Some say that the story of our times is that the right has won politically, but the left has won culturally. The year 1997-with the Labour election landslide and the death of Diana-has provided vivid evidence to support the claimby Geoffrey Wheatcroft / January 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Has there been a stranger or more vivid year in our lifetime than 1997? Two separate weeks are unforgettable: the first week in May and the first week in September. Most of us remember David Mellor and Michael Portillo losing their seats in the small hours of 2nd May, during that astonishing Labour landslide. Everyone remembers the death of Diana: the Sunday itself and the extraordinary mood in London that week, culminating in the bizarre funeral service in Westminster Abbey on 6th September, with Earl Spencer’s ferocious (and, as it turned out, hubristic) harangue.
The past year has been called epochal. In his new book This Time: Our Constitutional Revolution, Anthony Barnett argues that: “The year 1997 has altered Britain for good: politically, institutionally and emotionally.” And apart from the familiar call for modernisation, decentralisation and a written constitution, Barnett directly links the Labour landslide and the public response to Diana’s death. Likewise, the playwright David Edgar thinks that “the reason why so many people found that 6th September echoed 1st May was not just the roses and the sunshine (and David Dimbleby); it was an echo of the demand of the British people at the general election that the brute, metallic logic of the market be constrained by a sense of moral responsibility. This time there wasn’t a ballot box in which to put that message, but it was posted none the less.”
Even if you think (as I do) that this is tosh, it is significant tosh. Even if you thought that “Diana Week” was an unattractive and rather frightening display of mass hysteria and false emotion, it was without doubt an amazing phenomenon. Even if you smile at the steady disillusionment which has followed the exalted post-election mood, something about 1997 needs explaining.
The story of our time, it has been said, is that the right has won politically, but the left has won culturally. This profound truth reached its consummation in Britain in 1997-and it linked those two weeks.
Over the past decade we have seen the collapse of communism in Russia and eastern Europe; and a series of other defeats for the left. As Isaiah Berlin observed not long before his death, Europe is living through the first period since 1789 when there is no large project of the left. But he should have said: no political project. Engels’s “kingdom of freedom” is a…