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Life on Mars: New Labour in a Ford Cortina
Life on Mars, BBC, 2006-2007
A Journey, Tony Blair, 2010
Although I stayed up for Portillo on the night of the 1997 General Election, I hadn’t actually voted Labour that day. I thought that Blair was too right-wing and that my local Labour candidate was awful, so I voted Green instead. (My local Labour candidate was Kate Hoey, so to be fair I was right about that.) But nearly a quarter of a century later, I spent the first Covid lockdown of 2020 seeking out everything I could about the Blair era. Against all the stark weirdness and fear, the empty streets and the shuttered shops, New Labour became my comfort blanket.
I read The Unfinished Revolution, Philip Gould’s ur-text of the Third Way. I read Andrew Rawnsley’s Servants of the People and The End of the Party, gleeful cascades of things that really don’t matter any more (the Hindujas’ visas! Mandelson’s home loan!). I read Alastair Campbell’s diaries, marvelling at the amount of time he spent thinking about air stewardesses’ bums. On one hot summer’s day I watched a 12-hour ‘as-live’ re-run of the BBC’s 1997 election night coverage.
Finally, I turned to Blair’s autobiography, A Journey, best known for being repeatedly moved to the ‘War Crimes’ sections of major high street bookshops. I didn’t have particularly high hopes for A Journey, but it turned out to be a cracking read. Blair is fully committed to the celebrity-autobiography confessional approach and is almost recklessly frank, up to and including a short disquisition on how stress played havoc with his bowels. It’s both interesting and funny, and the section on the negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement is fascinating.
At some point in my self-soothing Blairite summer I also decided to rewatch Life on Mars. The fantastical tale of Sam Tyler, an early 21st century detective suddenly transported to a Manchester police station in 1973, it was first shown in 2006 as the imperial phase of New Labour was coming to an end. For a Remainer, the set-up is familiar: a metrosexual liberal is forced to live alongside politically incorrect dinosaurs in upsetting shirts. But, like some other shows of the same vintage, Life on Mars has aged prematurely because of jokes that no major British channel would broadcast in prime time now.
Even on first viewing, the trick pulled by Life on Mars felt a bit grubby. Philip Glenister’s Gene Hunt voices racist, sexist and homophobic insults and epithets that were close to the knuckle even in 2006. But the series gets away with it because it’s funny (Hunt has all the best lines and Glenister delivers them brilliantly), and because the bigotry is a facade. Hunt’s speech is un-PC, but when it comes to the crunch his actions bend towards justice. His prejudice always disintegrates at the crucial moment, allowing him to deliver morally satisfying outcomes for the very people he was insulting five minutes before. Only out-and-out baddies get beaten up by the police, and anyone who does a really serious hate crime gets thrown down some stairs. The air is thick with prejudice but it has no lasting real-world effects. The audience knows that Hunt is about to face a cultural extinction event, and while he provokes laughter first, pathos is a close second. The unspoken implication is that we will miss him when he’s gone.
John Simm’s Sam Tyler, inexplicably transferred to 1973 from his glass-and-steel 2006 police station, is explicitly Blairite; at a wife-swapping party (really) he introduces himself and his undercover partner as ‘Tony and Cherie’ (Hunt is introduced as ‘Gordon’). Suited and booted, professional and vigorous, Tyler is forever wincing and groaning at the un-PC outbursts of his colleagues. He brings a woman officer onto the detective team, delivers running commentaries on anti-Irish racism in Manchester, and very nearly patronises a young Black detective to death.
Ostensibly, Tyler is the antagonist of the brown-trousered bigots in the station but in truth, he rather likes it there. As a young, straight white man Tyler isn’t directly impacted by most of the prejudice he sees, and he finds the more tolerant approach to fisticuffs quite liberating; when it comes to punching people he’s almost as good as John Prescott. His response to his colleagues’ off-colour remarks is limited to having a sulk, getting over it and then buying everyone a drink. At the end of the show’s second and final season he makes a deliberate choice to stay in ‘1973’. On its face this decision is driven by his love for his police colleague Annie, but his real love object - and ours - is Hunt.
In 2006, the visible consensus in Britain was that while sexism, racism and homophobia were a bit embarrassing and sub-optimal, they weren’t truly, viscerally significant. If we’re honest, this is another reason why Life on Mars got away with rehearsing offensive lines; lots of the people watching didn’t find them particularly offensive, and there were no social media channels to aggregate and amplify the voices of people who did object (Facebook had been founded just two years before, in 2004). One of the most striking changes in the intervening years is the weightiness and seriousness now accorded to the politics of identity and equality, and the ways that politicians and mass media have had to respond.
Blair popped up recently telling the Labour Party not to get trapped in an identity politics rabbit hole; his point - which was well made - was that calling voters bigots doesn’t win elections. A Journey confirms that Blair never wanted to get ahead of the public in this territory, even when he led a government that introduced significant equalities legislation. Gay rights was the most substantial identity battleground of the New Labour era, and Blair repeatedly says he is proud of New Labour’s record on ‘gays’. But when he writes about this topic he doesn’t get into serious questions of morality or justice. He sees Labour’s gay rights agenda as a way to inflict political pain on the Conservatives, allowing Labour to portray them as clapped out and socially embarrassing, like a drunken uncle who wants to bring back hanging. The Tories’ positions on this issue are ‘outdated’, but we never get a sense of whether Blair thinks they’re immoral. He doesn’t want to discuss right versus wrong; he wants to talk about forward-looking and modern versus fusty and uncool.
A Journey barely touches on other aspects of identity politics; it’s odd, now, to read a substantial political autobiography that pays them so little heed. On Black and minority ethnic politics Blair has nothing at all to say, other than giving an approving account of Bill Clinton lecturing a Black audience in the US about their political mis-steps. Feminism is barely mentioned and Blair’s attitude to women is decidedly old school. He writes that Bill Clinton’s behaviour towards Monica Lewinsky ‘arose in part from his inordinate interest in people’, which is certainly one way of putting it. He loathes professional-class, middle-aged mouthy bints (which is odd, because he is definitely married to one) and has a good chuckle about John Prescott singling out female colleagues with his temper tantrums. Harriet Harman is depicted as ‘fussing and fretting’ and being a policy birdbrain; perhaps her performance was affected by the sexist bullying, because after Blair left office she went on to produce the totemic Equality Act of 2010.
Fundamentally, for Blair, making things better for women and minorities is a second order issue. His real and only objection to prejudice is that it stands in the way of individual achievement: it stops people fulfilling their potential and getting on. Beyond that, being ‘right on’ (as we called it then) is just a political intensifier, something that he uses to emphasise his own relative youth and energy, his literal ‘fitness to govern’ compared with the wheezing old codgers on the Conservative benches. (This contrast between youthful, fit liberalism and end-of-life conservatism recurs insistently in Life on Mars; Tyler is forever adding fruit to his diet and sprinting past older colleagues in his pursuit of the unrighteous.)
The one context in which Blair takes matters of identity truly seriously in their own right is Northern Ireland, where their visceral importance couldn’t have been more plain. Everywhere else - and despite some genuinely positive actions by his government - Blair’s view is that matters of identity and social justice are fundamentally ornamental; they’re as weightless as empty cardboard boxes under the wheels of a speeding Cortina.
At the time, this flattered my vanity, allowing me to think my support for equal marriage said something significant about my own moral capacity. Look at me, being more progressive than a Labour government! I don’t feel smug about any of it these days. I’m flailing around in a guilty fug, desperate to find a position on gender or race or armed intervention that restores that feeling of easy righteousness.
Whether they admit it or not, most people are convinced that whatever they believed at 30 represents the pinnacle of human understanding. But unlike Sam we don’t get to tumble backwards in time to an era when we were leading the charge and railing at our uncomprehending elders. Instead, life forces us to stay in the arena, and to watch as our version of settled wisdom is transformed into ignorant prejudice by nothing more than the simple passing of time. It’s a deeply uncomfortable feeling, especially when you spent your youth believing in your own moral and political superiority. I began my Blairite summer luxuriating, remembering what it was like to feel sure of being righteous. But I ended it by realising I’ve become a bit of a Hunt.
Next week: Can we show the kids: Wings of Desire?