1997: The Future That Never Happened

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The 1997 general election saw the hated Tories thrown out, indeed humiliated, and a bright New Labour government take office under an idealistic young leader, Tony Blair. There was widespread hope of change and improvement. It is useful to remember how enthusiastic much of the left was about Blair at this time with one former Communist Party intellectual actually describing New Labour as a “Gramscian project”!

Only the revolutionary left was sceptical, warning of the inevitable consequences of reformist politicians taking responsibility for running capitalism. The only basis for their scepticism was the performance of every previous Labour government. As it was, the outcome was far worse than anyone could have imagined back in 1997 with the great majority of Labour MPs following their leader down the road to neoliberalism, turning their backs on the working class and wholeheartedly supporting America’s disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Richard Power Sayeed revisits that year and examines its cultural (in the widest sense of the word) promise. There are chapters on the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the Macpherson inquiry, the death of Diana Windsor and the reinvention of the royal family, the Spice Girls and “Girl Power”, Damien Hirst and the Young British Artists phenomenon, Blur, Oasis and Britpop.

The last chapter, “Systemic Risks”, reminds us that the response of Labour’s chancellor of the exchequer, Alastair Darling, to the 2008 crash was to promise a regime of austerity with cuts far deeper than anything Thatcher had attempted. Indeed, the Cameron government was to cut “only as much as Darling had promised to cut”, certainly a welcome reminder of past realities.

Certainly the intention behind this book was brilliant, but its execution is a bit more problematic. Sayeed is much too self-indulgent, going on at quite unnecessary length, providing too much detail, when what was really needed was a much more incisive account. It is almost as if he has found his subjects too fascinating, and consequently gives too much credence to the “magic” of 1997. The book really needed to be much shorter if its impact was to be maximised.

Having said this it does have much of interest to say. The strongest chapter is his examination of the response to the murder of Stephen Lawrence, not least because of its continued relevance today. The Spice Girls have been and gone, no one takes Damien Hirst seriously as an artist any more (he is more of an investment!), but police racism is still a vital immediate issue.

His discussion of how the supposed radicalism of 1997 was marketed is also of considerable interest if not so urgent. The “feminism-lite” of the Spice Girls, the biggest group in the world in 1997, is nicely exposed as a quite shameless marketing strategy. The group had supposedly met at drama school, shared a flat, and were all strong independent women, whereas in reality they had been recruited by an advert placed in the press by Bob Herbert, the man who had previously invented Bros! He then sold them on to Simon Fuller and, according to Sayeed, was paid not to reveal their origins. So much for “Girl Power”, which comes down to just another example of “Money Talking”. And as for Damien Hirst, the first “artist” to actually have a manager, once again his supposed art is just “Money Talking”! Indeed, “Money Talking” is not a bad epitaph for the Blair years.