1997: The future that never happened by Richard Power Sayeed, published by Zed Books Ltd October 2017, 341 pages reviewed by Tony Traub
The author, Richard Power Sayeed, takes a broad sweep across Britain’s cultural and political landscape in the mid 1990s, just before New Labour came to power. He goes on to analyse the changes which came about under the new regime. The theme which underlies the book is the attempt by New Labour to modernise Britain’s institutions – but ultimately failing.
The book covers the Stephen Lawrence campaign, death of Princess Diane, Britpop and the rise of the Spice Girls. In addition, the emerging art scene is covered.
The story starts with the handover of power in Hong Kong and New Labour’s ‘ethical’ foreign policy under Robin Cook. It looked like a new dawn. However Blair saw it as a way of justifying ‘liberal interventionism’ with Kosovo being the first test case. Cook was soon sidelined.
In Scotland, New Labour machinations attempted to blunt the Scottish drive for devolution.
Stephen Lawrence’s murder in 1993 turned out to be one of the most important milestones in modern British history. The brutal murder of the black teenager exposed the rotten racism at the heart of British society and the corruption of the police.
The Lawrence family fought for justice and in 1997 the new Home Secretary Jack Straw set up the Macpherson enquiry. Led by a liberally minded establishment judge, it came to the conclusion that the police were institutionally racist. However, despite harsh words real practical action remained elusive.
The chapter on Britpop is excellent. It details the rivalry between Oasis and Blur and places it in the context of changes taking place in UK society. Referring to Oasis and Suede, Power Sayeed says “These young musicians were not working class Brits writing about working class Brits, but they were representing the everyday experiences of people in a world they knew”
Both Anderson and Butler of Suede were very much influenced by the Smiths. No doubt Blair wanted to ingratiate himself with Oasis to get working class support. An incident is recounted (soon after he took over as leader in 1994) where he met Noel Gallagher at a music awards event.
The chapter on Spice Girls is also good. It makes the point that the so-called ‘girl power’ was superficial. “However, just as the way in which anti-racism was mainstreamed would help to reinforce some kinds of racism, the legacy of making feminism trendy was going to be ambiguous”
“In 1997 the Spice Girls would become the biggest band in the world. Their success would act as a symbolic climax of feminism’s gradual movement towards the mainstream. However, it is no doubt true that the Spice Girls represented a further absorption of radical people and ideas into Britain’s establishment. The Spice Girls represented feminism lite and not a true challenge to sexist ideas prevalent in society (as we are seeing today with the sexual harassment scandals).
The book concludes with an assessment of New Labour’s project. The author makes the point that the end of the last decade saw the financial crash and subsequently the biggest fall in living standards since the 30s. In 2011, the Royal Wedding took place right in the middle of this austerity. In the same summer, there were riots in many English cities (as Martin Luther King once said, ‘riots are the voice of the unheard’)
I found the book very interesting and informative. The author is good at capturing the nuances of individuals and how these relate to the overall political/cultural context. In the final analysis, New Labour found it very difficult to modernise Britain’s institutions.