We all knew it was coming. Blair’s ascension had been heavily trailed for months. It would have taken a miracle to stop the landslide. The Conservatives looked preposterously old-fashioned, tired and boring. You could say what you liked about young neoliberal Tony in his swinging blue jeans — that he was all surface, that he was a Tory really — but only bullets could stop New Labour now.
Our son was 18 at the time and had lived his entire life under a Tory government. My mood in the weeks ahead of Election ’97 was positively gleeful. As The Thick of It‘s Peter Mannion said a decade later as Labour’s own dynasty entered its fag-end phase: “Our tanks on their lawn at last, fuck a doodle-doo!”
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Did the Blair years change satire? Not really. Maybe. Sort of, accidentally. The first Blair government happened to coincide with the growth of heartless piss-taking on the internet — that was new. And a young, earnest, sexually-active prime minister was bound to provide a welcome target for satirists bored senseless by John Major and his dreary retinue at Castle Greyscale.
We saw the elevation of “spin” to Dark Arts status, even though it has been a standard political ploy since Henry VIII’s first divorce. The appointment of Thomas Cromwell Alastair Campbell as press secretary defined New Labour’s presentation style, and his method and strategies paved the way for a new satirical landscape. Here was a journalist brought in at the very top, issuing orders to civil servants, enforcing the ministerial line on public statements, keeping the spads on message. Essentially Blair’s official spokesman, but with a senior civil servant’s salary and the influence of a deputy prime minister, say, or an editorial in the Sun.
In those balmy first months of summer 1997, however, the focus was very much on Tony: his barrister’s smile, his soft-Left dress code, his political philosophy of “whatever works, yeah?”. Private Eye portrayed him as a trendy vicar, irritated by church affiliates and parishioners alike. Steve Bell did him as a glinty-eyed Thatcher clone. Rory Bremner nailed the voice and mannerisms but, like many, struggled to find an ideology to satirise. As he told the BBC in 2007: “As soon as you got a handle on some area it would just vaporise and disappear and they’d be off somewhere else…”
Nebulous politics were hip, fading seamlessly into the wider cultural vacuity of Cool Britannia. Post-modern Union Jacks winked at us from everywhere — an Oasis guitar here, a Spice Girls frock there. Everyone was mad for Britpop and football and ecstasy and an end to boom-and-bust. Happy days. In PR terms, pride in New Labour’s New Britain was whatever worked, yeah? Whatever made us look good and feel fabulous. Dolce et gabbana est pro patria mori, as somebody should have said at the time.
The great satirical chronicler of the rise and fall of New Labour was Armando Iannucci. Earlier in the decade, with Chris Morris and a brilliant team of writers and performers, he had entirely reset British satire, first on radio with On The Hour, then on TV with its mad descendant The Day Today. The format spoofed news stories through the prism of a news format which was itself satirised, Morris anchoring as a demented Paxman. When Blair was basking in warm hosannahs as the New Labour Messiah, Iannucci was there at the start of the Great Experiment with his new show, Saturday Night Armistice. He was there too at the end with The Thick of It as the hot air balloon deflated and Blair parachuted out, allowing Gordon Brown to navigate the last few hundred feet as the economy, with Labour in it, crashed.
Iannucci was taking the piss out of Blair even before the evangelical shine dimmed, at a time when New Labour was all about a new hope and Sure Start and billions pumped into education and health; when Blair’s public approval ratings were up there with Diana, Princess of Wales and Fatboy Slim. Armistice featured a soft toy called Mr Tony Blair whose inanities could only be heard by Iannucci. It seemed jarring to me at the time, Blair as a platitudinous gonk, but it was, as it turned out, merely prophetic. I spoke to Iannucci recently about satirising Blair in those early years. “We started portraying him as the Sun King,” he said. “That whole sense of him feeding off how good he thinks he is as a person, his saintliness, his good works. It wasn’t like we were trying to bring him down, just to pierce that sense of mass hysteria…”
In due course, the satire became less about the Mandelsons and Prescotts of New Labour. “All the ones that the impressionists would automatically do, they were all gently eased out,” said Iannucci. “Anyone with a hint of idiosyncrasy had to go. Blair wanted managerial clones of himself, safe and uniform. Thatcher and Major had tended to appoint ministers who had a bit of clout, some expertise, in their subjects. Under Blair, it was much more the case that ministers were required to do what Number 10 wanted. Message control — that was what the whole Blair thing was about…”
He mentions Excalibur, the party’s “rapid rebuttal unit” which compiled computerised data on Labour’s opponents, allowing it to mount agile and aggressive counterattacks during the ’97 election campaign. By 1999, aggressive counter-attacks were seen as a bit tame. The party appointed a Head of Attack to lead its election campaign using Excalibur 2. “They didn’t want to make the mistake of not preparing,” Iannucci said, “and then went crazily the other way…”
As the Millennium dawned, so did something else. Satirists realised that the key strength and weakness of the government was the Blair-Campbell axis. Until now, the most famous media bulldog had been Thatcher’s scrotum-chewing press secretary, Bernard Ingham. In those days the job meant protecting your boss. Now it meant being his locum. By the time the Iraq war happened, Blair’s moral compass was already spinning in its grave. The Public Finance Initiative was revealing itself to be a massive siphon, sucking money from taxpayers to developers from here to eternity, ASBOs were already a badge of honour for young criminals, and Parliamentary oversight was becoming an afterthought rather than a statutory condition.
And every week, as the misery in Iraq increased, I thought — loads of us thought — of Bush and Blair and their prayer breakfasts, with their mad conviction that they were on a mission from God. How we’d have loved to hear the other side of those prayers.
This audacity of self-belief: how it trumped political process, how pure it was. Iraq exposed a contempt for accountability, a legacy we enjoy to its fullest with the current shower of crooks and clowns. As Iannucci told me: “Because they were crushing the personality out of the Cabinet, the subject was therefore going to be the process. It had to be. It’s why we went into the process itself with Thick. We were thinking about what happens to people when they have untrammelled power. You know, ‘I invaded Iraq because I thought it was the right thing to do’. That’s not enough — you need proof! This is what happens if anyone at any point on the political spectrum believes they have a mission, that only they can fix this…”
As an exercise in satirical archaeology I recently watched Iannucci’s Election Night Armistice. It went out live on the night in 1997 and honestly, it’s all there even before Blair slipped into his monogrammed pyjamas at Number 10. I’d missed most of it at the time because, like every other pissed Old Labour voter, I was mostly glued to the unfolding source material. But on Armistice, here was the sensationalist media taken to a logical conclusion: someone in a giant penis costume — the Sleaze Cock — was on the streets badgering senior Tories. Sally Phillips was the Whore in a Helicopter ready to invent a tabloid affair with the first MP elected.
And some bits were comedy microcosms of the fearsome governmental narrative control we were to see in the years to come. Spin Olympics, in retrospect, was eerily prescient. Here, flanked by a Thatcher-era PR guy and a Lib Dem treasurer is 30-year-old Derek Draper, former chief adviser to Mandelson, who would go on to have a chequered career in the Labour Party. Unlike the other two — the Tory ebulliently clueless; the Lib Dem sober but useless — Draper is utterly, utterly brilliant. He understands how the game works, here and in real life. In the first round, the contestants have to spin some awful thing a politician has said: for example, David Blunkett: “I hate Muslims.” For comic effect Draper channels furious sanctimony to insist that Blunkett was talking about the way Muslims are stereotyped by the media, and deplores the way that this show itself threatens to denigrate and harm minorities.
Round Two features a random policy generator, which nonsensically burps up: “We/would like to/nationalise/Europe.” Nevertheless, Draper talks it up, arguing that individual EU nations would be improved. A Wheel of Spin is spun: Talk Tough. Without missing a beat he says “… and if they don’t like it they’ll just have to put up with it…” The wheel spins again and again. Do a U-Turn: “… though of course each nation will have control over its own affairs…” Go Negative: he does, firmly disavowing the policy without breaking his tone of sincerity. It’s a tour de force, and an astonishing glimpse of what was to come fictionally with Malcolm Tucker and the hapless ministers under his control.
So the Blair years didn’t change satire. But satire was there all along, hiding in plain sight, waiting to become real. In the dying light of 2009, with Tony now well into his new globalist afterlife, Thick scriptwriters and New Labour wonks were coming up with identically desperate policies, week after week in Broken Britain. Policies that had to sound impressive and cost nothing. The audience looked from satirists to policymakers, and from policymakers to satirists, but already it was impossible to say which was which.