Ten Years On from 1 May 1997

Who can forget it?

I spent the day driving from Bosnia to Austria with an American colleague. We were on a mission to the IKEA shop in Graz, to buy furniture for our office. But we spent the evening discussing the collapse of the Conservatives and the imminent change of government; the constitutional reforms for Scotland and Wales, any possible changes in foreign policy. My colleague asked me how I thought the Lib Dems might do. Heart in mouth, I said that I hoped for a gain of five or six seats, to within striking distance of 30 MPs.

And then we sat down to watch the results coming in, equipped with a decent bottle of whisky, supported by occasional phone calls to my wife back home. The scale of the rout of the Tories rapidly became clear, though for me the drama had been slightly dimished by the opinion polls; so too did the unexpected performance of the Lib Dems, who rather than the handful of gains I had hoped for almost doubled their number of seats. I think we stayed up long enough for Labour to have got its overall majority, and then turned in.

And in the morning I awoke with the feeling that I had had the strangest dream: as if my wife had phoned me in the middle of the night to tell me that a Labour hack from my time in student politics had defeated the sinister leading Conservative Michael Portillo. And, like the Old Man of Peru,

Who dreamed he was eating his shoe
And awoke in the night
With a terrible fright –

I found it was perfectly true!

I haven’t lived in the UK since the Tories were in power, so I’m not able to judge the domestic policy achievements of the last ten years; apart from Northern Ireland, where I feel that the energy and interest which enabled Blair to get the 1998 agreement were dissipated in a drive to strike the best possible side-deal with whoever shouted the loudest. (The signs were there even in 1998 with Blair’s side-letter to Trimble.) It seems to me that devolution for Scotland and Wales, and PR for European elections, are also Good Things. The reform of the House of Lords has been botched, and is likely to be botched again.

On foreign policy, I feel that Blair has got it largely right (with some reservations) in the Balkans and in Afghanistan, but very very wrong on Iraq. Of the three, I think that only the Balkans was a conscious policy choice (because the previous Tory policy was so very crap). I am sorry to say that in my view, almost any imaginable British government would have been sucked into action alongside the Americans (rightly or wrongly, respectively) in the other two cases, whatever the level of public protest.

Blair has been a disappointment in Europe. The Major government’s surly indecisiveness has been replaced by superficial but insubstantial engagement. The fact that after ten years of a supposedly pro-EU government, the right-wing press continues to print untrammelled lies about Brussels without official rebuttal is testimony to the real level of Euro-enthusiasm in the Labour Party. There are other EU member states where there is an even greater gap between public perceptions of Europe and the discourse of officials actually involved with the process; but the UK is the only large member state where this is a serious problem. The inability of the British to make their minds up on the euro has not helped. And again, the Iraq war has eroded British credibility in general on foreign policy issues. (Having said that, the UK did engage seriously with the now dead constitutional treaty process, and the British have helped to keep lines open with Turkey.)

So yeah, things could only get better after the disastrous Major government; but they haven’t got an awful lot better, it seems to me, and I think this goes right back to Blair’s obsession with style over substance. On the whole he has been very good at style, but while that can win you elections, it can’t deliver success in policy outcomes or in leaving a historical legacy. The two biggest decisions for which Blair is likely to be remembered – devolution at the start of his term, and Iraq at the end – were both other people’s projects which he uncritically bought into without thinking through the long-term consequences (an SNP government in the first case, a failed protectorate and military disaster in the other). Blair will be a minor trivia question in thirty years’ time, the prime minister between Major and Brown, largely forgotten bar the Iraq disaster.

Will Brown be any better? Despite the desperate attempts of Guardian columnists to assert that he will, I very much doubt it. He is clearly Blair without the charm, and without charm Blair would be nothing. No doubt he will win the next election – the Tories have an electoral mountain to climb – but to even less effect than Blair.

I have no plans to move back any time soon.

5 thoughts on “Ten Years On from 1 May 1997

  1. Surprised you’re so sure Brown’ll win. I’d guess the tories will win.

  2. I’m not British, but I’ve followed that country’s politics for a long time, and I still remember that night very well.

    Every opinion poll predicted not just a Labour victory, but a *large* Labour victory; however, the events of the 1992 election (which the pollsters got wrong all the way down to the exit polls that forecast a hung Parliament) were still fresh in the mind of many, and the Conservatives were certainly (and desperately) hoping the polls would be wrong again. I personally thought Labour would win and that the Liberal Democrats might do well, but the sheer scale of Labour’s landslide, the crushing defeat suffered by the Conservatives and the remarkable success of the Liberal Democrats were all nothing short of amazing.

    Portillo’s defeat in what had been up to that point an ultra-safe Conservative seat was certainly both shocking and indicative of the extent of Labour’s landslide, but the result I remember most vividly was Malcolm Rifkind’s defeat in Edinburgh Pentlands: I recall saying aloud “Oh my God, there are no Tories left in Scotland!”, and indeed a few seconds later the BBC announced the Conservatives had been wiped out in that country, losing all their parliamentary seats there (that was also the case in Wales).

    Regarding Labour’s record in power, I agree that while in general it hasn’t been bad, it could have been a lot better; in a sense it reminds me of the Harold McMillan’s “never had it so good” phrase back in the 1950s, which while certainly true, masked the fact others were having it even better, and leaving Britain behind in the process.

    As for the Conservatives, they’re right now in the same position as Labour was after 1987, attempting to recover the middle ground after having moved to fairly extreme positions on a number of issues, and finding nothing but rejection at the polls. Moreover, a parliamentary majority is so far beyond the Conservatives’ reach right now (as was the case with Labour back then) that it may take them at least two elections before they return to power, even if they manage to win a popular vote plurality before then – ironically, all because of the first-past-the-post system they so much cherish.

  3. 10 years of constant revolution on everything except for the really important stuff, where it’s been 10 years of glacial immobility.

    This coming after 7 years of staggering, shambling incompetence, and 10 years before that of haughty disregard for all the stuff except for the really important stuff, which was fiddled with continuously.

    There are only two years in my life when the government was vaguely tolerable, 1997-1999..

  4. And what exactly would be wrong with an SNP government?

    What annoys me most about the Blair years has been the constant harping about “tough choices” and then the singular failure to actually take any.

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