Tony Blair was Prime Minister for ten years and won three general elections. He was, by almost any metric, a wildly successful politician. During the long sun-dried tomato eating years of his premiership, J. K. Rowling was, as one academic quoted in a recent article on the children’s author put it, “an untouchable goddess, at the height of her powers”. In the 2000s, Blair and Rowling were in and of British culture, near essential to how the UK was seen and saw itself. When the Simpsons came to London in 2003, both naturally guest starred.
It is also not a stretch to say that sharing the primacy of a cultural moment also translates into something like a shared politics. Rowling and Blair have taken the same path through the key issues of the young century, from Scotland to Europe to not liking Jeremy Corbyn very much. If politics really is mostly vibes, then Blair and Rowling were the king and queen of a certain kind of hazy millennium not-very-cool Britannia, a political vibe very assured of its own righteousness.
Good politicians have their fingers to a pulse that most of us never even know is there. They have the capacity to make wildly disparate people, with wildly disparate beliefs, think that behind whatever lines are being spoken, in their heart of hearts, the politician ultimately believes what they do. The truly effective politician can convince you that they are, actually, thinking what you’re thinking. Once upon a time, Tony Blair had this. He had it for years and years. He doesn’t have it anymore.
This is all to say: the former Prime Minister has made another one of his interventions in the discourse. He has been in the pages of the New Statesman, saying that the Labour Party needs to change or it will die. It’s a bit David Marquand and a bit Elon Musk and really not very interesting as a piece of political commentary in itself. Its most interesting moment – or perhaps simply its most revealing – comes when Blair laments a Labour Party that views, among others, J.K. Rowling as beyond the cultural pale. This is a party, he says, that will never win elections. Rowling here features due to her more recent turn into online transphobia, which has seen many people who spent childhoods in the world she created disavow its creator.
All I could think of upon first reading Blair’s essay was a recent viral tweet: “The ‘punching down’ comedy of the 1990s hasn’t aged well. I’m watching Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, and I don’t find anything funny about a man losing his mojo”. Whatever it was Blair once had his finger to the pulse of is long dead. There is nothing funny about a man losing his mojo – in the pages of the New Statesman, no less. I do not think Blair is particularly interested in engaging, substantively, with Rowling’s positions on trans issues; I think he is alienated by the idea of someone who represents the same era – his era! – as him falling so thoroughly from grace, and sees reflected in Rowling’s increasing pariah status his own much tarnished reputation. Sometimes it is easier to see the world through one’s peers than one’s self. It can be hard to make out the wrinkles on your own face, or to comprehend the fact that for a large number of people you forfeited all moral authority when you illegally invaded Iraq, and that you will never, ever get it back.
As evidenced by the “cheugy” meme and our deeply embarrassing current wave of zoomer/millennial generation spats, people are, without fail, rattled by the young, the new, the unfamiliar, the displacing. At a certain point in everyone’s life, culture will shift, it will be about people who are younger than you, or who have different ideas, and it will start to speak a language that you do not understand. Blair recently appeared on Good Morning Britain, interviewed by none other than his former spin doctor Alastair Campbell, saying “it is a minefield, on virtually everything. If you’re of a certain generation, you’re not sure what you can say, what you can’t say”. It strikes me that if you are unable to grasp at the culture in the most basic way – that you feel unable to even speak about it with any degree of confidence – then your market rate as a commentator – let alone a communicator – is quite low. One gets the sense that for the likes of Blair, and of Rowling – people who have thought themselves so right for so long, and who for a time did not simply speak but dictate the language of our culture – the fact that it is no longer about them must be almost psychologically unbearable.
Blair and Rowling were not the only guest stars when the Simpson family visited the UK. Ian McKellen also featured, a man who has been quietly very famous for several decades. If the episode was re-run today, he would probably still make the cast list. Less so Blair and Rowling. That is the difficulty of embodying a zeitgeist; copping to its problems is close to admitting personal fault, but the choice for those in that unusual situation is either to do just that or to be entombed alongside it.
Morgan Jones is a writer and editor for the Social Review.