THE NINETIES

Growing Up with Tony Blair, the Embarrassing Dad of UK Politics

What does it mean to be a Child of Blairism?
May 3, 2017, 6:15am
Your dad on the d-floor (Photo: PA)

May the 2nd, 1997. Back there, before foot-and-mouth and financial ruin, Tony Blair sailed past a patchwork sea of Union Jacks and outstretched eager hands on his way to Downing Street. It marked the end of a Tory rule that had cast a long grey shadow over the country for 18 years. Watching that day back now is like looking upon a distant planet. The rising clatter of adoration, the sun burning spring into summer, people cheering the country's cool new dad. Sweet-tasting optimism of the like we'll probably never know again in our lifetime, enshrined on VHS.

Now let the applause ring into a distant echo. Cut to an ominous black and white "20 Years Later" title card. It's raining now, the Union Jacks are still there but they flap limply, and most have "LEAVE EU" printed on them. Tony's back; making appearances on every news channel, that signature "chartered-accountant and father of two caught shoplifting footwell mats from Halfords" madness plastered across his face. Every time you pass a radio you hear his voice, those clipped vowels pinging from the back of his throat, every sentence that leaves his mouth pushing through the toxic fug of his legacy like a worm swimming through cement.

As we reach 20 years since Tony Blair's first day in power, it's time for some collective reflection. Like bad dads, we don't pick our war-mongering premiers. We're born with them, and there's no escaping the tacit ways in which they shape us. We've always talked about Thatcher's children, but two decades after his tenure began, what does it mean to be a child of Blair?


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As 90s children, Blair would have been up there with football managers, talk-show hosts and characters on Neighbours in an amorphous blob of "grown-ups". Politicians were just there on the telly; grey, totemic men in suits, waving at crowds and pointing with their thumbs. And of all the grey men, Tony Blair had something extra. The big ears, the beady, hopeful eyes, the calm charisma of a GP surgery practice manager. This was before professionalism was a curse in politics, before sleek seemed slimy. Unlike William Hague, who stood opposite him a sort of man-size Beano character, Blair felt definitive.

As Children of Blair we materially benefited from a government which was actually investing money in education. The Building Schools for the Future project, for example, saw shiny new builds pop up nationwide – ambitious manifestation of Blair's pledge that "every child matters". It's worth remembering, however, that the builds were funded by PFIs that gave private contractors more control over the projects than local authorities. These compromises were typical of his promises. Blair also called for a 50 percent participation rate in higher education, yet was the man who introduced tuition fees. The target remains out of reach.

We at least existed under a government with a vision for our future. The Conservatives' freeze on arts funding was ended, the Department for Heritage was renamed the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, free entry was reinstated in the nation's museums and partnerships were established linking arts organisations with pupils from schools in deprived areas. We were surrounded by ideas of equal opportunities, raised on what the Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has called the "3S" of multiculturalism, "saris, samosas and steeldrums".

This cuddly New Britain also coincided with new aspirations. To grow up under Blair's watch was to anticipate an adulthood of salmon fillets and large three-beds with wooden floorboards. A world in which you could drive two reliable cars and England made the quarterfinals of most major tournaments. It was the comfortable mild-mannered aspiration of Richard Curtis films and sitcoms like Coupling or My Family. The suburban daydreams of Changing Rooms and Ground Force.

But this is, at its heart, a story of disappointment. Our defining leader became an object of ridicule, then disdain. If you're 20-something now, Blair's honeymoon period happened while you were still a child, and his relationship with the country changed when you hit puberty, sliding into adolescent distaste.

We grew used to hearing his voice through the prism of John Culshaw's Dead Ringers, or catching Paul Merton crack bloated gags at his expense in the 20 minutes before we had to go to bed. The Children of Blair watched their father figure transform from a charming man of the people into a hated war criminal. How could we see politicians as anything other than insincere careerists?

Now Blair's Babies have grown up, is it any wonder so many have flocked in Corbyn's direction? Just as a generation of pensioners discovered Farage, so the young left raised a new hero in a man with the professional lustre of a Raymond Briggs character, but a voting record that rejected not only swathes of Blair's agenda but its very essence of compromise. It's telling that even in 2017 the new left of Momentum vocally despises "Blairites", vehemently rejecting the centrist ideology they were raised on.

Memories of the Iraq War protest, the largest in the UK's history, galvanised us against Blair's compromises, but it was an instructive lesson in the nature of British democracy. From the Millbank Tower riots to Trump's state visit, we've grown used to being ignored ever since.

"If you promise the world, only for it to fall apart, why would anyone listen to you ever again?"

It explains why we're such cynical pricks when it comes to politics. Tony Blair taught us that if something seems too good to be true, he's probably a war criminal. We've watched our value systems – our measures of reality – crumble. We're leaving the EU, the NHS is disintegrating and Tara Palmer-Tomkinson is dead. Blair remains a ghostly reminder of the Cool Britannia we were promised and the Little England we got instead. It's reflective of the impossible task faced by centrist parties across Europe. If you promise the world, only for it to fall apart, why would anyone listen to you ever again?

To grow up under the New Labour project was to expect both the prosperity of capitalism, as well as the progressivism of left-liberalism. It was to value both the self and the collective in impossibly equal measure. The British Journal of Political Science discovered as much earlier this year, when a survey revealed that "Blair's babies" are economically right-wing but socially liberal. As much as anything, this is about being a child of the Third Way – an idea of socialism as a set of values that could be enjoyed in tandem with capitalism. The New Labour era raised us on contradictions. We came of age suspended in a great illusion – unprepared for the financial and moral collapse that was waiting just around the corner.

Tony's most recent interventions perhaps mark our estranged father's final descent in delusion. His stubborn conviction that Brexit isn't inevitable, his flirtations with a return to frontline politics – here is a man so convinced of his own divinity he is rewriting history. Like all bad dads, even after all the shit he's put us through, he still thinks he knows best.

So now, years later, you agree to meet up with the old man. He suggests a member's club near his Buckinghamshire estate. You compromise and settle for the Piccolino's in town. He arrives full of badly-acted optimism about the single market and shopping bags full of trainers in a shoe-size you haven't worn since you were 14. He's aged. His hair thin to the roots, his eyes more wild and searching than normal, pink bags hanging under them like garlic cloves. He tries to slip you a fifty pound note, but you resist. You're managing just fine, you assure him coolly. That was hard, you think to yourself. You eat and make small-talk, you ask about his charity work. He flatly asks after Jeremy. He's doing great, you snap back, he just climbed two points in the polls actually. Halfway through, the bottle of Barolo starts to set in. Tony starts giving you advice – terrible advice. He thinks you should go back to university, that you should freeze your sperm, that you should vote Liberal Democrat in the upcoming general election if it means blocking Brexit. He's glazed over, mumbling softly but surely. You've got to do what you think is right in life, he says, staring into the middle-distance, whatever people say, don't listen. They'll tell you you're wrong, but you've got to trust yourself. Only God can judge you, nobody else. Understand?

You finish your wine and pull your jacket from the back of your chair, safe in the knowledge he hasn't been talking about you all afternoon.

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