The Sunday Telegraph
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Anyone familiar with Alwyn Turner’s earlier books will know what to expect from this one: an astute and entertaining summing-up of a period in recent history using a mix of politics and popular culture to relate the story.
I enjoyed Crisis? What Crisis?, Turner’s first foray into this genre, not least because it focused on the 1970s, the formative decade of my life. That came out in 2008, which was far enough distant from its subject matter to offer a coherent historical perspective. I’m not entirely convinced that is the case here, since many of the events forming the narrative of All In It Together: England in the Early 21st Century are so recent as to be still in the news now.
Living through the 1970s was to feel part of a decaying world of strikes, rampant inflation, ghastly fashion (loons and platforms!), three-day weeks, power cuts, skinheads, inner-city blight and football hooliganism, a neardystopia accompanied by the greatest ever rock music soundtrack.
Then came Thatcher and two decades of recovery, both economic and of national self-esteem, following the recapture of the Falklands. If the first book in what has now become a tetralogy (after similar treatment for the 1980s and 1990s) charted a post-war loss of innocence and a seemingly inexorable decline, this latest offering looking at the first 20 years of the 21st century is a tale principally of institutional implosion.
It started with such hopes. The millennium was the high watermark of Blairism, three years into the government of New Labour, a softer, middle-of-the-road, capitalismsupporting party that so-called progressive middle classes found more socially acceptable than the post-Thatcher Conservatives, even if their policies were pretty much indistinguishable. But Blair flattered only to deceive. Hubris was his constant companion and nemesis arrived in the shape of the ill-starred invasion of Iraq on the post-9/11 coat-tails of the Americans.
The impact of that war on modern politics is hard to overestimate and certainly receives more mentions in this book than any other event. Looking back, albeit not from a very great distance, it can be seen as the point at which public trust in the political classes, never particularly high, began to collapse. The financial crisis, followed by the expenses scandal that engulfed parliament, and then the attempts to overturn the result of the Brexit referendum all contributed to a malaise that hangs over us like a pall. Has the handling of the pandemic redeemed matters? I doubt it.
The title is clearly ironic, since we are evidently not all in it together. Society is far more atomised today than it was 50 years ago when some cultural experiences, such as TV programmes, were shared whatever class you inhabited.
Turner is good at identifying these social trends. Once, the backgrounds of comedians were working class and apolitical. Nowadays, most modern comics are middle class, educated at independent schools and determined to shove their Left-wing opinions down the nation’s throat while expecting us to laugh, too. Yet one of
The ‘bigoted woman’ moment captured how far Labour had drifted from its heartlands
the country’s most successful comedians, Roy “Chubby” Brown, is hardly known in these effete southern circles and is despised as a misogynistic racist by those who do know him.
Turner devotes a large chunk of one chapter to Brown’s outrageous act, comparing him to the “safe” Michael McIntyre, “two men who could not be further apart, in terms of style, appeal, even geography”. While McIntyre found his audience in London, on television and and on the festival circuits, Brown plied his scatological trade in Blackpool, Wolverhampton and Stoke. The irony is that the Left-wing comics who despise Brown mostly came from posh backgrounds whereas he was a
Labour-supporting, working-class lad from a council estate.
You can see the theme here. Labour’s crushing defeat at the 2019 election in the very heartlands where Roy Brown is something of a comedic hero owes much to the party’s complete estrangement from the people it purports to represent. This was, perhaps, captured most dramatically during the 2010 election campaign when Gordon Brown was confronted by Gillian Duffy, a lifelong Labour voter, in Rochdale. Brown’s description of her as “that bigoted woman” for asking questions about immigration might explain why Labour has been out of office for the past 11 years with no obvious prospect of ever getting back in. They so ignored and neglected their core supporters that they were outflanked by an Old Etonian.
If the UK is defined by its institutions then hardly one has been left unscathed by the past two decades. Parliament was scarred by the expenses scandal; the justice
system by the retreat of the police from the streets and the failure to investigate appalling sex crimes for fear of being accused of racism; the BBC by the Jimmy Savile affair and its aftermath as well as a growing reputation for metropolitan elitism; the Armed Forces by being dragged into the morass of Iraq, though their reputation did not suffer; the Anglican Church by weak leadership and a decline in faith; the press by hacking allegations; and the NHS by being treated like an national religion, immune to reform.
Turner identifies one institution that has bucked the trend – the monarchy (notwithstanding its recent travails with the Harry and Meghan soap opera). In the year of the platinum jubilee it remains a unifying force in a fragmented world. But after the Queen, what then?