Readers of this blog will know that I have a soft spot for the 1990s, which I probably view through extremely rose tinted spectacles. I was young in the 1990s and had a good time – it really isn’t that complicated. So the music, fashions and events of the 1990s are soaked in sentimentality. Even the bad times don’t feel that bad with the benefit of hindsight. For many years I made television programmes that looked back at the recent past as a collection of pop cultural artefacts so maybe it is inevitable that I see my own life in this way.
I have been thinking a lot about the 90s this week and one year in particular: 1997. It was the year that the now disgraced Tony Blair rose to power – the year that we danced in the streets after eighteen years of Tory rule. It really did feel like a new dawn, and although Saatchi and Saatchi produced what now appears to be a prescient campaign featuring a Satanic Tony Blair – Blairelzebub – we wanted to believe that things really could get better.
My memory of the 2nd May 1997 is almost photographic in its clarity. It was a beautiful day and I was dressed in blue (rather than red for a Labour supporter). I remember exactly what I was wearing – a blue tube skirt split to the thigh and a pair of vertiginous platforms. It was at the height of my Poundland Geri Halliwell period – I won’t torment you with the photographs again. I was working as a researcher for the BBC and remember tottering around the old TV Centre in this ridiculous get up thinking I was the bees knees.
We had an election party that night which was fantastically drunken and hedonistic. The highlights of the evening were tormenting some Tories who had foolishly turned up and then watching Michael Portillo lose his seat. That felt so good. Portillo was a baddie in the 90s – now he is a rather charming man who presents TV programmes about railways.
Then it was off to the South Bank. My boyfriend at the time was a photographer,so he was there to cover the celebrations. But better still, at the time I had recently worked at GMTV (how 90s) and my colleague was none other than David Prescott, son of John. Somehow we slipped into the Festival Hall and met the Prescotts – even more fun that watching Peter Mandelson’s dad dancing.
Then the morning after. It really felt like a new beginning. Everyone I knew had voted for Tony and Gordon and Peter and Jack and all the other stars in the New Labour firmament. We thought they were great because they allowed selfish middle class hedonists (like myself) to feel good about ourselves. We weren’t Tories. We cared (about what other than clubs, parties and getting on the property ladder I am not exactly sure). We were modern – not like Tories who in those days were sexist and mean to gays and black people. New Labour were good because they weren’t scary and didn’t suggest we did weird things like join a union – I remember thinking it was terribly amusing when someone suggested I did exactly that. Voting Labour was the cool fun thing to do. And the good thing was that nothing really changed and you could get on with your selfish middle class existence without anyone making you feel bad about owning property or having shares or never really thinking about the people who might actually need something from a Labour government. It didn’t bother you that Labour didn’t build any social housing or left the regions to rot. You were all right and that was OK.
I am slightly exaggerating my own shallowness for comic effect but I think shallowness was at the heart of New Labour. It was the party of packaging and advertising and mission statements. It was the party of slogans and also the party of performance. It now appears that Blair’s attempts to discuss going to war with Iraq in any meaningful or democratic way were just a performance – it had all been decided well in advance. I am not going to attempt to analyse Chilcot here – others have done this far better than I could ever hope to do – but it does seem that during the Blair years democracy became little more than a form of reality TV, the enduring cultural legacy of that era.
Weirdly I found a novel I had written in that era, which I think captures the dumbed down mentality we had all sunk into. It was about celebrity, which basically was all I cared about. I am almost tempted to rewrite it, giving it a political twist, adding maybe some of the more lurid figures of the Blair era. Perhaps I will slip in Carole Caplin, Cherie’s ‘fitness guru’ who was supposed to have taken baths with the Blairs? I met her in the telly years and she was indeed a truly bizarre creature.
I feel like I am writing a treatment for one of the list shows I used to make – maybe the working title should be ‘Top Ten Blairites’ or ‘I Love Tony’. Something like that. I am being flippant – allow me for a few moments. But there is nothing fun or flippant about the behaviour of the Blairites in the past week or two. The so called ‘chicken coup’ showed them at their most toxic and conniving. They need to bow out gracefully – at the moment they are hanging around like Big Brother winners from a previous season. The country needs something new and they must accept this. It’s not 1997 any more or even 2007 and it’s just not enough to paper over the cracks with a bit of PFI and the odd healthy eating initiative.
At the moment the Blairites are hated, but if they do the decent thing and accept the world has moved on, then maybe we will smile fondly at them once again. We need something a lot bigger and bolder than they ever dared to offer. We need policies rather than performance.