A collection of essays on the men who stood tall in the age of Sir Tony.
To most, Tony Blair is still ‘the Prime Minister of the Nineties’, that very cool decade where everything was possible and things could only, and sometimes even did, get better. But Blair was only in power for the last quarter of that decade, his reign very much the ash of the 1990s fag.
As for ‘Cool Britannia’, well, that was a marketing fad dreamt up by a Conservative MP, Virginia Bottomley, and promulgated by an American magazine editor (but a very cool American magazine editor whom we admire enormously). And as for the notion of the ‘long 90s’ – beloved by podcasters everywhere – don’t get us started on that particular slice of fancy.
When it comes to thinking about the Blair Years, it’s best to take things chronologically: from May 1997, when he entered Downing Street – to June 2007, when he was booted out by his Granita dining companion, Gordon Brown.
This may have been the era of the ‘ladette’ and ‘girl power’, but it was also an epoch of astonishing bad blokery, in which a number of terminal rotters achieved a prominence that would have been impossible at any other time. Presided over by the man himself, Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, that self-declared ‘pretty straight kind of guy’, and a bad bloke in a quotidian sense – flirting with his friend Rupert’s wife, pretending to like football – but also a bad bloke in his own personal way – declaring war on Iraq, demolishing civil liberties and advising dictators for endless millions.
Here, we’ve inverted the crass categorisation of ‘Blair’s Babes’ to bring you Blair’s Blokes: the fruitiest and funkiest exemplars of masculinity in a Britain that only seemed like yesterday. The Fence, and friends, commemorate the fellas who could only have emerged in the Age of Tony.
Damien Hirst, by Francesca Gavin
Damien Hirst and Tony Blair both flourished in the late-90s landscape of marketing and PR. They were both princes of puff. From the day of his graduation from Goldsmiths, Hirst established himself as the artist-impresario of his generation, organising group shows like Freeze. His work was exciting, irreverent, shocking, disgusting and visceral. Charles Saatchi became his biggest collector. In 1995, he won the Turner Prize (then less of a big deal). It was the exhibition Sensation at the Royal Academy in 1997 that changed everything – the same year Blair came to power. It brought together artworks full of cocks, blood, sex, violence and a fuck-you attitude in a space known for tasteful Monet blockbusters. Sensation made Britain feel rebellious with Hirst as its biggest name. For the first time, being an artist was like being a pop star.
Hirst, like Blair, flirted with pop. He directed the video for Blur’s Country House – a collaboration one imagines emerged from a drunken, coke-fuelled night at the Groucho. He formed the band Fat Les with Keith Allen and Blur’s Alex James, then released the dire football anthem Vindaloo. Yet like lad mags and Wonderbras, Hirst’s new-yob shine began to fade. He became the darling of bankers lining up to eat at his restaurant, Pharmacy. His dot and spin paintings were superficial, mechanical products for an eager market. He became known for his ability to play the exploding art market more than making art. By 2003, he reportedly had a fortune of £35 million. By the time his diamond skull For the Love of God was exhibited in 2007 – when Blair lost the election – Hirst was almost an art joke. All headline and no meaning. He was now the establishment.
Fathers 4 Justice, by Fergus Butler-Gallie
At one point, Fathers 4 Justice were flavour of the month in the land where Tony was King. Formed in early 2003 by a man called Matt O’Connor, they tapped into fears about family breakdown and the nascent men’s rights movement. They were made up of men, angry that family law courts had often given custody of their children to their ex-wives or partners, and they wanted to do something about it.
That ‘something’ was climbing on things, usually dressed up, like disgraced children’s entertainers, in the outfits of Father Christmas or various superheroes. They climbed on the Houses of Parliament, Tower Bridge and Buckingham Palace in quick succession, as if their list of targets had been coordinated as a side hustle by the locations director for 2004’s American comedy hit EuroTrip.
The apex predators of Blair’s Britain were split in their opinions on the stunts. Their supporters included George Galloway, who sponsored a bill supporting them in the House of Commons; the Times, who called them ‘the most prominent guerilla pressure group in Britain’ and Will Self, who called their founder ‘fiercely intelligent’. Their targets included Margaret Hodge, who they tried to arrest; the Queen, whose portrait they vandalised; and the World Snooker Championship, which they interrupted in 2005.
They also were obsessed with Blair: they famously threw a condom full of purple flour at him in the House of Commons in May 2004. In January 2006 the group were caught plotting to kidnap his youngest son, Leo. In response, there was a short-lived dissolution announced by O’Connor, only for them to return again in May; this time choosing to disrupt another event that could only have happened in Blair’s Britain: Eamonn Holmes’ The National Lottery: Jet Set.
Recently, O’Connor succeeded in attracting the ire of both food safety inspectors and Lady Gaga when he launched a flavour called ‘Baby Gaga’, which contained human breast milk. Mr O’Connor made headlines again in 2020; this time for using the official Fathers 4 Justice Twitter account to call Cheryl Cole ‘a sperm bandit’. His LinkedIn tells us he is working on both a rock ‘n’ roll musical about Fathers 4 Justice, and ‘his luxury lifestyle brand’.
What of Fathers 4 Justice themselves? Their campaigning isn’t what it was. The ‘latest news’ section of their website has only six updates for the last two years, the most recent of which being a Father’s Day message to universally acclaimed parent of the year, Boris Johnson. In classic Blair’s Britain style, Fathers 4 Justice purported to diagnose a problem – and then proceeded to make it worse: family breakdown continues apace. Still, nowadays, rageful, divorced men no longer have to dress up as Spiderman to give voice to their opinions; they’ve got Twitter.
David Blunkett, by Peter Oborne
I remember a dinner at the Spectator at the height of the Tony Blair government. Our editor, Boris Johnson, had invited both David Blunkett and Norman Tebbit. They sat next to each other and got on like a house on fire, agreeing on everything.
Blunkett introduced the world to a new phenomenon – a right-wing Labour home secretary. He did not pretend to support human rights or civil liberties. The Daily Mail adored him. He said local schools were being ‘swamped’ by non-English speaking immigrants. He launched vicious attacks on judges and undermined the concept of freedom under law.
In this way, Blunkett embodied the internal contradiction of the Blair project. On the one hand, Blair pretended to be progressive, and allied himself with progressive causes. On the other, he was ferociously authoritarian in order to appeal to far-right sentiment.
David Blunkett is a warm and immensely talented man. Like many political journalists I adored him. His childhood was out of a Dickens novel. A cruel genetic disorder left him blind at four years old. Later, his father died after falling into a vat of boiling water while at work as a factory foreman, leaving the family in desperate poverty. As a young man, Blunkett spent years in evening classes to pass the exams to go to university while serving, like Labour’s first leader Keir Hardie, as a Methodist preacher. Blunkett also destroyed the political legacy of the socially liberal home secretaryships of Roy Jenkins and Willie Whitelaw, and opened the way to the brutal authoritarianism of Priti Patel and Suella Braverman.
Jamie Oliver, by Kieran Morris
For as long as he’s been a figure in British cultural memory, Jamie Oliver has had the stink of hateability on him. Even today, YouGov polling estimates that 26 % of Britons have an outwardly negative opinion towards him. He is the 12th most recognisable TV personality in public life and yet the 82nd most popular, lagging far behind Gordon Ramsay, Gino d’Acampo and even certified pricks like Gregg Wallace. He’s a byword for inauthenticity and smarm: sad, glassy restaurants that weep like lesions on dying city centres; microwave meals so egregiously ersatz that a Member of Parliament can call him out for cultural appropriation. He is someone that people love to hate, but the people are wrong. They don’t hate Jamie Oliver – they hate Sainsbury’s.
Oliver couldn’t be more Sainsbury’s if he tried: socially mobile without being too grasping; one eye eternally on summer, a cold beer, a plaid shirt, a water gun and a packet of chicken fillets in a sickly red marinade. No wonder he was tapped by Saatchi to be the shop’s brand ambassador within a year of its relaunch in 1999. Jamie would be there to greet you in Sainsbury’s, on a billboard or a recipe card, but you also knew he’d be at home with his wife, ‘Jools’, and his kids who your friends probably named their kids after, in an Islington three-bed he bought just before the Overground opened. Jamie Oliver was one of the first food personalities that people wanted to be, and to even get close, you went to Sainsbury’s, lining the coffers of its titular Lord who owed his title, and gave his money, to Tony Blair.
He made the good life look within reach, so long as you saved your Nectar points and brought the most interesting burger to the barbecue. He was carefree, but not without a conscience. He encouraged you to read the labels, watch out for E numbers, and always, always, make things from scratch, because you can’t trust what those dinner ladies are feeding your kids. And you tried, and you tried; you made pesto pasta and you decried Turkey Twizzlers and you splashed out on that Paul Smith polo, for Jamie and Tony and Sainsbury’s. At the time it felt like the right thing to do. Now you’re older, angrier, and he’s still making 30-minute meals in his orange plaid shirt, drizzling Taste the Difference olive oil with that same youthful brio. He isn’t doing you any harm – he’s just making a salad. But the fraying Clubcard fob on your car keys tells you every day that we can’t all be shopping at Sainsbury’s, not anymore.
Angus Deayton, by Prof. Sir Angus Deaton, Dwight D Eisenhower Professor of Economics and International Affairs Emeritus at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs; Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, 2015.
I had left Britain for the US before he became well-known, and for most of those years, I could not and did not see British TV, so most of what I heard was secondhand. As in, ‘I see you have a part-time gig.’ And the British press had some fun with my being knighted and winning a Nobel, and saying What? Not *that* Angus D. I always wondered whether his name was genuine.
Noel Gallagher, by Neil Kulkarni
Like so many of Blair’s blokes, one could have confidently predicted Noel Gallagher’s present dotage of reactionary conservatism – the signs were there, and inherent in Oasis’ dreary, awful retrograde music from the off. If the optimism of Labour in 1997 had hints of Wilson-era 60s optimism then Oasis were its perfect soundtrack – commercially inarguable, a larcenous patchwork pastiche of former glories, supplanting ‘independence’ by dint of arrogance. Simultaneously it was perfectly clear that rock’s most lucrative coprophage was a figurehead of one of the most disgracefully regressive movements and moments in UK cultural history, Britpop, which meant the rise of the lad, or at least the middle-class notion of a lad, and the subsequent craven acceptance and boosting of pop conservatism by a supine middle-class media. This charmless twat’s infinitely proud celebrations of pigshit-thickery (don’t forget, he also hates jazz, books, hip hop, Shakespeare and brown people being allowed to play rock festivals – what a ledge, eh?) will continue to be anointed with all the usual spineless sycophancy from the press because like Blair, the Gallaghers quickly learned that the tabloids hold the keys to the kingdom.
Despite the retrospective myth-making about the 90s, what needs reasserting is that the cowardly commercial acquiescence of the music media at that time enabled a regressive cultural force. No denying that Gallagher in Number Ten was a smart bit of identification by Blair – Oasis were a cultural juggernaut in 1997, a juggernaut full of shit that carried with it the lad mags, Johnny Vaughan’s grotesque genuflection, that NW1 music press posh-boy joy about having some ‘characterful’ northerners to goggle at, the rejection of ‘poofiness’ stylistically, the reassertion of the English Rock Defence League’s tiny-minded ideas about ‘real’ and ‘proper’ music.
It created a cultural environment in which anyone can be ‘iconic’ so long as they tediously, endlessly, chippily rotate and reassert their ‘legendary’ status. This hoax stems from Oasis’ puppet resurrection of the past through the laziest thieving, an almost-nationalist resistance to huge swathes of that past, with the canon melted into soupy, sexless, muscle-memory rock. In so many ways, though so many of us were so hopeful politically in May 1997, Oasis uncannily pointed the way ahead – cultural ossification, the marginalisation of women and minorities in mainstream media and popular culture, and the dismissal of problematic voices in favour of a dull deadening of dissidence. I never forget, I never forgive.
Hugh Grant, by Charlie Baker
People like to think that David Beckham is the central male role model of the Blair years. But they are wide of the mark. While most men would want to be as good at football as him, very few men want to dress like him, talk like him or be married to his wife, Victoria. No. The most influential male figure of the Blair Years – culturally and politically – is the man who played him as Prime Minister in Love Actually: Hugh Grant.
Now, it’s not a novel observation to suggest that Boris Johnson’s whole ‘vibe’ is predicated on the quite staggering global success that Grant enjoyed from Four Weddings onwards. But you can see Grant’s influence anywhere that anyone is in the market for some performance of acute Englishness – a Square Mile boardroom, a dive bar in the East Village – and you will suddenly see some garbled performance of that ‘charming’ routine that is now hard-wired into the Anglosphere’s cultural DNA.
Grant is famously unpleasant: he has fallen out with his co-stars and was banned from Jon Stewart’s talk show. He leads the idle life of a retired energy tycoon: ferrying himself from his Chelsea palazzo to Surrey golf courses in his Ferrari F12. He is rumoured to collect contemporary photography – with a heavy emphasis on the female nude.
He is certainly handsome, funny and talented, but he has rarely ventured out of the world of light entertainment, making romantic comedies for which he has been astonishingly well-remunerated. Yet Grant has carved out a central role in public life, and is, would you believe it, the Great British Public’s dream candidate for the role of Prime Minister – the FBPE ‘sensible majority’ swoon over him for his vituperative critiques of the tabloid press.
And so there was something galling about Grant inserting himself into the climactic moments of the Johnson premiership this summer, when he inveigled Steve Bray, the anti-Brexit campaigner, to play the Benny Hill theme tune during Johnson’s resignation speech.
But, come to think about it, it was actually rather fitting: the actor-who-people-want-to-be-Prime-Minister and the journalist-who-got-to-be-Prime-Minister, both of whom reached national prominence during the Blair years for their tously, cavalier charms, and here they were; locked in an unwitting embrace with a man in a blue-and-yellow top hat and the sound of his tinny speakers. Was it raining? We didn’t notice.
Tim Henman, by John Phipps
‘The problem with you English’, an American woman once said to me, ‘is you fetishise mediocrity.’
I was forced to concede the point. For a nation that once plundered half the earth, we do put a bit of a premium on disappointment, grey skies, mild biscuits and ‘that light rain that really soaks you through’. The national drink is tea with milk; the national plant is grass – supposedly, anyway. In fact, the country is more diverse, more batty and more violent than all this suggests. But the writer reaching for symbols of Englishness will always make the most hay with the underwhelming and insipid.
So it was with Tim Henman.
Henman was a grass-court specialist in a grass-court country, a perennial also-ran at Wimbledon, the only tennis most Brits watch. He was most treasured by the public for the drawn-out quality of the disappointment he offered: a sort of anti-edging where everyone waited for the inevitable failure with a calm pulse and unbaited breath.
From the vantage of the baseline era, he wasn’t an inspiring player. Henman played a now-defunct kind of tennis called ‘serve and volley’, which worked exactly the way it sounds. In my head it rhymes with buy-to-let, prawn mayo, health and safety, ‘that’s Asda price’ and the idea of the band Travis. The sense that remains is one of blandness: Henman was clean-shaven, undistinctive, the spokesperson for a fabric-whitening brand. Even his name is an old Monty Python punchline (in Holy Grail) about incongruously normal names. If you wanted to conjure up the self-ironising enthusiasm of post-Cool Britannia Britain, you couldn’t do much better than Henman crashing out in the semi-finals of Wimbledon while an unconvinced middle-class voice yelped ‘Come on, Tim!’ from the stands.
It’s something of a surprise, then, looking back at his record, to find he wasn’t bad at all. First Brit to reach the Wimbledon semis in 30 years; three-time world No 4; 28 finals and 11 tournaments won; 40–14 win-loss record in the Davis Cup; career takings of more than £8.7 million. That’s surely not bad? To be better at tennis than everyone on earth but three people? No grand slam titles, it’s true, but then if he’d beaten the wildcard entrant in the 2001 Wimbledon semis to face Patrick Rafter in the final it all might have been different…
It’s not Henman’s fault that a more driven and gifted tennis player would soon replace him as British champ (and win Wimbledon to boot). It’s not his fault Blair invaded Iraq either. He was the best we’d had for decades. If we still call the slope at Wimbledon ‘Henman Hill’ with a condescending wince about past failure, that’s our own psychodrama and it’s us that will reap the disappointments. But then that’s the problem with England, isn’t it. Nice place. Shame about the people.
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