Flag-waving crowds, cheers, relief and optimism. These were common to two events, 15 years apart, which are etched into the British psyche.
This year marks the 40th and 25th anniversaries of the Falklands War and New Labour’s first election victory. HMS Hermes, the flagship of the British taskforce to the Falklands, arrived back in Portsmouth on 21st July 1982 and Tony Blair entered Downing Street on 2nd May 1997 after a landslide election victory.
They were both historic, generation-defining moments and, to this day, remain important narratives within the Conservative and Labour parties but also for our country.
They were cause and effect of changes in Britain. According to historian Dominic Sandbrook, “a deeply buried sense of national exceptionalism began to stir” after the Falklands war, something Nigel Farage has identified as an antecedent of Brexit. Moreover, the conflict probably shaped Thatcher’s stubborn streak and statecraft, a defiant “not for turning” mindset that got things done, but ultimately contributed to her downfall.
Tony Blair’s victory reflected Briton’s impatience with the ‘old’ order and, with customary cultural deftness, described Britain as a modernising “young country”, keen to renew and reimagine itself. The Conservatives had turned the economy around, but people were impatient to improve public services, ameliorate inequality and individualism, and change the way of doing things. With a youthful Prime Minister (Blair was the youngest Prime Minister for over 100 years), BritPop, BritArt and the Millennium Dome, Britannia became ‘cool’ for a while.
Both events were certainly politically important. Conflict in the South Pacific changed the weather, giving Thatcher a huge personal fillip and the political capital needed for Thatcherism. Fifteen years later, Blair’s victory and Labour’s ‘big tent’ strategy put to bed talk of Conservative hegemony and their claim of being the ‘natural party of government’. It took a long time in the wilderness for the Tories to regain electoral advantage.
Britain changed under Blair, more at ease with itself, more accepting of difference, more devolved and dynamic. At the end of his time as P.M., Ipsos MORI polling found 46% of Britons of the view that his government has been good for the country, strikingly higher than monthly satisfaction ratings. Interestingly, while the balance of public opinion was more positive for Blair’s record of delivering for people personally than it was for the country, the opposite was true for Thatcher.
The events in themselves didn’t, of course, change either history or Britain on their own - for example, “the longest suicide note…” and Black Wednesday were equally important - but they are among stand-out memories of their respective eras. They were symbolic milestones and evidence of slower-moving shifts in Britain. But why they are memorable teaches us something else; we remember them partly because of how they made us feel — positive and optimistic (although of course not universally so).
Both were exceptionally rare shared, feel-good experiences, moments which seemed important. Memories of them will surely fade, and their significance will diminish, but probably not for some time yet.