My memory of May 1997 is that it was sunny and warm. I might be projecting; it’s an uncharacteristic British heat wave as I write this, so it might be my emotional memory playing tricks on me. But as I remember it, that month was bright sunshine, with warm mornings and long evening shadows. I don’t want to look it up; I don’t need to know for sure. The memory makes sense.
I had just turned 12. The election was on the first of the month, on a Thursday, as always. My mum and dad were lifelong Labour voters, even living in the Tory heartlands of South Lincolnshire; my mum kept me off school on the Friday so we could watch the news coverage together. I remember seeing Tony Blair and Cherie, his wife, faces crumpled with exhaustion, eyes shining with exhilaration, walking into Number 10 Downing Street. I remember cheering crowds waving and trying to grab their hands like peasants hoping to be cured of scrofula, a sea of red. I can picture footage of empty church halls and sports centers and school assembly rooms with crumpled paper and fallen chairs where a few hours earlier the landslide had been declared, seat by seat. Party members and activists and voters being interviewed, like football fans the day that, against the odds, their team wins promotion (or maybe avoids relegation). Bursting with pride about their place in the victory, their voices are buzzed with lack of sleep, too much to drink, and tears, exhaustion, and hope. There must have been Conservatives interviewed too; they were probably upset.
All these memories are suspect. I did have the day off school, but my mum thinks it might have been a teacher training day; she doesn’t think she choose to keep me off, although she says she would have done. There was a lot of this sort of coverage; an old issue of the Radio Times says there was an “Election 97” program from 9 to 11 a.m., which is probably what I watched. I’ve seen the archival footage on television programs since, so I know the things I have described did happen. But my feelings about it, about viewing it in the moment, are reconstructed, as all memories are; it is impossible for me to separate what I remember from what I know. Our understanding of the past is a mixture of who we were then and who we are now, and the space in between. My feelings about Blair at 12 and my feelings about him in my thirties are not the same thing, but they can’t be pulled apart, either.
Blair was young, the youngest-ever leader of the Labour Party, so young to be prime minister. He was handsome, too, at least to eyes unaccustomed to glitz or glamour in Labour’s men. The Labour women—Ellen Wilkinson, Barbara Castle, Judith Hart, Margaret Beckett—are another story, always perfectly put together, always smart and bright. But men on the left wore crumpled shirts, gray ill-fitting suits, and cheap red ties. Blair had a haircut, and white teeth, and shirt sleeves rolled to the elbow, ready to Get Down to Business. He probably smelled . . . clean. He had a wife who was smart and bright and professional, and children, his oldest son only a year older than me; in 2000, they had their youngest child, Leo, when they were actually in Downing Street, the first baby to be born to a serving prime minister in 150 years.
I was born in the mid-eighties, at the height of Thatcherism. I was obviously too young to vote in the 1997 election; the first time I voted was 2005, by which time my vote for Blair was begrudging rather than excited. And so I am old enough to remember the enthusiasm and excitement of ’97 but too young to have been cynical or critical about it at the time. Not just to remember it—I feel it, emotionally, as you can feel only things that happened when you were still a child. When the generation above me speaks of their resigned resentment as he dragged the party to the center, to make it “electable,” or when the generation below me bubbles with anger about the Iraq War, university tuition fees, and private finance initiatives (PFI), I bite my tongue. I can’t work out exactly how I feel, or how I am supposed to.
Because of course Blair disappointed. These bright, handsome men always do. Before he was even elected, he made left-wing Labour supporters howl by transforming Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution, shearing it of its radical potential by replacing the commitment to secure “the common ownership of the means of production” with wishy-washy sentiments about “common endeavour,” “community,” and “the hands of the many, not the few.”
I understand that anger. If he was leader now, I’d howl, too. But for a child growing up in a large, poor family, attending a comprehensive school set in the middle of a sea of Tory voters; for a child of parents who had been unemployed under Thatcher, living on a housing estate where lots of people were out of work at some point or another; for this child, Blair meant something distinct from his actual policies. I was too young to have sung “Thatcher, Thatcher, Milk Snatcher” in the playground, but I was young enough to be viscerally terrified by the Spitting Image puppet that grotesquely purred and spat her words on television. John Major seemed a gray man (a correspondingly gray puppet), not as cruel, perhaps, but still: 18 years of Conservative rule, spanning a time from well before I was born until I was in high school.
Blair has often been dubbed an heir to Thatcher, but while the 1997 manifesto is full of praise for the market and “personal prosperity” and decries the “politics of envy,” it was also significantly more redistributive than the previous 18 years of politics had been; it is not nothing that child poverty halved between 1997 and 2005. Most of the lessons Blair learned from Thatcher were in the sharp image, the careful speech, and the mannered smile; the last Labour government, under Jim Callaghan, had been dull and drab and mired in economic difficulties, pushing against a hostile press, but Blair was bright and shiny and new. To me then—and to me now, at least a little—he embodied the sparkle and promise of the booming 1980s Thatcherite yuppies, those young men with their designer suits and their massive boxy mobile phones. But it felt like magic: he was all of those things, but he was on our side.
That didn’t last, of course. Over the years, his smile became gruesome, transforming from a flash of love, generously bestowed on a grateful audience, to a grimace, nothing more than a baring of teeth. He got harder and harder the longer he was in power; it became harder and harder to love him. His messiah complex became the stuff of legend; the spin and the lies even more so; the private maneuvers and betrayals that took Britain into war with Iraq unforgivable. The “call me Tony” informality became something to be mocked, not lauded. And of course, his post-premiership career of foundations and lucrative speaking gigs has sealed his reputation as avaricious and venial; his subsequent political interventions—on Libya, on Brexit, on Corbyn—have seemed at best ill judged, at worst amoral.
I understand all of that. Blair took the party of the workers and of British socialism, and he made it into a shallow mockery of itself; he made generations of Labour supporters, from constituencies where they weigh the votes rather than count them, hate the Labour Party. He took the promise of the 1997 landslide, and he wasted it. Moreover, much of the progress under Blair has been undone; child poverty is forecast to hit its highest-ever rates in 2022, and many of the worst initiatives, like PFI, have been embraced and expanded. Worse than anything he did at home, perhaps, he murdered so many civilians overseas. It is unforgivable; I understand why he is unforgiven. But the gap between my rational understanding of that and my feelings deep down is the same as the gap between me now, in my thirties, and me at 12, sitting on that sofa on that sunny morning, heart full of hope. I can’t wipe away those feelings any more than Blair can wipe clean his past.
“My Dictator” is a regular Popula column exploring the afterlives of political leaders who don’t go when we tell them to go, lingering on in our minds and identities long after their terms are expired.