In a way, I felt I shouldn’t laugh; but everyone on the TV was and I couldn’t help it. Just finding out that Michael Portillo’s other two names were Denzil and Xavier seemed ridiculously hilarious in the context of what was happening. He even smiled himself as the revelation was greeted with rapturous laughter, which was perhaps the first public indication the man had a sense of humour, something that would manifest itself a decade later when he took up residency on Andrew Neil’s late-night sofa and became more known for his garish fashion sense whilst building a new career as a TV train-spotter. Exactly twenty years ago today, however, he was the incumbent Defence Secretary, defending the safe Tory seat of Enfield Southgate.
As soon as the declaration at Enfield Southgate was announced and the baby-faced Labour candidate Stephen Twigg realised he had usurped a household name from his seat, it was the latest in a remarkable sequence of events that night. Anyone who stayed up to watch the results come in on the General Election of 1 May 1997 will recall the domino effect on John Major’s Government as one-by-one prominent Tories and numerous Members of the Cabinet were toppled from their lofty positions. The hardly universally-beloved likes of Edwina Currie, Neil Hamilton and Norman Lamont saw their careers in the Commons go up in smoke; and David Mellor memorably gave his losing speech whilst being heckled by Sir James Goldsmith.
The roll-call of Ministerial casualties included not only Portillo, but Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, whose loss of his Edinburgh Pentlands seat characterised the electoral annihilation the Tories suffered north of the border; they were also obliterated in Wales. Regardless of one’s political persuasion, it was a remarkable election evening to witness, unlike any other I’d seen up until that point; and what happened next doesn’t necessarily diminish the memory of that amazing viewing experience.
When Margaret Thatcher won in 1979, I was eleven; when Tony Blair won in 1997, I was twenty-nine. If one looks back eighteen years from today’s perspective, we arrive in 1999, which in some respects doesn’t feel that long ago; but eighteen years from 11 to 29 is a vast expanse of living and learning as the transition from child to adult is undergone. The majority of my life up until 1997 had been lived with the Conservative Party running the country, and it almost felt that anyone other than them governing the rest of us was some distant childhood memory on a par with my first day at school or Jon Pertwee regenerating into Tom Baker, something that could never be recaptured.
I’d watched every General Election night on the telly with growing interest in events from 1983 onwards, and every time the result was the same; the Tories seemed to be the political equivalent of the German national football team; they never lost a penalty shoot-out. Despite poll predictions of a Hung Parliament in 1992, the Tories were returned to power with the greatest share of the vote in British history; after that, it really felt as if Britain was destined to be a one-party state for eternity, which is why 1997 was such a shock to the system.
John Major’s administration was fortunate that the swift plummet of its fortunes occurred within months of the Conservative’s historic victory in 1992 and they were able to cling onto power for a full five-year Parliament, hoping that would give them enough time to recover. But events, and Major’s Ministers, ensured that wouldn’t happen. The ERM debacle on Black Wednesday took place in September 1992, and from that point on his government were dead men walking; from Michael Howard squirming under the Paxman spotlight to Archer, Aitken, Hamilton and Mellor, the mid-90s seemed incapable of going seven days without another Tory being caught with his trousers down or his hand in the till. By 1997, sweeping change was as much-needed and inevitable as it had been in 1906, 1945, 1964 and 1979 – and would be in 2010. And, for good or ill, change came.
Re-watching news reports from May 1997 prior to writing this piece, it was interesting to contrast John Major’s departure from Downing Street with Blair’s arrival. Major’s farewell speech was made with him standing before a couple of microphones and no additional embellishments for dramatic effect; his successor, on the other hand, announced the beginning of his reign before the media with his hands resting on a lectern, an item of political furniture that no announcement from the same location can now be made without. Seeing the clip anew, it seemed evident to me that this was Blair the preacher-man with his makeshift pulpit, spreading the Gospel to the masses who were prepared to buy into it; and it appeared the majority were prepared.
This isn’t an attempt to summarise ‘the Blair effect’ over the decade following 1 May 1997; for one thing, there isn’t enough space to do so, and categorising the changes that came about courtesy of the electorate’s choice twenty years ago (not to mention 2001 and 05) would require more than one post, for sure. What’s indisputable is that, in its own way, the result of the 1997 General Election was as significant from a Labour perspective as 1964 had been.
Comparisons with 1945 don’t quite hold up in that Attlee’s administration came to power in unique circumstances and the transformation of the country they brought about was largely benign because nothing could be worse than six years of a world war. As for Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, the hand of history on his shoulder is just as likely to pat him on the back as it is to stab him in the same spot.
© The Editor