Alien Resurrection: New Labour, Clinton and the centrist consensus

I am working an a book about the year 1997, the year that made the future. Made up of 26 short chapters, alphabetically labelled with one of '97's cultural highlights, it will offer a series of reflections and some polemics, about the year. This is an early draft of chapter 1, although given its length I suspect this will be split into a couple of chapters Any comments and improvements would be much appreciated. There is no referencing as yet... tut tut.

While this is not a polemic, it does have a position...

On November 26th 1997, Alien Resurrection was released. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, it is the fourth and final part of the original Alien franchise begun in 1979. The story sees Sigourney Weaver return to a version of the part from the iconic original movie, Ripley, but this time set 200 years after the end of the last instalment with Ripley having been cloned (see chapters XXX). The United Systems Military – a human military force made up of all the former separate military forces, the ultimate military-industrial complex – has harvested cloned aliens and implanted them in bodies provided by mercenaries. Inevitably, the aliens escape and ‘Ripley’ and the mercenaries fight to destroy the ship they are on before it reaches earth. With mixed reviews and modest grossing, it is not widely regarded as the shining light of the franchise, and its writer, Joss Whedon, was so upset with Jeunet’s direction, he reportedly cried at a screening. Whedon’s fortunes had already taken a turn for the better, however, with the hugely successful debut season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer having already created something of a cult hit, and its phenomenal rise was just starting (see chapters XXX).

The metaphor in Alien: Resurrection of past horrors coming back in a dystopian present are clear enough. And for many on the right of British politics, this was exactly what they had seen happen on May 2nd. of the same year: 1997. On this day, the Labour Party swept to power in a general election victory that demolished the Conservative party to such an extent that it took them a further 19 years to have a majority government. Labour know what that kind of time in the wilderness feels like, having been out of power since 1979 before their 1997 victory.

Back in 1979, Margaret Thatcher became the first female Head of Government in any European country, and did so with a decisive, if not momentous victory. The Labour party she succeeded had overseen a tumultuous period with a scant power base. Elected by a majority of just three in 1974, Harold Wilson’s Labour Party struggled to achieve much, and he resigned to allow James Callaghan to take over. The majority of three disappeared with poor by-election results and Callaghan was forced to make deals with the Liberals, and Welsh and Scottish Nationalist parties. In a “first time as history, second time as farce” moment, he also pre-empted Theresa May’s weak Conservative government of 2017 by doing deals with the Ulster Unionists. Significant industrial unrest over the winter of 1978 – 79, political compromises with other parties, a poor campaign and a Conservative party making use of the latest in audience research and advertising wherewithal via the firm Saatchi and Saatchi, as well as promising to curtail Trades Union power mean that Thatcher won with biggest swing away from one party and to another since Clement Attlees’s Labour win in 1945.

From 1979 onwards, Labour failed to find a leader or a message that resonated strongly enough with the electorate to get anywhere near power. The 1983 election was a disaster. Michael Foot led the party on a platform that many thought to be too left wing, and as Labour haemorrhaged MPs to the newly formed Social Democratic Party – Liberal Alliance, Labour had its lowest voting share since 1918, and the SDP-Liberal alliance were only 700,000 votes behind Labour. Three new additions to the ranks of Labour MPs in this election were: Jeremy Corbyn, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.

Blair initially presented himself as a socialist, a man of the left. Like many Labour leaders before him, he was Oxbridge educated and had a professional background, and by the time of the 1987 election he was seen to part of the reforming part of the party. This election saw Labour gain 20 seats as well as a 3% increase in the popular vote. However, they remained over 140 seats behind the Conservatives who had won their third successive election and had managed to push mainstream economic and social policies – including those of the Labour party – further and further to the right, and with that signalling the end of the post-war Keynesian consensus. Blair’s star was rising, and he became a front bench member of the opposition, becoming Shadow Home Secretary after the Conservative Party’s fourth straight victory in 1992, this time at the hands of John Major. Despite 40 seats gained and a further 3% rise in the popular vote, Labour’s defeat was a disaster for its leader Neil Kinnock with the Conservative Party receiving the highest ever number of votes in a UK election, and he resigned.

John Smith took over as leader, but, like Hugh Gaitskell before him, died in office leaving Margaret Beckett to take over as acting leader before Tony Blair won a leadership contest. Blair was in essence, a version of Gaitskell. No longer (if ever) the socialist of 1983, Blair was a centrist who, like Gaitskell, wanted to scrap the Party’s ‘clause 4’ which committed it to nationalising industrial assets; unlike Gaitskell he achieved this in 1995, as well as seriously depleting the power of the Unions by abolishing the union block vote in favour of a ‘one member one vote’ policy.

The Conservative Party’s fourth term in power oversaw disastrous economic decline. This was caused, in part, by the devastating failure to keep the value of the pound above an EU-agreed minimum led to sterling being forced to leave the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) on so-called Black Wednesday in 1992. This meant that voters were feeling poorer and less trusting of Tory economic policy (see chapters XXX). 

The ERM fiasco did nothing to abate the severe tensions and divides within the Tories over Europe and the role of the EU in UK policy (see chapters XXX).  Labour’s move to the right allowed voters to feel assured that the ‘loony left’ of the Thatcher era had been replaced by moderate modernisers. With support from traditional Conservative-supporting print media such as The Sun and The Star, Blair’s Labour had roughly 20 million readers of friendly coverage compared to around 10 million for the Conservatives (The Mail, The Express and The Telegraph). The Euro-sceptic tumour at the heart of UK politics for years was captured by The Times who encouraged voters to abandon Party loyalty in favour of voting for anti-EU candidates.

Labour routed the Conservatives. The resurrection of the seemingly un-electable Labour had been achieved by Blair and his team. But for many on the left and centre-left of British politics, this was an alien resurrection, a Labour party they did not recognise: that promoted industry over workers, the financial sector over production. In many ways, it was a version of a return to the post-war Keynesian consensus, but written large on an international scale. For those on the right, any move away from Thatcherite Free Market ideology was sufficient proof of dangerous left wing dogma. So while those on the left of Labour and those on the right of the Conservatives continued a phony battle, the centrist government undertook a series of domestic social reforms, while joining a global centrist consensus of wealthy modern democracies, and our immediate pre-history was about to be written.

I will discuss global issues in other chapters (see XXX), but a couple of moments from the world political stage are worthy of mention as 1997 appeared to be issuing in not just a centrist world of humane, emotionally literate, sensible, sensitive politicians (see chapter 4) in the UK, but also offered a post-cold-war hope for a future of peace and prosperity, also predicated on centrist values. These values are both terribly easy to enumerate and almost impossible to define – hence their power, and their hold over a peculiarly placid set of electorates. The centrist consensus was challenged on a number of occasions, of course, which I shall come to, but it proved remarkably resilient for two decades.

In Europe, among the political classes, middle classes, business and industry there was a largely positive air. The European Union had already expanded considerably in the previous decade and in 1997 it issues its Agenda 2000. This document is a mixture of forward thinking around agricultural and industrial policies; a clarion call to improvement of its own processes and relevance; and an optimistic announcement of enlargement as more and more Easter European countries seek to become members. This optimism is mildly tempered by self-aware acknowledgements about some of the possible concerns (mass emigration to the UK leading to Brexit twenty years later was not among the items enumerated); but largely the following passage offers a sense of the tone of the EU’s confidence in its growth and ever-more important place in the world of industrial, economic and global defence issues:

The Member States of the Union have many common interests. The Union must increase its influence in world affairs, promote values such a peace and security, democracy and human rights, provide aid for the least developed countries, defend its social model and establish its presence in world markets.

Its benevolent sense of a common good spread though trade and peace treaties , empowering all, respecting all, forging prosperity for all comes from the same place of belief in the inevitable right and might of ‘western’ ‘democracies’ that the era translates from a  position of relieved optimism in the immediate aftermath of the cold-war era, to a quietly demanded expression of fealty as we moved towards the millennium. Tony Blair’s speech at the death of Diana is its emotional fulcrum (see chapter 4).

And it is not difficult to see why there could have been an almost uniform belief in the power and good of globalisation powered by ‘western’ democracies’ and their industrial and financial arsenal of corporations, institutions, conglomerates that sought to maximise profit as they improved the world. After all, every single country that was eligible to sign the Kyoto accord in the immediate aftermath of its conclusion did so, except Afghanistan. This is an extraordinary triumph for democracy and the power of global cooperation. The single most important sentence that everyone agreed to was that all countries would seek to keep greenhouse gases “at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (i.e. human)interference with the climate system”.

The emergent technologies and industries of hybrid vehicles, petrol-less engines, alternative fuel sources were given a massive boost (both moral, and more importantly financial as markets recognised the future direction of travel). While the fact that the Toyota Prius, for example, was already far enough developed to be on sale indicates that there was already movement in this direction, the Kyoto agreement was a major catalyst for further investment in research and development.

A, perhaps, unfair characterisation of Kyoto is that it offered self-satisfaction and a concomitant lack of scrutiny to the centrist orthodoxy that markets could rescue the world from the depredations of earlier industries and governments. Indeed, a central fact of the accord is that governments were seen to be the engines that drove global change, even if markets were the fuel that made the engines run. And with the defeat of the old enemy, Communism in the late 80s, and its more distant cousin, fascism in the ashes of 1945, it was just up to the western powers (forged in the twin cauldrons of the industrial revolution and the Enlightenment) to ensure that industry and rational thought could be bestowed on the rest of the world. Yes, there were still tyrannical states (Iraq, Cuba), and yes, the oil rich nations had not benefited from the separation of church and state that typified so many of the advanced democracies (the UK, cutely anachronistic in this regard), but for the most part, all was centrastic. Bill Clinton provided the template for this state-driven, market-fuelled, globally–attentive new world order in his state of the union address on February 4th. Pledging to balance the budget by 2002 (fiscal responsibility – or reducing real-terms spending on everything except warfare - is a foundational component across the global centrist consensus), Clinton announces with spectacular over-enthusiasm, the following:

Tonight I am pleased to announce that five major corporations, Sprint, Monsanto, UPS, Burger King and United Airlines, will be the first to join in a new national effort to marshal America’s businesses, large and small, to create jobs so that people can move from welfare to work.

He uses the state of the nation address to provide free advertising for five multi-billion dollar industries who are introducing minimum wage jobs. But that is because action to harness the unique conditions of the present to build the future (see, 1997 is where the future begins) is the most pressing duty of the White House, “We face no imminent threat, but we do have an enemy. The enemy of our time is inaction”. Much of this action, that which is not providing multi-nationals with cheap labour, is aimed at education, and ensuring that the technological revolution is used to its full potential (see chapter XXX)., “As the internet becomes our new town square, a computer in every home, a teacher of all subjects, a connection to all culture, this will no longer be a ream bur a necessity”. Families, healthcare, communities – all these will be improved by a balanced budget: the state will secure safety and prosperity (for some) by looking after the pennies so that the corporations who fuel this can look after the pounds. As we have seen, the environment will benefit, and it benefits precisely because capital benefits:
Tonight I announce that this year I will designate 10 American Heritage Rivers, to help communities alongside them revitalize the waterfronts and clean up pollution in the rivers, proving once again that we can grow the economy as we protect the environment.

As in the US, the centrist consensus cannot thrive on money and industry alone. The nation cannot just be richer (the richest individuals and corporations, anyway; with a modest, but real, growth for the middle classes while the trailer parks and inner cities like Detroit and Michigan, slums, the Appalachians and other rural backwaters fall into destitution and foment ultra-right wing neo-Nazi groups, militias, white supremacists who feel the righteous anger of the dispossessed and ignored, while those on the left wail helplessly about globalisation, multi-nationals and growing inequality: both sections alienated; both reviled; both held in falsely equivalent contempt… anyway, where was I? Oh yes…) the nation cannot just be richer; it has to feel better. So:

We should challenge all Americans in the arts and humanities to join with our fellow citizens to make the year 2000 a national celebration of the American spirit in every community, a celebration of our common culture in the century that has passed and in the new one to come in the new millennium, so that we can remain the world's beacon not only of liberty but of creativity long after the fireworks have faded.

The US, recognising the sense of cultural confidence that Cool Britannia has yielded (see chapter 5) will celebrate its “Common culture”. As with the UK version, the arts and humanities offer a rejuvenated, modernised and homogenised national spirit. Even if the homogeneity is a celebration of diversity, that diversity is the diverse centre-ground of American / British / French / global culture.

And, as America booms in the non-threatened, technologically emergent present, it will do so even more in the globally unified, technologically and financially unified future-world. A stronger NATO, an enlarged and stronger EU, a friendly Russia, a more inclusive and engaged China, a less provocative North Korea – all these are the future needs and future consequences of  capital’s growth and largess, “Americans fought three wars in Asia in this century. Our prosperity requires it. More than 2 million American jobs depend upon trade with Asia”.

Old enmities, current rivals, future partners will all share in the bounty of a world driven by benevolent, democratic, enlightened, capitalistic nations-states, each of which provides a combined global financial  and industrial context that allows the fuel of corporations to flow freely and embolden further profit-making (and environmentally positive) processes and policies. 

At the less romantic end of this spectrum we find, for example, the Agreement on Veterinary Equivalency which allowed meat and poultry products to be shipped between the US and EU member states without the need (among other things) for duplicate testing. So, if the USDA had cleared products as fit for US consumption, they would be recognised as fit for EU consumption. This would be worth $1.5 billion. At the sexier end of the scale, the 25th May saw an historic agreement between NATO and the Russian Federation that, with many bother important details stated:

NATO and Russia do not consider each other as adversaries. They share the goal of overcoming the vestiges of earlier confrontation and competition and of strengthening mutual trust and cooperation. The present Act reaffirms the determination of NATO and Russia to give concrete substance to their shared commitment to build a stable, peaceful and undivided Europe, whole and free, to the benefit of all its peoples. Making this commitment at the highest political level marks the beginning of a fundamentally new relationship between NATO and Russia. They intend to develop, on the basis of common interest, reciprocity and transparency a strong, stable and enduring partnership.

Since its inception in 1949, NATO had accepted only four new members between then and 1997 (Greece, Turkey, Germany and Spain). This accord paved the way for old Warsaw Pact countries to join the military union. 1999 saw the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland be the first of the old cold war conflict countries join. By 2009 a further nine had joined including, almost unbelievably, Albania, as well as the first of the previously non-aligned countries, Slovenia and Croatia. These were joined in 2017 by Montenegro. Without the 1997 agreement, none of this would have been possible.

1997 saw a promise to expand the EU, a promise warmly supported by the new UK government of Tony Blair whose centrist agenda was crucial to the UK political scene for the following two decades, but whose back benchers including Jeremy Corbyn were not so wholeheartedly committed. In the same year, NATO too began an unequivocal expansionist agenda. With the exception of the famously neutral Switzerland (whose banks in 1997 admitted to sitting on over $4billion worth of assets deposited by Jewish investors before World War II) who are members of neither, the only members of the EU who are not also members of NATO are Austria, the Republic of Ireland, Sweden (who haven’t joined in order to show solidarity with the next country) and Finland, whose border with Russia makes them vulnerable to retaliatory measures – a precaution that is ever more prescient with the current incumbent of the Kremlin who was appointed by the President Boris Yeltsin to the role of Deputy Chief of Presidential Staff in March 1997, the year that saw it celebrate its 850th anniversary.

The new world order of peacefully cooperating former enemies was mirrored by other former power structures being re-articulated and moved forward. Hong Kong, the British colony of 200 years, was handed back to China (see chapter XXX for more on China’s move into the future from 1997). Also, India was celebrating 50 years of independence from the British Empire (with current president Narendra Modi then the BJP (Indian People's Party) National Secretary in Delhi), and that imperial past that was being re-branded as Cool Britannia (see chapter 5, and also chapter XXX for further discussion of India in 1997).

Back in Europe, the centrist consensus that saw states declare the growth of collaborative organisations (NATO, the EU) also saw governments elected that seemed to affirm the rejection of extremes. Right wing Jacques Chirac was defeated by Socialist Lionel Jospin in France which allowed the Socialists to rule in ‘co-habitation’ with Chirac but without the need for support from the Communists. France, however, highlights both the difficulty of the centrist consensus internally, and the tensions internationally. France, under both Chirac and Jospin, wanted to be able to join the European Monetary Union, but its forecast economic growth was outside of the parameters laid down by the EU. Except, the centrality of Germany within the EU meant that many in France regarded the EU as essentially the mouthpiece for German financial and foreign policy. France was equally out of step with NATO, and it was largely their concern over the number of previous Warsaw Pact countries seeking to join NATO and Russia’s likely antagonism towards this that contributed to the signing of the above-mentioned treaty.

Equally, while a broadly centre-left / centre-right co-habitation asserts the over-arching power of the centrist movement, the election of a Front National candidate for the first time in a decade, and impact of the FN on splitting the right wing vote shows that consensus was not complete. Strikes later in the year by lorry drivers also illustrates the persistence of industrial unrest and the clear recognition that the globalisation frenzy did not benefit everyone equally.

If France was annoyed by German dominance of the EU, Germany itself was in turmoil. The massive costs of reunification, unfinished building projects laying vacant and ruined, the withdrawal of global investment, dangerously high unemployment, a welfare system that was argued as pricing the economy out of competitiveness, fervent disagreements within and among political parties about Germany’s role in the EU (which received roughly 30% of its total revenues from Germany) and the introduction of the Maastricht treaty: Germany was contending with its histories – the rebuilding after World War Two and its division into two states while seeking to overcome the stain of Nazism, and the reunification after 1990 and the re-emergence of a single state – this state had lost 700 billion Deutshcmarks in the seven years since re-unification. Attempts to emulate Bill Clinton’s aim to balance the budget were hampered, and future financial calamity seemed inevitable as, for example, the pension pot faced actuarial occlusion with the workforce to pensioner ratio shifting from 78%:22% in the 1950s to 45% to 55% by 1997.

Following the Thatcherite trend of the 80s, Germany privatised two of its main assets in 1997, Deutsche Telekom and Lufthansa, as well as breaking the postal monopoly of Deutsche Bundespost. The telecoms boom of the 2000s, the proliferation of small airlines, and the global growth of alternative delivery providers (UPS, for example) were all given a significant leg up by the Germany’s accelerated marketisiation of state run entities in 1997.

Once again, we saw the State back away from its role in running the economy to a position of enabler / over-seer: it would take (ever smaller) taxes from business in return for their willingness to provide jobs (at minimum rates of pay). Governments from Blair’s Britain, to Kohl’s Germany, to Jopspin’s France to Clinton’s America to all EU members, to NATO insiders and aspirants became more and more like Public Limited Companies with the leaders CEOs of differently constituted Boards, not governments.

The business model, the centrist consensus, believed fundamentally in benign capitalism that would spread wealth and peace. Or at least that was the rhetoric. Violent clashes between neo-Nazis, organised into loosely affiliated cells, and protesters and police in East German cities; the election nof the FN in France; the execution in June of Timothy McVeigh, the right wing terrorist found guilty of the Oklahoma bombing in 1995; to mention nothing of various nationalist, political, regional, revolutionary actions all over the globe (see chapter XXX) make it abundantly clear that the centrist consensus was being resisted and repelled even as it became ubiquitous and orthodoxy.

The orthodoxy became a truth and for 20 years, at least in EU/NATO lands, the centrist consensus grew, as did its marginalising of any and all dissenting voices from both left and right. But as Greece buckled under the strain, and permeable borders allowed fleeing refugees from NATO-inspired war zones (see chapter XXX) exposed extreme nationalist voices in Easter Europe that massively emboldened fascist and far right voices in the UK; as the US elected a man whose sympathy for literal Nazis and white supremacists outraged even his own Republican leadership; as Britain voted to leave the EU it is not difficult to see the centrist consensus as John Hurt’s Kane: the Executive Officer, leading the ship oblivious to the danger inside him. As he begins to realise the severity of the catastrophe to come, those around him are equally ignorant and as the malevolent truth erupts from his body, from inside the body, it is too late to respond. 

Except of course, those on the right, and those on the left are not aliens, they have just been ignored and monstrised – their eruption was utterly foreseeable but 1997 blinded us to their concerns, their fears, their aspirations, their futures and ultimately their power. Not so much an alien resurrection; more (to swap registers) a political expression of Newton’s Third Law: the centrist consensus has an equal and opposite reaction:  the emergence of left and right, some in extreme form.

When Jeremy Corbyn MP asked a parliamentary question theSecretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs on June 23 what the estimated cost of the expansion of NATO was going to be, it would have been a brave person who would have bet that 20 years later:

the President of the USA was questioning the validity of NATO, while NATO sat by and watched Russia invade Easter Ukraine;

that the same President was being accused of collusion with Russian officers over the US 2017 election, while

continuing the US history of non-acceptance of climate change as a human-made disaster (despite signing the Kyoto agreement in early 1998, it was never ratified by Senate and George W Bush withdrew the US from the agreement in 2001);

that contra Clinton, the same President was sabre rattling with North Korea and chastising China; that he would withdraw from existing trade agreements and force the collapse of TTIP (see chapter 4); 
hat the UK’s prime minister would refuse to condemn the US president’s refusal to condemn neo-Nazis in America;

that she would be on the brink of re-introducing travel restrictions to and from the EU by UK citizens and withdrawing the right of free-movement and residence within the UK for EU citizens and vice versa;

that he, Corbyn, as leader of the opposition (the ultimate anti-Blairite) would be largely supportive of the Brexit position;

that Germany would have an economy of unparalleled success;

that the EU has almost doubled in the number of member states since 1997;

that China would have one of the most powerful global economies;

that India would have a Hindu Nationalist at its helm;

and that Clinton’s claim of there being no imminent threat seems laughably naive in the wake of numerous terrorist threats from numerous quarters; the heightened tension with Russia, with North Korea…

The centrist consensus hid a lot and, in hiding, led to this future of extremity and division. Although, it seems the centrist consensus has a familiar solution:


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