Whatever Happened to Cool Britannia?

1997 was a cultural watershed for a new, “cool” neoliberalism.

Spice Girls (L-R) Victoria Beckham, Melanie Chisholm (Mel C), Geri Halliwell, Emma Bunton and Melanie Brown (Mel B) pose for a photo at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, on June 28, 2007 in London, England. Getty Images

In the small hours of a summer night, the air was thick with war cries. “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn,” was being drunkenly and joyously belted out, to the tune of “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes, by exuberant young people, in pubs, clubs, and city centers.

Uncanny, and unbidden, friends of a certain generation almost uniformly recall feeling as though they had abruptly been plunged back twenty years in time. The Corbyn celebrations recalled the optimism of D:Ream’s “Things Can Only Get Better,” which accompanied New Labour’s sweeping electoral victory in 1997. As though something from the past, not yet properly worked through, has resurfaced for another attempt. This is, in a way that Richard Power Sayeed could not have anticipated, an ideal moment to revisit 1997.

1997 could, therefore, rest content at being the literary equivalent of clickbait, certain to tap into something truly resonant. It could simply blast its readers with a dizzying line up Oasis, the Spice Girls, Damien Hirst, Doreen Lawrence, Anna Friel, Blair, and Brown, and let memory do the work. But it is far, far better than that. It is the story of a complete political, cultural and economic situation — with one major, symptomatic absence, which I’ll come to. And it tells of the ways in which powerful groups, from New Labour to the art speculators to the BBC and the banks, all acted on the possibilities within it to shore up their own position.

In Sayeed’s telling, 1997 fizzes with possibility, but most of it is never realized. Complex popular energies, often with radical potential, are instead appropriated and transformed into their opposite: a resource of Thatcherite hegemony. The book opens with the joyful scenes of Tory evisceration, avidly watched by a group of left-wing intellectuals — Stuart Hall, Doreen Massey, and Martin Jacques. It is never explained what the purpose of this apercu is, but it seems an appropriate evocation: this book is very much a cultural analysis in the tradition of the Marxism Today intellectuals.

Although this is not made explicit, the book’s analysis of the conversion of radical possibilities into neoliberal longevity strongly recalls Hall’s own analysis of New Labour. According to Hall, the Blairite strategy was one of Gramscian “trasformismo.” In New Labour’s “double-shuffle,” a middle class, center-right leadership was continually in the process of borrowing thematics and ideas from a working-class and left-wing tradition, depriving them of their radical content, and giving them a new, pro-market, liberal format. Sayeed’s analysis unfolds the implications of that view across the whole media and political landscape.

Devolving Toward Nationalism

Race and nation are the leading vectors through which Sayeed’s analysis is conducted — appropriately, given the way in which New Labour set out wrapped in the Union Jack, and betrayed its early liberal promise to help drive a panic about immigration and a panic-infused debate about nationality. The seemingly optimistic, cosmopolitan early days of New Labour were also days in which the nation was carefully and audaciously redefined by the Blairites — and in which the seeds of what came can be found. This concern with the way nationality empowers and organizes pro-status quo forces, cuts through the whole analysis, from the Lawrence Inquiry to Britpop.

It is odd, in retrospect, to be reminded of New Labour’s early Whiggish impulses on nationality. Before the turn to racial authoritarianism and the belligerent “Britishness” agenda, they had come to office with a package of constitutional reforms, devolution, and proposed democratic changes to the House of Lords. It vaunted a seemingly optimistic, open-minded, and globally oriented national culture against the “forces of conservatism” on both right and left. One of the government’s first acts was to appoint Lord MacPherson to chair an inquiry into the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence and the police handling of the investigation. MacPherson found that the police were “institutionally racist.” Britain looked like it might be on the way to being a confident, cosmopolitan, post-imperial society with a more relaxed and devolved internal structure.

But Sayeed spots the early danger signs. First, the Lawrence campaigners, above all the family, had been forced to compromise with a media that was usually uninterested in victims of racist violence, and overwhelmingly pro-police. The result was that coverage tended to avoid criticism of the police or the wider structures of state and society which they policed. Second, when MacPherson did use the terminology of “institutional racism,” he took it from the Black Power movement while mostly expunging it of its radical, critical edge, and particularly its prescription of thoroughgoing political and economic transformation. So that while some real progress was made, it was always confined within the terms of a fairly conservative political center.

Worse by far was the drift to the racist right on refugee policy. Labour ministers always justified their belligerence in terms of appeasing their core voters, but always in a patronizing way, since they privately believed that fears about immigration were irrational. It took less than two years for New Labour to completely abandon any vestige of a liberal policy on asylum. They introduced detention centers, one of several Tory ideas they purloined, and replaced benefits for asylum seekers with a degrading vouchers’ scheme. This was the beginning of an arc — nasty, British, and short — toward neo-Powellite baiting of minorities.

Here, one has to register a small but significant failure in Sayeed’s narrative. In a discussion of the Lawrence murder and its fallout, he refers briefly to the protest outside the fascist British National Party’s headquarters in Welling, describing “fights” breaking out, which immediately resulted in the Lawrence family being forced by the press to disown the protest. This elides the police assault on protesters, and leaves unexamined the context and history of police violence toward antifascist movements. More importantly, it misses something that proved to be hugely important in the 2001 north English riots, wherein local police were so indulgent toward fascist provocateurs and violent toward their opponents. Those riots, and the ensuing Cantle Report which blamed Asian “self-segregation,” was as much a turning point in New Labour race strategies as the “war on terror,” but Sayeed doesn’t allude to it at all.

Of course, such liberalism as was circulating in 1997 was always wafer-thin anyway, predicated as it was on an ideology of neoliberal modernization. Sayeed’s reading of the mourning over the death of Princess Diana is very lucid in this regard. He interprets it as evidence of a diffuse, not-yet-congealed hostility to the House of Windsor, and possibly a basis for republican sentiment. Yet, with stunning cynicism and efficiency, New Labour’s then-legendary spin machine got to work for the royal family, latching onto the sentiment and giving it a series of otherwise empty populist expressions — “the People’s Princess,” as Blair labelled Diana. In persuading the royals to become more integrated with the national media, to give journalists better copy, and comport themselves as celebrities, they gave the Hollywoodization of national culture a veneer of egalitarian, democratic openness. In this sense, the people-nation that New Labour summoned into existence was always a commodity-image, in which the real existence of exploitation, oppression, and social conflict, was an inconvenience to be policed and shoved out of view, as in a Richard Curtis movie.

The Swinging Nineties

Perhaps most telling about this era is the sudden, rocketing ascension of “Girl Power.” Like it or not, the Spice Girls tapped into something that people couldn’t get enough of: audiences went quickly crazy for their music and image. The industry bosses who profited from this could anticipate where a market was emerging, but they couldn’t invent it wholesale. So their decision to relaunch a previously low-key “girl band” as a feminist insurgency, borrowing slogans from women’s liberation — “the future is female” — betrayed an understanding that there was a feminist desire out there. Naturally, the Spice Girls were in no sense a feminist act. Their borrowed slogans were wived with the individualist, choice-based language of Thatcherite strivers, like Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls. Moreover, the group’s “bolshiness” was also carefully marketed to play to male sexual fantasies, wherein the Spice Girls were positioned as “dommes” who liked to sexually humiliate men. Nonetheless, while describing the appropriation of potentially radical desires, Sayeed is careful to stress the complex, critical ways in which cultural products are consumed, and that consumers are never purely passive. So the ultimate effects of this moment are ambiguous.

However, once again the nation imposes itself as determinant. The iconic pop moment for the Spice Girls was Geri Halliwell, in a Union Jack dress and red platform boots, standing with one hand resting on her hip, the other pointing to the ceiling. For Sayeed, the power of this is largely in the way that it asserts the Union Jack as just another empty signifier, just another commodity brand, while at the same time equating women’s liberation with nationalist assertion. Girl’s Power becomes Cool Britannia.

This, of course, segues into the reactionary tendencies of Britpop, wherein “a few specific conservative elements of working class culture” — an “authentic,” “gobby,” white masculinity — are summoned by Oasis, Blur, and others for a relaunched nationalism. This is justified partly as a reaction to Americanization, but the proleface, as one might call it, was largely for middle-class consumers. However, it’s worth adding to Sayeed’s points that it was always specific in its nostalgia. In the same year that Halliwell’s pose struck gold, Austin Powers — Mike Myers’ comedy about a British spy from the Swinging Sixties — was released. It mined, much as Halliwell’s dress arguably did, a yearning for an optimistic, booming post-war Britain. Indeed, the Spice Girls summoned the memory of the Beatles just as much as Britpop, with their movie “Spice World” self-consciously evoking the Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night.”

Buried in this part of Sayeed’s story is a very interesting sub-narrative that he adverts to, but does not pursue. He is fascinating on the role of BBC chiefs like Marmaduke Hussey and John Birt in fronting the reorganization of the BBC, and in the fact that Radio One’s decision to promote Britpop was essential to this strategy. However, what he does not say, and what is often missed, is that this reorganization was not just about shrinking the BBC or proving its worth in the face of right-wing attack. As the sociologist Tom Mills points out, Birt was a neoliberal in the doctrinaire sense, close to leading New Right politicians like Keith Joseph. He had been appointed by Thatcher to implement the doctrines of New Public Management wherein the public sector was to be run on market lines. The cultural rebranding of the BBC, using the same energies as New Labour harnessed to its own ends, above all a fetishized form of “working-class culture,” was therefore part of its reformatting on a commercial basis.

Class Cancelled

As impressive and subtle as Sayeed’s analysis always is, one wants to quibble with some of his formulations. For example, I don’t think Gwyn Prosser MP, who race-baited asylum seekers, was particularly left-wing, or affluent Enfield Southgate resounded with “working-class Thatcherism.” However, more important by far is what is omitted.

For, what is strangely and symptomatically missing in the account is what, perhaps, was strangely and symptomatically missing from the political scene in 1997: the organized working class. Paradoxically, just as class disappeared from the lexicon, with Blair declaring in Thatcherite mode that “the class war is over,” it refused to disappear from consciousness. The British Social Attitudes Survey showed that overwhelming majorities disagreed with Blair. The striking Liverpool Dockers were in this context a minor cause celebre, championed by footballer Robbie Fowler and one-hit-wonder anarchist punk band Chumbawumba, and their painful defeat was dramatized by Jimmy McGovern. There was a sense of sad diminuendo in this, a pervasive feeling that this sort of thing was all over now. And, indeed, union density and strike rates slid, for the most part, under New Labour, thus leaving us poorly defended when the austerians came for our public sector.

This absence, though comprehensible, produces some strange impasses in Sayeed’s analysis. For example, to situate New Labour’s compromise with the Thatcherite settlement, and thus its capitulation to the forces that would produce the credit crunch, Sayeed explains that “Labour had a record in government of overspending and then being kicked out of office.” As an explanation of a media cliché, this is right on the money. As a statement of how and why Labour lost office in 1951, 1970, and 1979, it is ludicrous. New Labour’s adaptation is better explained by the outcome of often violent class struggles through which the Thatcher administration and its class allies systematically decimated one sector of working-class power after another. And, in so doing, eliminated most obstacles to the Thatcherization of the Labour Party: and thus its slow implosion following the “credit crunch.”

This history also folds back on the introduction to Sayeed’s analysis, wherein we find Hall, Massey, and Jacques watching the election coverage. He identifies them mistakenly as being “of the far left,” and as having resisted the free market wing of Labour. The truth is more complicated. These intellectuals, from the Eurocommunist wing of British politics, had supported Kinnockite offensives against the Left, and initially welcomed Blair’s leadership, before coming to a more critical view. They had reacted hard against the class reductionism of the old “hard left.” They were prescient about new axes of politicization amid the decline of formerly powerful class subjectivities. They understood the appeal of Thatcherism. But in doing so, they tended to downplay the salience and necessity of class organization and struggle even to their own more moderate project. Unsurprisingly, many of those in the milieu ended up as court intellectuals to New Labour, and thus very much part of what went wrong.

Overwhelmingly, Sayeed’s case about 1997, as a misunderstood moment of potential, wasted and thwarted, is convincing. But if we must revisit and revise that moment, and not just for the hit of nostalgia, it is surely to avoid the same dire outcomes. In that case, one of the things the Left has to learn once more is how to think about “class struggle” as something other than a nostalgic throwback. The Thatcherites won a cultural victory when they pushed this off the agenda, and it is time it was reversed.

Remembering 1997

It is difficult to do justice, through all this, to Sayeed’s qualities as a writer. He brings a sympathetic eye, attention to detail, a knack for evoking scenes, and acute thumbnail sketches of characters. The story he tells, though lacking any theoretical ostentation, is deceptively sophisticated, and sometimes lethal in its critique (and charming in its compliments, as when Jarvis Cocker is praised for his “brilliant queenliness”). And above all it’s clear that he is absolutely fascinated with his subject, and that is exactly why he succeeds in bringing to vivid, palpable life the unlived lives, the missed encounters, and the botched chances of that decisive year.