All in it Together – England in the early 21st Century

Alwyn Turner will be discussing his book All in it Together at 4 PM on 15 October at our 2021 Festival!

This is a free Zoom event!

Mike Fraser provides a preview of this fascinating event.

Having previously published studies of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s Alwyn Turner has now turned his attention to the first 15 years of this century in Britain to present a fascinating history of the Blair, Brown and Cameron years. In a world of 24-hour news and social media frenzy it is often difficult to remember what happened last week, so, in addition to much stimulation and pleasure, he provides a useful reminder of recent events.

Turner’s approach is to cite both daily events and nightly entertainments.  Some of the events mentioned are now difficult to believe. For example, did George Galloway really do a kitten impression on Celebrity Big Brother? Did Peter Mandelson really enlist a Candomble witch doctor to curse Gordon Brown’s press secretary?

Turner’s key theme is that we were losing our faith in the system, whether it was in institutions such as the BBC, the Church and the banks or in politicians. Faith in authority, he says, “had frayed badly”. He cites relevant incidents from public life, for example the Jimmy Savile abuse scandal. Typically he turns to popular entertainment for an example of a growing distrust of ‘experts’, viz. John Sergeant’s success in Strictly in 2008.

Of course the century began with New Labour in power and in 2001 the party was re-elected. The Thick of It portrayed “a headline obsessed world of insecure politicians, dysfunctional advisers and incompetent civil servants”, with the government’s spin doctor Malcolm Tucker seeming to be based on Blair’s director of communications Alastair Campbell. Campbell was of course at the centre of the controversies regarding the ‘dodgy dossier’ and the death of Dr David Kelly. As regards the latter Turner reminds us that the Daily Mirror headline was “Spun to death – Iraq expert driven to tragic ‘suicide’”.

Turner continually finds unusual approaches to familiar themes. Thus, he begins his chapter on class and underclass with a comparison of the careers of working-class Roy Chubby Brown and middle-class Jimmy Carr, the former regarded as unsuitable for TV, while the latter has a long-running TV series. For Turner, Brown’s problem was his educational status:

He hadn’t been to university and neither had his audience, so it was suspected that they were not properly schooled in modern manners.

In comparison Turner quotes the Sunday Times that Frankie Boyle was “a kind of Roy Chubby Brown for people who’ve been through further education”.

Continuing the social class divide theme, he cites the 2006 Rough Guide to Britain which concluded that there was a growing separation between the “overweight, football-mad, beer-swilling sex- and celebrity-obsessed TV addicts”, and on the other, “animal-loving, tea-drinking charity donors thriving on irony and Radio 4”, prior to discussing the success of the products of the public school system. 

One of these products was of course Tony Blair who following his third electoral victory was confronted by the ‘very posh’ David Cameron who had defeated the ‘not posh’ David Davis in the contest for the Tory leadership. Cameron, their first privately educated leader in forty years, taunted the latter at his first PMQs: “He was the future once”. On 27th June 2007 Cameron generously led a Tory standing ovation when Blair made his last appearance as PM in the Commons.

Turner discusses the many fictional depictions of Blair which followed his resignation. Reflecting on his role in the Iraq war Turner describes how he moved from being depicted as ‘Bambi’ to being depicted as ‘Bliar’. Turner cites an episode of Ashes to Ashes, when on the eve of the 1983 general election a policewoman declares her political allegiance: “Labour is the only party that believes in equality and socialist principles … They would never have gone into a pointless war like the Falklands”. “Actually Shaz’, our time-travelling representative of Blair’s Britain starts to explain, but then thinks better of it: ‘Never mind …”. Turner concludes that Blair’s greatest achievement was the peace process in Northern Ireland, now of course being much discussed once again.

Following the 2010 general election, Cameron was able to announce the formation of a coalition government with Nick Clegg as deputy prime minister and four other Lib. Dems. in the Cabinet. At the press conference in the Downing Street Rose Garden the men looked so comfortable with each other, Turner recalls, that the Daily Mail compared them to Ant and Dec, while Polly Toynbee in the Guardian suggested it looked like a civil partnership.

Famously Liam Byrne, the outgoing Secretary to the Treasury left his successor David Laws a note:

      Dear chief secretary, I’m afraid there is no money. 

This was used of course as a piece of evidence in the narrative that the Coalition wanted to promote, viz. that Labour was incapable of running the economy. A policy of austerity coupled with welfare reform followed.

The most contentious issue of all for the Coalition was the decision in December 2010 to increase university fees from £3000 to £9000 a year. Turner argues that the Lib. Dems. achieved a great deal of their agenda. but all was obscured by this reversal of their manifesto pledge not to raise tuition fees. In 2015 their vote collapsed and David Cameron became a Prime Minister with a majority and thus able to deliver on his promise of offering a referendum on EU membership.

The UK Independence Party was created in 1993 and in the 1994 European election gained 1 per cent of the vote, but by 1999 the party had 3 MEPs, one of whom was Nigel Farage. By 2004 the party had 12 MEPs, including Robert Kilroy-Silk who in 2005 left UKIP, later appearing in the eighth series of I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! (he was the first of the twelve contestants to be voted off the show). In 2009 his former party however came second in the European election and between November 2012 and June 2014 UKIP came second in six by-elections. In the latter year UKIP were first in the European election. With David Cameron’s promise of a referendum on EU membership Farage was able to declare:

      They’re coming to play on our pitch now.

One awaits Turner’s next instalment on Brexit and the virus with a keen sense of anticipation!

Mike Fraser