The Economist has published a deliberately weird 'heroes of New Labour', to mark the end of a political decade that they dominated politically. But I think that New Labour's pantheon can only be truly understood in terms of the band that they modelled themselves on: Blur. Consider the following four typecasts:
Front man: charimastic show-pony who drops his aitches and pretends to be into football, inspires visceral hatred in some, but without whom the show would never have really got on the road.
Grumpy side-kick: the one for the 'real fans', who supplies substance and grit, threatens to leave about half-way through, but remains on board on the condition that he is allowed greater influence.
Show-off socialite: party-goer and pervayor of 'dark arts', not liked by the old faithful (and despised by Grumpy side-kick) but useful for winning over the mainstream.
Blur were always a calendar year ahead of New Labour, suggesting that they were the ones offering the inspiration. Their first album in 1991 doesn't really count (John Smith), seeing as it failed to shake off the influence of the 1980s. They only really discovered their identity in 1993 with Modern Life is Rubbish (Tony Blair takes over, abandons clause 4, though ironically declares that modern life is anything but). Just have a look at this video, and think how innocent it now appears, in a post-Thatcher, pre-credit crunch kind of way.
John Harris offers this as an analysis of why a talented, but nonetheless derivative band, were able to define their era:
Blur came into being just as the Berlin Wall fell and our generation was nudged into the decade-or-so of innocence that ended with 9/11. Most of that time was prosperous and thereby apolitical. The result was a culture that was heady and celebratory, but also troubled by the idea that all of a sudden there was not much to hang on to.
This sounds right. Their creativity came not from some soaring vision of what music was for or how it might change anything, but more from the excited discovery that they could pick and choose their influences unimpeded by any rules. Music didn't have to be anything. It's the lightness of surfaces and re-combination of influences that some would term 'post-modern'. If the stakes seem low enough, then anything is possible (one can even define oneself as a 'radical', once middle England is sated).
Blur were also resolutely competent, intelligent and well-intentioned. Their reinventions were sufficient to remain interesting and provocative, unlike their main rivals (I'm not sure an Oasis/Conservative Party analogy is going to work, although it has something in it). It's difficult not to feel nostalgic for that cultural optimism, even if it also feels like little has changed as a result of it.
So what happened? In 2002, Blur's Grumpy Side-Kick finally had enough with the egos of Front Man and Show-off, and left, leading the band to split. The same thing could, arguably should, have happened as New Labour's Front Man lost the plot in the run up to March 2003...* In any case I would rather have Graham Coxon's legacy than Gordon Brown's.
*Tempted to say that George Bush is the Gorrilaz, but we know he was really a chimpanzee. [that's enough analogies - ed]