Feb 13

The Matter Of Britain

Popular//41 comments • 3,658 views

The death that shocked me most that Spring wasn’t Kurt Cobain, or even Ayrton Senna. It was the passing of an owlish man in his 50s who people assumed – and hoped, in many cases – would be running the country before too long. Later on, John Smith’s heart attack became a locus for all sorts of counterfactual speculation – after the landslide of ’97 you heard people saying, well, tragic of course, you understand, but as things turned out not all for the bad…? And later – as the golden era of the Great Empathiser sank into a miasma of gossip, inertia and war – the wondering and what ifs turned sad and angry.

At the time – and since, really – what hit me was a sense of unfairness, based mainly on how hard Smith and his colleagues had worked. Also – and this didn’t last, at least not in this form – an irrational gloom, the feeling that things would never change, and that somehow the moribund, comical Tories would pull through again.

But then everything did seem to change, and quickly, with the facts of politics shifting last of all.

Two summers ago, as the phone-hacking scandal spread through the British establishment like fire through cobwebs, a friend tweeted that this was like “Britain: the season finale”. It was a moment where everything seemed connected and fragile and impossibly dramatic. The Summer of 1994 didn’t feel like that. In fact it felt torpid – the same films, the same records, the same bloody record from the same bloody film crowding out anything else – but with hindsight it was more like “Britain: the season opener”. It introduces charismatic new stars, it teases fresh plots, it establishes a few themes.

The theme of the 1994-1997 season of Britain – there’s no real question of what the finale was – was somewhat inward looking. It was Britain itself – what kind of country it was, could be, and wanted to be. This is the sort of thing politicians always want as the theme, but in this case politicians weren’t in charge: the ideas kept bubbling up through culture. On the day after John Smith’s death, Four Weddings And A Funeral was released. Four Weddings isn’t explicitly about Britishness, and “Love Is All Around” – its soundtrack hit – is no Britpop anthem, but the film plays fondly with types and stereotypes of Britishness, suffuses matters in a British marinade that’s essentially a feelgood strategy. Britpop was precisely the same, though with enough distance to allow an ironic getaway if things turned nasty. Four Weddings is at the cosy end of mid-90s British culture, but still feels like its product.

By the end of May, “Love Is All Around” had reached No.1. During that song’s smothering reign, Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party and Oasis released their debut album. Blair, Hugh Grant, Noel Gallagher – the new cast of Britain taking intriguing shape, with more in the wings.

Politically, the mid 90s seem like a phantom prelude to the Blair Administration, where a paralysed Tory government could do little except let its citizens daydream about good times before and good times to come. Culture, not politics, took centre stage, and pop was (for the last time?) at the centre of culture. So for all sorts of reasons – mostly dramatic neatness – it’s very easy to take things one step further and make Britpop the centre of pop, to turn the narrative arc of the mid-90s into the narrative arc of Britpop. Doing this makes for an excellent story.

But is it the right story? The great thing about doing Popular is that its merciless slicing of the charts into their most successful records takes decisions of focus out of my hands. By this time the charts themselves aren’t an accurate fossil record of UK cultural concerns – and, if you just look at No.1s, Britpop ends up underrepresented – but at this particular moment they do a better job than storytelling.

Because what we see over the next few years is that wider cultural spasm – all those jostling dreams of “British” – pushing through into the charts again and again, giving a sense of something far wider happening than a bunch of indie bands trying to work out how to cope with fame. It’s not a bad story, exactly – but the bigger picture, British Pop not Britpop, holds so much more. Ravers, actors playing old soldiers, boyband heretics and true believers, second-generation immigrants, comedians, and most importantly and successfully young women – all shouldering their way to number one; all offering ideas, stated or implied, about Britain; all shown in the topsy-turvy mirror of the charts. What a time!

We’ll get to them all, but first of all I have to decide whether that pesky Wet Wet Wet record is actually any good….


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  1. 31
    Cumbrian on 12 Feb 2013 #

    Even better – pop is about everything and everything is about pop.

  2. 32
    enitharmon on 12 Feb 2013 #

    I voted Beckett/Beckett, for what it’s worth. I’d certainly have supported Robin Cook if he’d stood for the leadership but he didn’t.

    Is Margaret Beckett the only major party leader who spent her/his entire tenure with the same record at number one?

  3. 33
    swanstep on 12 Feb 2013 #

    People wanted more from a government with such a large mandate
    Blair had expected to be elected, though not with such a fuck-you mandate. Given that fuck-you mandate, he didn’t need to be so conciliatory to Murdoch or the City.

    But, seriously, what mandate should 43% of the vote get you? That that vote share can get you 63% of seats in the House is a bloody silly electoral system artifact (like Republicans currently holding 53% of the US House of Reps despite getting a smaller vote share (48%) than the Democrats (49.5%)).

  4. 34
    Tom on 12 Feb 2013 #

    You’re completely right, and I should be using majority not mandate – especially as I’m making the case that compared to his polling history his share of the vote might have been disappointing (and frightening) to Blair.

  5. 35
    Mark M on 13 Feb 2013 #

    I hadn’t been very keen on John Smith when he was Labour leader, for reasons that are lost to history. As it was, his death left him with a contradictory double legacy as ‘one of the great lost leaders’ and yet also a man whose brief time in charge can look like a stopgap between the two big modernisers*: Neil Kinnock, the leftwinger who dragged the party into the centre, and Tony Blair, the outsider who… well, you know. Smith, a bald bloke with glasses, was a world away from Blair. He was talented spotted by Hugh Gaitskell, served in the cabinet in the 1970s, came from the old Labour right, although he was also mates with Benn and Ken (that seems to have been the big difference between Smith and his protege, Gordon Brown – a lot of people in the party really liked Smith, whereas there are a few people who love Gordon, and an awful lot who don’t). He didn’t like Hollywood production values and all that. But in many ways he set up what came after, not least letting Blair as Shadow Home Secretary outflank the Tories by attacking them for being too soft on crime.

    *In their own terms

  6. 36
    D.C. Harrison on 13 Feb 2013 #

    Like Cumbrian, I was also 13. And also in Cumbria. Politics didn’t seem to mean a whole lot in Whitehaven (Labour always got in), and in the main I was spending most my time trying to avoid getting a kicking at school. But I do remember the death of John Smith, as my mother (whose judge of character I have long trusted) thought he seemed “a nice man”. She was never that keen on Blair, but I can recall the celebrations from the teachers when Labour won the election. One of my teachers, a Geordie, tried to implore on me what it meant to get “those bastards” out, but I was still upset by Man United’s exit from the European Cup the previous week.

    Didn’t Jack Straw, in his memoirs, suggest Smith had a drinking problem?

  7. 37
    thefatgit on 13 Feb 2013 #

    All I remember of John Smith was his willingness to hothouse a new generation of politicians in his Shadow Cabinet: Blair, Brown, Prescott (stretching the description a bit) and Mandleson. I presume this process began under Kinnock, but the focus, from what I remember of the media at the time was Kinnock in Brussels. And Kinnock’s shadow loomed large over Smith. Smith had a way about him though. He seemed to “win” more PMQ’s than he lost, hardly surprising when Major sat opposite. As many have mentioned above, it was only after Smith’s passing, that he was given any credit for directing Labour towards a centrist position. Subsequently, Blair seemed quite happy to take most of the credit for that.

  8. 38
    nixon on 14 Feb 2013 #

    Many of the old hardcore Labour types (a range of pseudo-Trots and actual card-carrying communists as well as more moderate lifelong voters) that i used to hang around with (or who hung around me and my impressionable friends, I suppose) in my gawky teen years would drive around in endless circles arguing whether Smith would have won the 1997 election, and what might have subsequently happened had he done so. Certainly he wasn’t half as widely admired during his lifetime as he was in hindsight; Alexei Sayle had a whole routine where he’d transform into “John Smith Man”, mumbling, inactive champion of the working class, and lots of my school friends thought Sayle went easy on him.

  9. 39
    Jimmy the Swede on 15 Feb 2013 #

    Perhaps the most pleasant member of Blair’s first cabinet was Margaret Jay, daughter, of course, of Jim Callaghan. The Swede had the pleasure of dealing with her at our Customs outbound desk yesterday and she was charming. I was able to tell her that I had received a school prize for history from her mother Audrey back in 1977. I remarked that it was quite a thing for the wife of the then Prime Minister to turn up at a down-trodden and positively dangerous inner-city school, to say nothing of the threat of the IRA back then.

    When I googled Baroness Jay subsequently, it was revealed that she has more than a little spicy past. She was also more than a little dishy in her former years and is still not without glamour even today.

  10. 40
    Mark M on 18 Feb 2013 #

    Re 38: yes, there were a number of people I knew who slated Smith alive (especially during his time as Shadow Chancellor) and then sanctified him after his death, but that’s neither unusual nor particularly worthy of condemnation.

  11. 41
    LondonLee on 23 Feb 2013 #

    Excellent piece Tom, though as I was living in the States at the time and this was pre-internet I could only look at Britain from a distance. I am happier that I spent the 90s living under Bill Clinton. Less happy about having to hear Pearl Jam and Hootie & The Blowfish everywhere.

    Lefties are doomed to be disappointed in their elected leaders. Even Obama, who has achieved a lot, is criticized for not arresting and publicly hanging the Wall Street bankers.

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