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A review of 1997: The Future that Never Happened

My abiding memory of 1997 is of a music video that emerged towards the end of the year. Officially a charity single for Children in Need, but actually an encomium for the BBC and its license fee, the all-star cover of Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’ released in late November was something like a dying fall for the 1994-1997 interval—that weird, quixotic glitch in the neoliberal timeframe. Everything about this curious micro-period was summarized in the song and its heavily rotated promo film. Here was a collection of musicians who blurred old lines between mainstream (Elton John, Bono, Tom Jones) and counterculture (Laurie Anderson, David Bowie, Brett Anderson, Evan Dando). Here was the same ambiguous blend of PR bombast and (very) mild statism that came to epitomize the New Labour project. Here, too, was the atmosphere of half-genuine, half-spurious bonhomie that pervaded these anomalous years, the beery, catholic embrace of a vanishing sociality. In spite of everything, it is hard not to feel a pang of nostalgia for the perfect day promised in certain fleeting moments of the mid-nineties.This, more or less, is the premise of Richard Power Sayeed’s debut work of criticism, 1997: The Future That Never Happened, though nostalgia for the period is buried under a wide-ranging critique of its legacy. In spare, elegant prose that veers deftly between scholarly and populist tones, Power Sayeed sets out to distill the “spirit of 1997,” arguing that the events of that year—notably, of course, the June Labour landslide—have cast a long shadow, right into our present tense of Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn and Scottish nationalism.

1997 is strongest when it sticks to this central thesis. Power Sayeed wisely never ventures to claim, as countless antiquated Guardian journalists have done over the last two years, that New Labour was a flawed but essentially benign progressive movement. But he does have the guts and the intellectual subtlety to present both sides of the argument, and to remind us of some of the radical elements fizzing at the base of New Labour’s pyrotechnic rise.

A first chapter on political history begins with the handover of Hong Kong on 1 July, a pivotal event not always granted the place it merits in accounts of the period. There are some intriguing glimpses here into the tangled ideological web of Blairism during what might be called its early, experimental phase. Even a diehard Corbynite such as myself warmed to Power Sayeed’s portrayal of Tony Blair as a man not especially bothered with Britain’s imperial past (“The empire was, in the prime minister’s mind, simply outmoded.”) In the same section we see Robin Cook (a kooky, “relatively left-wing” foreign secretary) outlining a complex, conflicted program of left-internationalism. Cook’s ideas, of course, would be steamrollered in the wake of Blair’s hawkish pact with Bush. But it is interesting to speculate, as Power Sayeed does, on what might have been had figures like Cook and John Prescott gained the upper hand over Blair, Peter Mandelson and other animals.

Indeed, it is when handling this question of an alternative path for Labour—the “future that never happened” of the title—that Power Sayeed mounts his most powerful arguments. In particular, a fascinating portrait emerges of New Labour caught in a Manichean tug-of-war over foreign policy, and, more existentially, its deeper attitudes to race, multiculturalism and immigration. On the one hand, of course, there is the unquestionably heroic achievement of the Northern Ireland peace process. For all that the John Major government largely prepared the way for the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998 (a milestone just outside the remit of this study), no one with a shred of interest in Irish history could deny the importance of New Labour’s role in securing lasting change in the North. Running in parallel were radical leaps forward for the Scottish and Welsh independence movements, which Power Sayeed rightly sees as pre-empting the left-nationalist stirrings of the 2010s.

More generally, he foregrounds a genuine desire among the New Labour elite—up to and including Blair—to advocate and implement a path-breaking ethos of multicultural tolerance and ethnic equality. The ghost of Stuart Hall, who appears in cameo in 1997’s introduction in a nice juxtaposition with Noel Gallagher, hovers over this thread of the narrative. One of the book’s most worthwhile assertions is that New Labour was in essence the progeny of the post-’68 New Left fostered by Hall and others, all the way down to its upbeat, baby-boomer sloganeering.

But whatever its intellectual pedigree, we are all familiar (perhaps overly so) with the ways in which New Labour tumbled into a vortex of reaction almost from the moment it assumed office. Drawing diligently on newspaper accounts of the time, Power Sayeed pinpoints the exact moment at which Blairism descended into Sun-endorsed, anti-immigrant demagoguery. Current apologists for Progress-style Labourism make much of the liberal, Europhile side of the New Labour legacy. They would do well to remember how shamelessly Jack Straw caved in to tabloid pressure over “bogus asylum seekers” in Calais in the first few weeks of his ministership. Further demonstrating a subtle understanding of Blairism’s infernal equivocation on questions of race and national identity, Power Sayeed has a hugely worthwhile chapter on the Stephen Lawrence murder inquest, in which Straw also comes off very badly, suavely placating Middle-England prejudices when he might have done something to tackle institutional racism.

Given the richness of this account of New Labour’s tortured, torturous metamorphosis in its first few months of power, I couldn’t help but feel that the overall design of 1997 was misjudged. Away from the vigorous sections on government, foreign policy, nationhood and race, there is a lot of padding in the digressions on pop and celebrity culture (Spice Girls, Oasis, Britpop, Diana, Young British Artists). I’m not sure the “biography of a year” format was best suited to a survey of these stock reference points. The year was undoubtedly interesting politically, but less so creatively, or at least the interesting creative developments (in, for example, jungle and post-rock) occurred outside of the mainstream that is very largely this book’s focus.

Another problem is that Power Sayeed does not offer much in the way of new analysis of these well-trodden cultural subjects. The chapter on Oasis and Britpop fails to venture beyond orthodox, first-generation accounts of the mid-nineties moment—for example The Last Party by John Harris and the Live Forever film directed by John Dower (both 2003)—which relied on fairly obvious analogies between Noel Gallagher and Blair (the famous picture of the pair shaking hands at Downing Street adorns this book’s cover, which is either a deliberate homage to Loaded magazine or an unconscious pastiche of its lurid aesthetic—I couldn’t decide). Similarly, the section on Diana reiterates a narrative endlessly told in countless books, features and TV documentaries over the last 20 years—not to mention middlebrow films like Stephen Frears’s The Queen (2006)—and as such is fairly pointless.

Over the last decade or so, a number of revisionist accounts of nineties pop culture have shifted the terms of debate quite significantly onwards from basic equations of Blairism and Britpop. It is a shame that none of them are discussed here. Power Sayeed’s “Girl Power” chapter mostly rehearses themes covered much more vitally in Rhian E. Jones’s Clampdown (2013); the critique of Britpop might have benefitted from reference to Owen Hatherley’s bravura study of Pulp and class in Uncommon (2011), and indeed the work as a whole should surely have attended at some point, given the contiguous premise, to the arguments in David Stubbs’s 1996 and the End of History (2016). This last work in particular contains a useful blueprint for combining analysis of public-eye narratives with the richer underground currents of the era.

Partly because it doesn’t engage with such agile recent interventions in left arts writing, and moreover doesn’t emulate the garlicky, essayistic style of those works, 1997’s socio-cultural portions come across as relatively bloodless. This weak spot is not helped by an over-reliance throughout on pat, documentary-style set-pieces (“Prince Charles was puzzled as to why his seat was so uncomfortable,” “Simon Fuller was on a flight to New York with Annie Lennox,” “The royal family was asleep in Balmoral Castle when news of a crash was first transmitted”). A tighter, more polemical study of New Labour’s first days in office, giving more prominence to the brilliant insights here about a party and country caught between the legacy of New Left, Old Right, and premonitions of twenty-first-century nationalism, might have served as a better foil for this promising new critical voice.

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Alex Niven

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