In the run up to the EU elections in 1999, I was driving around Clapham Common when a people carrier, decked with UKIP banners and Union flags, appeared from nowhere and pulled alongside my car. As I peered right, a window wound down and to my complete bewilderment the elderly TV astronomer Patrick Moore appeared, monocle in eye and started shouting “Leave the EU!” in my general direction. Before I had chance to reply, his vehicle surged forward with a thrust and Moore fell back, eye-piece flying – as the car careered off violently down Battersea Rise.
That wasn’t the first time I’d heard of UKIP, but it was certainly my first close encounter. They looked like crazy outsized Time Bandits, on a ride into oblivion. It was clear that here we had the lunatic fringe of the Conservative right, old men and young fogeys – out of sync with their time – berating the unstoppable advance of late nineties Britain from the open windows of their Japanese cars.
Now if you can’t remember the 1990s then gather round and pay attention my Millenial friends while Grandad takes you on a trip into the past. Yes you’ve seen Friends and decided it’s shit, but back then Central Perk wasn’t at…. well.. the centre of the known universe – Britain was. Even the Americans admitted it. In March 1997 Liam Gallagher (Lennon on Instagram’s dad) and Patsy Kensit (ask your Nan she’ll remember) appeared semi-naked on the front of Vanity Fair and the magazine declared that London and indeed Britain were ‘swinging again.’
Actually, Vanity Fair was late to the party. Britpop was over by 1997 and with the release of Oasis’s self-important and ridiculous ‘Be Here Now’ in August of that same year and the death of Princess Diana 10 days later, the feel-good nineties were soon to peak – but prior to that, for a few fleeting years, the UK basked in a sort of cultural and social idyll. Interesting things happened in almost all walks of life. The Young British Artists became household names. The Daily Mail railed against ‘in yer face’ British theatre and punters queued round the block. Trainspotting exploded onto the cinema screens and most significantly of all – the 43 year old Tony Blair entered Number 10 Downing Street – fresh faced and full of optimism.
Blair announced his victory with the words “a new dawn has broken” and it didn’t feel like hyperbole – it felt, genuinely, like a revolution. Not a shitty Brexit revolution – but a good one – where everybody gets cake and possibly a nice glass of wine.
Like many political contenders Blair had made a lot of crazy promises to win. Foremost among those were a reduction in primary school class sizes, a reduction in NHS waiting lists, an ‘ethical foreign policy’ and repeal of the much hated anti-LGBT Section 28. Incredibly for the most part he delivered. On day one Chris Smith became the first openly gay man to be appointed to the Cabinet, much to the rage of the Tory right. Money poured into higher education and primary schools, much to the rage of the Tory right. The minimum wage was introduced, much to the rage of the Tory right. Billions went into the NHS, much to the rage of the Tory right. New hospitals were built – you get the idea.
A lot of politics is of course luck and in that respect, Blair hit the jackpot. The British economy was already booming and advances in technology put mobile phones in ordinary people’s hands for the first time and DVD players and computers (with new-fangled internet) in many homes. The Good Friday Agreement, so long coming, ended decades of conflict in Northern Ireland.
The present was great, but the future seemed even richer with potential. Most of all – it felt very good to be British.
The icing on the cake was when the Chilean dictator General Pinochet, on a trip to London, was arrested pending extradition to Spain for trial on human rights violations and murder. Held for 16 months, Pinochet was eventually released on the grounds of ‘frail health’ but his detention marked a watershed in international human rights – no more would a dictator or former dictator strut the free world with impunity – a new bar had been set.
And then – in September 2001 – the twin towers fell and the feel-good 1990s came crashing down with them (and yes 2001 isn’t the 1990s but that’s not how decades work.) Iraq 2 followed shortly afterwards and Blair threw his legacy away in pursuit of playing second fiddle to America’s second worst President in modern times.
Now before you all come at me on twitter with the “Blairite!” assaults let me stress and underline that even the early Blair years were very far from perfect. Those big infrastructure projects were funded through PFI which was not the silver bullet it was cracked up to be – more a disaster waiting to happen. While the gap between rich and poor didn’t widen, it didn’t narrow either. Many of us who voted for Blair so enthusiastically in 1997 did not do so again in the wake of Iraq. The “Ethical Foreign Policy” lasted about three minutes. But – in that brief sliver of time between 1997 and 2001 we were offered a glimpse of what a modern post-imperial Britain could be. Not a nation built on Spitfires and spite – wallowing in past glories and dark blue passports – but a creative, forward looking country, at ease with itself; a tolerant, internationally minded, global player moving in the right direction – forward.
Those of us who oppose the current political course are in some need of a realistic proposition of what Britain could be instead and while we should never ape the past, we might perhaps reflect that there was a time – not so very long ago – when this country sat not just at the centre of the EU – but the world – steering a successful and very attractive course. That we allowed the crazies in the people carrier to take hold of the wheel should be a matter of deep regret – but not an unassailable obstacle in our path.