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Books

'1997' Explores Laying the Groundwork for Brexit and Beyond

Richard Power Sayeed's fascinating look at the optimism of New Labour and Cool Britannia in 1997, and the subsequent agony which followed.

1997: The Future that Never Happened
Richard Power Sayeed

Zed

Oct 2017

Other

On 2 May 1997, Anthony Charles Lynton Blair stood in front of 10 Downing Street, Westminster, and faced the British press.

"We have secured a mandate to bring this nation together, to unite us," he said, visibly aware of the gravity of the moment.

"One Britain, one nation in which our ambition for ourselves is matched by our sense of compassion and decency and duty towards other people. Simple values, but the right ones."

There was applause from the crowd. Perhaps this was it. Perhaps this was the beginning of something new.

This was the first day of Tony Blair's decade-long stint as Prime Minister of Great Britain. This was the first day of a New Labour government, and of a new future for the United Kingdom and for its people. A future which, according to author Richard Power Sayeed, would never happen.

Under Blair, the Labour party had just won an unprecedented victory. In the hours that followed the closing of the polls on 1 May, Labour gained an astonishing 147 seats. Across the party battle lines, the Conservatives were counting the cost of a massacre; a massacre which saw the incumbents lose 171 seats overall as John Major was unceremoniously ousted from power. It was, and still is, the biggest majority ever secured by a Labour government.

So why was this? Why did the British public suddenly change their collective minds after 18 years of Conservative tenure? Maybe because Blair was different. People had grown tired of the years of Conservative stewardship -- which had spanned three decades and threatened a fourth -- and the right-of-centre rhetoric of the Tories simply didn't cut it anymore. The Cold War was over, the USSR was no more, and people had had enough of years of wrangling over Left and Right, over strikes and austerity and job losses. Suddenly, here was a leader, and a party, who offered something different; a "Third Way" as Blair himself called it.

This was not Labour, as it soon became clear, this was New Labour and, as the adopted campaign song by D:Ream was bustling its way back into the UK charts, a bold claim was made: "things can only get better". The people agreed, en masse.

It's true to say that 1997 was a time of optimism for the UK. The Britpop revolution had taken place, and the United Kingdom was an influential force on the global cultural stage, once again, thanks to bands like Oasis and icons like Kate Moss. After several years in the wilderness, England had very nearly brought football home in 1996, and one of the best players on the planet, Ryan Giggs, was a Welshman. Sport, culture, entertainment; the UK was a unique space in which all three could flourish.

It's at this crossroads of culture and politics that Sayeed begins. On the opening page we are introduced to a familiar face, that of Noel Gallagher, one half of the famous/infamous Gallagher Brothers, and one fifth of the hottest property on the contemporary British music scene; Oasis.

"It was all brandy and cigars 'round our house," Gallagher recalls of the night of Blair's ascendance to power, "Meg [Matthews, Noel Gallagher's then wife] and me got pissed and went out into the garden and played Revolution [by The Beatles] dead loud."

The significance of this musical moment is not lost on Sayeed. The author goes on to discuss the context of the song, and the events that led to John Lennon penning its lyrics in 1968. The piece of music, and the happenings in the year 1968, represented hope and idealism, it represented optimism and a profound sense of historical significance. The stall is set out: 1997 is 1968 for those of us too young to remember it the first time around.

From here, the journey is a comprehensive one, taking us into the heart of British identity and consciousness in the late '90s. We see the last remnants of an empire crumbling away as Hong Kong -- a British territory since the end of the Opium Wars in 1841 -- returns to Chinese control. We see the scale of racial prejudice, as well as the power of the British tabloid media, laid bare in the ugly and tragic case of Stephen Lawrence. We see the repackaging of the feminist movement as the 'Ladette' phenomenon and Girl Power.

We see, too, the political grandstanding and posturing, which led to Blair consolidating his hold on Britain. And we see the foreshadowing of events that would follow; the Iraq War, the new threat of terror, the destruction of New Labour, Brexit. In this sense, Sayeed's title becomes a little misleading; the future did happen, just as it always will, it just didn't happen in the way they said it would.

Sayeed, making his debut as an author with The Future That Never Happened, has a talent which belies his relative inexperience. He crafts an engaging narrative -- although he may argue that the narrative is already clear and present -- following in the footsteps of the great historians and cultural analysts as he picks through the debris of smashed dreams. Detailed, thorough, and always managing to keep a loose rein on the vein of conviction which runs through the text, Sayeed handles his difficult task with poise and capability.

This is history as an organism; as something which develops and grows, rather than simply existing in hermetically sealed microcosms in the past. The furore surrounding the behaviour of Stephen Lawrence's killers, for example, led to crackdowns on institutionalised racism in the police force, but it also emboldened the tabloid media to become the kingmakers and manipulators they are today. The introduction of Blair's Third Way into the political lexicon re-energised a jaded electorate, but its failure led to increasing polarisation in society and the rise of the much more Left-leaning Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader.

New Labour's project of multiculturalism gave thousands of people the chance to form a new and more dynamic British identity, but has since been latched onto by the Far Right and decried as an erosion of traditional UK values. This, in turn, acted as a catalyst for Brexit.

To understand the present, we must first understand the past. By demonstrating a vision of a future which never arrived, Richard Power Sayeed's book gives us the tools required to do both.

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