"Fifty years from now,
Britain will still be the country of long shadows on country
grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers, and -
as George Orwell said - old maids bicycling to holy communion
through the morning mist. And, if we get our way, Shakespeare
will still be read - even in school. Britain will survive
unamendable in all essentials." -
John Major (British Conservative Prime Minister, 1990-97), House of Commons, 22nd April 1993
And the Britpoppers told us they hated him.
John Major's all-too-long tenure as prime minister will be remembered as one of the great mysteries, "lost eras" of modern British political history. Six and a half years that barely seem to have happened, and which essentially witnessed the demise of the Conservative Party as a major force in British politics. OK, Hague may hum and hah about winning the next election, Blair may falter, but essentially the Conservatives in the 1990s were a dying party representing a dying culture and a dying way of life. The old consensual one-nation Conservatism of the post-war period had been usurped in the 1980s by the divisive, each-to-his-own free-market ideology of Margaret Thatcher, typified by her claim that "there is no such thing as society". But those values in turn collapsed in the early 90s, and the Major government was characterised by the sleaze of innumerable MPs, the embarrassment of Major's disgraceful public treatment by Euro-sceptic, hard-Right figures like Teresa Gorman, panic measures such as removing the whip from several of his avowed anti-European enemies, and the way Major himself was not obsessed with rock-bottom taxation and the complete abolition of public services, but his government was clearly dominated by people who were. Towards the end of this disastrous period for Britain, there was a sense of smouldering, untold frustration, spreading throughout virtually the entire population of this country, including life-long Conservative voters. For some, it recalled the late 1970s, when Jim Callaghan's Labour government seemed to be collapsing in public (not helped by a distorting right-wing press) and people who would not necesssarily have supported the Tories thought they might give Thatcher a chance.
The difference was that the second half of the 70s were characterised by a knowledge that the post-war consensus was in its death throes, but we had absolutely no idea what was going to replace it. It might have been Thatcher, on the other hand it might have been a genuinely left-wing "rebel" Labour government led by Tony Benn, it might have even been the National Front (prophets of doom in the mid-70s would often compare the Britain of that time to Germany's Weimar Republic of the 1920s, dissatisfaction with which regime had allowed Hitler to take power). In the mid-90s, on the other hand, there was no such uncertainty at all. From his election as Labour leader in July 1994, after the premature death of John Smith, it was absolutely obvious and certain that Tony Blair would be Britain's prime minister as soon as Major gave up the ghost.
The soundtrack to those nightmarish last two-and-a-bit years of Conservative rule was Britpop, a movement which might as well have had "back-to-basics" - the slogan which backfired disastrously on Major at the time of the sleaze scandals - as its official guiding phrase. Abandoning the wonderfully pluralistic sensibility of Saint Etienne's first three albums (London for "Foxbase Alpha" and "So Tough", rural Britain for "Tiger Bay"), and the bitter, dystopian take on English suburbia of The Auteurs, while also attempting to shake off hardcore / rave's infiltration of the Top 20 during 1991-92, it instead established a set, narrow and (that word again) unamendable idea of what it was to be British. Rooted solidly in a predictable set of influences from the British beat group era of 1964-67 - The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks and all the rest - its exponents claimed hypocritically that they had recaptured the excitement of the mid-60s, despite the fact that their music displayed absolutely no trace whatsoever of any black American music after 1975, the complete opposite of the constant, enthusiastic keeping up with rock'n'roll, blues and soul that defined their alleged predecessors. While there was good music being made during the mid-90s in Britain - one of the most magnificent albums in recent memory, Pulp's "Different Class", was the one positive thing to be assimilated into the Britpop mainstream, and stands above and apart from all its contemporaries. But most of it was atrocious. Paul Weller made his worst ever record which somehow became his biggest seller ever, Blur based their success around a bizarrely outmoded vision of East London, and of course there was the unwelcome omnipresence of Oasis.
Those outside the UK need to know nothing, those inside it will surely hate these grisly memories. The way the movement suddenly rendered unfashionable literacy, articulacy (apart from a cartoon posh boy like Neil Hannon), pluralism, multiculturalism, modernity, futurism. Starting to sound familiar? Indeed the greatest lie in the whole Britpop con trick was the idea that its exponents were an antidote to the Major government, somehow bright, optimistic and forward-looking where it was (unlike them of course) parochial and nostalgic. Like fuck they were! In its tired, tawdry nationalism and nostalgia (but without even Major's partial legitimisation that he had at least lived through the times he sentimentalised), the Britpop movement was indistinguishable from the dying Major government which it accompanied. Certainly I always associate the two in my mind - long, hot afternoons of nothing, just waiting for the change that must surely come, feeling simultaneously overwhelmingly bored and deeply, genuinely repulsed. Hearing a speech from Major, Howard or Portillo in the last year of Tory government gave me pretty much exactly the same feeling as hearing a Cast or Ocean Colour Scene record did. The ill-deserving hype that surrounded Trainspotting, the rabid nationalism of Euro 96. In terms of basing itself around a rose-tinted simplification of the past, Britpop was no different to Majorism. The only difference was that it moved its historical base forward a decade - and ironically the base period for Britpop's revivalism was also the era when the Tories would whinge that it all went wrong, preferring to idealise the 1950s as the last golden age (as the Daily Mail described that decade in January 1994).
In the last few months before his inevitable election on 1st May 1997, Blair started invoking the 60s in the same way his impotent Tory opposition invoked the 50s, knowing that it could appeal to first-time voters fed on the tenth-hand nostalgia of Britpop, while also fitting with his personal nostalgia for his own youth. In Stevenage during the election campaign, he famously declared that he was a child of "the modern world ... The Beatles, colour TV." When he had finally become prime minister, he started talking up the ludicrous concept of Cool Britannia and the catchphrase that Britain was "a young country", simply a means of distancing himself from his predecessor's nostalgia, but which the right-wing press saw as a genuine threat to the entire history of Britain. But the Britpop movement itself, deprived of a context in which to flourish, withered and died in the aftermath of Blair's election. Oasis's dreadful, self-parodic third album, "Be Here Now", was revealed rapidly for the white elephant it was. There's a certain embarrassment now with the cultural climate of the era - typified by the unsuccess of the fourth Oasis album - and the charts are now a more interesting and pluralistic mix of innumerable pop styles than they ever were in the mid-90s. Britpop seems so long ago now, and the anti-consensual nature of the internet has made it appear even more distant.
On the other hand, the populist legacy that Britpop imposed on British indie-rock (which, like the Conservative Party, is now dead as a significant cultural force, face down in the gutter, an ideologically regressive antique whose sporadic revivals are dangerous and worrying) is mirrored in the way Blair increasingly regards the response of the Tory tabloids as the most important thing in the world, as he fills long, paranoid and depressing memos with his concerns about how the readership of the Daily Mail don't think he is "tough" enough. Even as Gordon Brown thankfully revives the economic policies of Old Labour, we still have to face its pathetic, weak leader. If Blair is, as the pathetic ghost of Oasis claim for themselves, standing on the shoulder of giants, it's the wrong giant. Margaret Thatcher, not Harold Wilson. Now that is a tragedy.
It's all over now:
Baby, baby, baby, you were out of time ...