Living the dream of better times for a new generation

As a new Labour Prime Minister settles into office with a thumping majority behind him and with the Conservative opposition in utter disarray, it’s difficult not to think back to 1997 and the wave of euphoria that over took the nation. Here was a Labour government that seemed to understand the issues the country faced and the direction of travel it needed to take in the future. Tony Blair was 43 years old when he took office (nearly 20 years younger than Keir Starmer is now) and had an instinctive grasp for what Generation X craved. After all, he was the first British Prime Minster to grow up with rock and roll and appeared to embody a generational shift like no politician before him.

He arrived with pithy, effective soundbites (‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime) and his timing was perfect because the nation was on the cusp of something really interesting. Britain was emerging from recession, money was beginning to flow back into the economy. Earlier that year, US fashion bible, Vanity Fair, had published a Cool Britannia issue with Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit on the front cover that proclaimed: ‘London Swings! Again!’.

The brainchild of British journalist, Toby Young, the edition picked out how the capital’s art scene was thriving thanks to the YBA’s; how young, difficult indie bands like Blur, Oasis, and Pulp were reaching the top of the charts; and how lads mag, Loaded, was changing the face of magazine publishing. It talked about how London’s food scene was being revolutionised by the likes of Terence Conran and Oliver Peyton and how Alexander McQueen was rising through the fashion industry. It might also have mentioned how a small trade fair which opened on the King’s Road in 1995, called 100% Design, was changing the design scene. It certainly spotted that all this was coalescing around the Prime Minister in waiting.

By the time New Labour got into power the nation was primed for change. We were going to transform the world – largely through the medium of guitar-based rock. Or so we thought.


Runnin’ down a dream

When New Labour left office in 2010 much of this optimism had curdled of course, the blame for which can be placed primarily on the war in Iraq. But it’s easy to forget quite how much Blair’s government achieved and how quickly. The minimum wage is now firmly ingrained in British working culture but was a completely new concept in 1997. There was peace in Northern Ireland (a process, it should be said, that started under John Major). The Bank of England was made independent. Sure Start Centres were built. NHS waiting lists came down, as did the size of primary school classes.

There was a programme to build better schools. Devolution took power away from London and placed it in local hands. Initially at least, the government understood the importance of creativity to the British economy and was delighted to trumpet our artists, musicians, designers and makers abroad. Importantly too, there was a general sense of liberalisation – that we were becoming a modern, progressive nation, which was comfortable in its own skin. Multiculturalism was celebrated, rather than feared. The then Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, even declared that chicken tikka massala was the true British national dish in a 2001 speech.


A new gold dream

Spool forward to today and Starmer’s victory feels different. Sure, there’s a palpable sense of relief that 14 years of divisive, and often incompetent, government has ended. But there are worries too. Labour might have a huge majority but its support feels shallow and turn out was low. Rather than outline a coherent vision for Britain’s future, Starmer elected to say little during the campaign in the certain knowledge that the Tories would implode. His party became, according to Tony Blair in a recent The Sunday Times piece, ‘a credible instrument of punishment’. Sensible politics maybe but it doesn’t set the pulse racing.

Then there’s the looming issue of Reform – which took a whopping 14 per cent of the vote by exploiting very real concerns around increased immigration – and Nigel Farage, who likes nothing more than training his sights on a technocratically-leaning politician. This, combined with the division that the Gaza crisis caused in several areas of the country – most notably Birmingham – provides a backdrop to a country full of angst eight years after the Brexit referendum divided the country in two.

The government also faces problems with which New Labour never had to contend. Blair was unique in Labour history for inheriting an economy on the up. There was money to spend. Starmer will have to operate in very different, straitened, circumstances. Back in 1997, the climate crisis was a minority issue, now it’s imperative we find a way to mitigate its worst effects.

There are also problems to tackle that have been ignored by successive administrations. The seeds of our current housing crisis were sown by the Housing Act of 1980, which stated the intention to ‘to give … the right to buy their homes … to tenants of local authorities’. The lack of adequate social housing was something New Labour refused to tackle on its watch and Starmer will have to pick up the pieces now.

So does the generation that voted for the first time in this election feel that way I did nearly 30 years ago. Judging from my children’s reaction the answer has to be no. They aren’t euphoric but they are delighted (and hugely engaged). And perhaps solid, unspectacular Keir is exactly what the nation needs right now. There has been enough drama, enough lying, enough gaming the system. We could do with quiet competence, a government that gets on with the job without constant bickering, a government that’s determined to ‘deliver’ sensible, pragmatic solutions to our myriad problems. There may be no Vanity Fair articles about Starmer in the offing but let’s face it, things can only get better.

Image: From Albion Rose by William Blake (1796)