A Classless Society

Seeking out the essence of a beguiling decade
September 18, 2013
A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990sby Alwyn W Turner (Aurum, £25)

Professor Treece in Malcolm Bradbury’s Eating People is Wrong suspects that the 1950s are “dissolving curiously under his grasp.” The same could be said of the 1990s. The end of something, or the beginning of something? A halfway house between changing social and political styles, or the same old muddling through? To Alywn W Turner this was a decade of adaptation and realignment, in which the British began to acclimatise themselves to a series of moral and behavioural shifts, technological revolutions and a brand of politics in which “managerialism” had kicked ideology into touch.

The current poster boy of near-contemporary social history is David Kynaston, but Turner, though benefiting from the great man’s endorsement, opts for very different techniques. Instead of bringing a kaleidoscope of detail to bear on time’s week-by-week advance, A Classless Society balances chronology with theme. Lads and ladettes, Cool Britannia and the Spice Girls, New Labour and the BSE crisis whisk by in rapid succession, along with some interesting counter-factual prognoses of the likely shape of late-20th century politics had John Smith lived.

As for the principal adornments of this endlessly beguiling soap opera, John Major appears as a decent man let down by his party and Tony Blair as a trivial opportunist. If Turner doesn’t possess Kynaston’s nose for the unpublished source, then his eye for the salient quotation is horribly acute, and the pithiest comment on Princess Diana’s passing comes from Tony Livesey of the Daily Sport.

More Arts & Books in this month's Prospect:

All this really happened: Simon Schama’s Story of the Jews excels at bringing the past to life—even if he fails to capture the richness of Jewish culture in medieval Europe, says Robert Alter (£)

False starts and red herrings: Thomas Pynchon’s cult novels are magnificently complex but ultimately empty, says Jennifer Szalai (£)

Lessons about ourselves: Reviewing Ian Buruma’s new book, Zero Hour: A History of 1945, Samuel Moyn argues we must see the aftermath of the Second World War in terms of institutions, not just individuals (£)

Paul Klee’s distorted reality: An exhibition at Tate Modern shows Klee’s unique combination of realism and surrealism, says James Woodall (£)