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1997: the year that changed Britain
The 90s were a different country. Then along came Blair and Harry Potter
So we welcome 2022 and, I confidently predict, it’s going to be a fantastic year for Britain.
It’s also a great year for anniversaries, being a quarter of a century since probably the most transformative 12 months in modern British history. Nineteen ninety-seven saw Tony Blair’s election victory, the death of Princess Diana, the handover of Hong Kong and the publication of the first Harry Potter book, all within four months – and the changes brought by that period are illustrated by just how alien the 90s now feel.
As an example, the Conservative candidate in my constituency that year openly called himself a ‘Nazi’ and, among numerous escapades, had seduced a judge’s wife and both her daughters. (The cuckolded husband said that the MP should be ‘horsewhipped’, although later forgave him.) None of this prevented Alan Clark from easily winning the seat, although it was in Kensington, a constituency the Tories could never lose. Because in 1997 posh people voted for the Conservatives and working-class people voted Labour.
Three years earlier another Tory MP, Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, had said in a Commons debate on reducing the age of consent that: ‘I hope that the Committee will not be misled by the fact that heterosexual activity is normal and homosexual activity, putting your penis into another man's arsehole, is a perverse…’ before he was cut off. Fairbairn, fitting every liberal stereotype about social conservatives being repressed deviants like Victorian Dad from Viz, has had all sorts of allegations made against him since.
Those sentiments would not have been uncommon, since attitudes to a range of subjects didn’t become overwhelmingly liberal until the 90s, Blair’s election both reflecting that change in values and accelerating them.
When New Labour came to power the age of consent was still different for straight and gay couples, and until 1994 had been 21 for the latter. Hardcore porn was still illegal (although I suspect that will be reversed within our lifetimes, the way trends are going) and Britain still technically had the death penalty (the gallows at Wandsworth prison were not dismantled until 1993).
One sign of how society has changed is how illiberal New Labour actually were in the late 1990s, compared to even Tory governments since. If Cameron and Johnson are heirs to Blair, they have taken Blairite neoliberalism much further than the master, because they are products of a world he created.
However, of by far the greatest significance was Blair’s immigration policy, and whether you like this revolution or not, it is indeed a revolution (still ongoing under the Conservatives). New Labour’s decision to radically liberalise immigration rules and change the demography of Britain will be of far greater importance, good or bad, than Brexit was (indeed Brexit was just one very unintended consequence).
Growing up in London, I considered the society around me quite multicultural, but in 1997 Britain was still 95% white, having reached a sort of demographic stability following the end of the first great migration of the post-war era. The 2021 census will likely show Britain’s non-white population to be somewhere in the region of 15-17%, and growing steadily. We’re only reminded of this change when arguments are made for affirmative action, otherwise it is considered bad form to raise it, or to ask where it’s heading. Like with the not entirely unrelated housing crisis, that’s for another generation to deal with.
Britain in 2022 may be a metropolitan empire, but back in 1997 it still had a sort-of actual empire, and while the handover of Hong Kong in July was largely ceremonial, it was some ceremony. There’s a certain type of London-based person (usually in the media) who gets very teary-eyed reminiscing about the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony (another anniversary approaching), tweeting between tears about how ‘we were a better country then… united…. tolerant… team GB…. our NHS… Mo Farah… bloody Brexit… changed everything’. If I’m honest, the whole event leaves me as cold as a Charles Dance character discussing the deaths of some poor people, but I do feel teary-eyed watching the Black Watch, Prince Charles and Chris Patten handing over our precious jewel to the Communists. But I accept I’m probably unusual here.
Another, more well-remembered cultural landmark was the death of Princess Diana later in the summer, which caused an outpouring of emotion that Peter Hitchens contrasted so sharply with the funeral of Churchill in his excellent if slightly depressing book, The Abolition of Britain. Hitchens looked at how a people once known for their reticence and stoicism had become emotionally giddy and incontinent, a revolution in manners which came to a head in the week following Diana’s death.
Again the whole thing left me feeling totally empty, if anything a bit wary of how insane my countrymen were, as if the KGB had spiked the water supply with acid as part of some weird Cold War PsyOp; in particular I disliked the way that the Royal Family were goaded into displaying their emotions by a mob of morons on their doorstep, all of the anger whipped up by the same newspapers who had driven the poor woman to her death (not to mention ruined the lives of countless others by intruding on their privacy). At one point a taxi driver appeared in court because he’d punched an eastern European tourist who had taken away a teddy bear left by the palace, like he was Britain’s answer to Jack Ruby. What a country.
It was also the abolition of Britain in another way, the Scottish referendum that year leading to a form of devolution that has never really worked successfully; with the UK system now lopsided and Scotland ruled by a one-party state, without enough power to actually make them unpopular but enough to embed nationalism into everyday life.
And then, of course, 26, June 1997 saw the publication of the most significant and important book of our century so far, which – despite its author being turned on by fans and even the young actors whose careers she made – probably says more about our age than any other.
That Harry Potter became so overused as a political allegory by people old enough to know better shouldn’t distract from the joy it gave to millions of children (including my own, for which I am hugely grateful). But the Hogwarts series, for all its traditionalist settings, did characterise one important aspect of the 21st century culture wars, that it is in one way a dispute between the average and the atypical.
As our lifestyles, values and beliefs have undergone dispersion, the great cultural divide that has grown is largely between those who want laws and social norms to best suit l’homme moyen and those who want their increasingly atypical identity protected, affirmed and promoted – the muggles and the wizards. That these two desires might inevitably be in conflict is behind much ideological dispute, something true believers are unable to see, because in a world without religion, national identity or the familial ties that once defined us as people, their wizard identity is all that they really have.
All that, in a sense, began for us in 1997, the year that changed Britain.