’s nowhere to put that energy – no 1997 moment on the horizon.

We grew up with Blairism, and whether Gordon Brown or David Cameron succeeds him, we’ll probably grow old with it, too.