Novelising New Labour

By Kelly, Stuart | Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics, April 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Novelising New Labour


Kelly, Stuart, Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics


During the 1997 election, the Tory propaganda poster of 'Demon Eyes' Tony Blair caused more mirth than anxiety. It seemed, somehow, inappropriate and desperate; with the supreme irony being that a decade later, the identification of Blair with dark forces would be commonplace. It is not so much the popular representation of Blair, but the changes in his popular representation that differentiate him from Thatcher, Clinton and Bush. TV drama has attempted to dramatise the agonised and deluded Blair (in, say, Alistair Beaton's The Trial of Tony Blair for Channel 4); cartoonists have 'retconned' their imagery (Martin Rowson's bloodstained Bambi springs to mind) and satirists have made much of such early pronouncements as 'pretty straight guys'. As early as December 1997, British comic 2000 AD ran a strip featuring B.L.A.I.R. 1, a robotic prime minister whose radiant smile belied its lethal nature, and whose eyes went red whenever 'Doctor Spin" took control of him.

Revealing though these are, I will concern myself with Blair's less ephemeral depictions and self-depictions. After broadly situating the debate in terms of how ideology and cultural production inter-relate, I will discuss the novelistic apparitions of Tony Blair.

While Literary History and Political History may not march to exactly the same beat, there are frequent periods when they fall into step with one another. 'Victorian Literature' is convenient shorthand for a vast array of post-Romantic and pre-Modernist poetry; novels of social examination, propagandist intent, saccharine fantasy and idiosyncratic whim; histories and counter-histories; public pronouncements and private letters, all of which can be collapsed into a retrospective and descriptive term. The accidence of birth of a minor princess, never thought in 1800 to be the monarch in 1850, and various other accidental deaths, creates a historical sheath into which the literature of the time can be contained. Similar claims could be made for 'Elizabethan', 'Jacobean', 'Restoration', 'Edwardian', 'Augustan' and even the brief and unsuccessful attempt to promote a 'New Elizabethanism' after the accession of the present Queen.

The idea of such a convenient taxonomy was snapped by Modernism, and immediately frayed into multiple, disputatious, anxious debates. Was Modernism aligned to Fascism or Communism? Was Post-Modernism exemplified by Thatcher or Subcommandante Marcos? Was Post-Modernism, or Post-anything-ism anything other than a group of cliques speculating over the colour of Godot's shirt?

The identification between cultural practice and ruling dynasty is, of course, constructed after the event (this is best seen in the apocryphal Hollywood anachronism, 'Don't you understand we're in the goddamn Renaissance now?'). Thus, the combination of a heterogeneous diversity of cultural practice (among contemporary trends we might single out Dirty Realism, Magic Realism, Maximalism, OuLiPo, Postcolonialism, 'the literature of exhaustion', the McSweeney's aesthetic and McOndo) and our own proximity to events make it difficult to discern any clear and unambiguous parallels between the rise and premiership of Tony Blair (1997-2007) and the literature of that period.

From the age of the self

Difficult, but not impossible. To step back a generation, there is plenty of evidence for a literary engagement with Thatcherism and Reaganomics. From the aptly named John Self, anti-hero of Martin Amis's Money (1984), to the serial-killer and serial-consumer Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho (1991); from lain Sinclair's psychogeographical mapping of the emerging Docklands in Downriver (1992) to John Updike's increasingly embittered Harry Angstrom novels (especially Rabbit is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990)), there is a perceptible engagement with issues of wealth, social discohesion, upward mobility and the alienating effects of late capitalism.

These works, usually oppositional in stance, questioned whether, as in Thatcher's phrase 'There is no such thing as society' or, in Gordon Gekko's speech in the 1997 film Wall Street 'Greed is Good'. …

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