Thursday, 2 September 2010

John Major and the law of unintended consequences

We all know the horrible tawdriness of the Mandelson and especially Blair memoirs. We all know, unless we are actually Blairites ourselves, that the loss of faith in pop music and pop culture feels like the loss of faith in God after the First World War must have done, and every bit as emotionally painful even as we know it is the only possible way. We may not know that John Major's "long shadows on county grounds" speech of April 1993 was the most important British political speech of the 1990s and the starting point for the Cameronite taunting of Brown. But it was arguably the former and definitely the latter, because without it the Blairites would never have had an instantly-understood basis for their reduction of politics to playground taunts about their opponents' cultural backgrounds rather than actual policy and ideology - the very tactic that was eventually used so cynically against Labour (which is why I can never take seriously Blairite complaints against it).

The actual context of the speech, as with most universally-recognised soundbites, has long since been forgotten if it was ever really known by most: its intention was to convince the Europhobes who Major famously called "bastards" that the traditions they claimed to love would not be threatened by further integration into the EU. That both Major and his supposed enemies completely ignored the much greater role of American influence in eroding that world need not be gone into again. But for the first year after it was made, I don't remember it being quite as famous and widely quoted as it became later, because there was no need for it to be - Labour policy under John Smith was sufficiently different from Tory policy, and the party significantly serious in its approach, that there was enough genuine ideological contrast and division between the two parties for Labour not to need to resort to ill-thought-out trivialities.

It was only once Blair had taken over, and dropped most of the policies that seriously distinguished Labour from the Tories, that the speech became a legend which almost overnight replaced proper politics in this country. The Blairites had to mock Major on those criteria alone, and for his not knowing about Oasis and the Spice Girls, and for his being old and grey, because they had ceased to be a genuine alternative to the Tories in any meaningful way. When Major desperately dribbled in 1996 that "our pop culture rules the world" (a blatant post-imperial lie of course: at the core of the EU at that time, the Backstreet Boys were bigger than Oasis) they thought they had achieved their greatest possible victory. To hear Major, impotent and destroyed, gibbering words like that was far more important than hearing him admit that Thatcherite ideas on the economy and society had been wrong - they would have been actively repulsed had he ever conceded that (as a social traditionalist such as he claimed to be should have), because in some ways the Blairites were more Thatcherite than Major; certainly the last thing they'd have wanted was to see any Tory admit that the mass privatisation of the mind had been a mistake, because that would have killed the whole Blairite myth before it even started.

Without that 1993 speech, the Blairites might well have found something else to put in place of serious politics and ideological differences between parties, but it would surely have been much harder, and had they failed to find such an easy stick to beat Major with, might they not have dropped most policies that were even social democratic, let alone socialist? We will, alas, never know. But as these profound and dangerous things happened, they were cynically hidden behind the facade of Knebworth, itself a perfect setting for the collapse of serious left-wing thought, being a once-crumbling old pile whose aristocratic owners had saved themselves from penury in the '70s via Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and Genesis. A generation was conned and lied to. A generation - mine - grew up thinking that taunting opponents for not knowing enough about celebrities was a substitute for real politics. Some of them - unforgivably - even thought there was something left-wing about it. And then a Tory clique - an Etonian-led one, at that - used exactly the same criteria to taunt a Labour prime minister, and Blair very clearly sees nothing wrong with it.

If my generation ever had a reckoning, it is now.


  1. If you want to understand Britain's place in this world, particularly in relation to the USA, this book is a great help:

  2. Hi Robin - Sorry about that - the book I wanted to link to is now here: