Uncool Britannia? How Britain might feel with the court of Sir Keir

As Keir Starmer settles into his new job, he must feel the weight of comparison with his predecessors. On three previous occasions Labour has come to power after prolonged periods of Conservative rule, and each was accompanied by a powerful sense of sociocultural transformation.

History, as Mark Twain observed, doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. Can Starmer inspire a similar effect that resonates far beyond parliament, or will it be a case of different party, same problems?

After 10 years of the Tories, Clement Attlee’s triumph in 1945 saw the birth of the welfare state and a more democratic idea of Britain. In 1964, Labour ended 13 years of torpid Conservatism, and suddenly the postwar monochrome world was awash with creative colour.

According to Philip Larkin, sexual intercourse only began in 1963, “Between the end of the ‘Chatterley’ ban/And the Beatles’ first LP.” It wasn’t just poetic licence, because a sexual liberation really was under way, along with a tectonic shift in mores, music, film and fashion.

In 1997, 18 long years of Conservatism came to a close as a Things Can Only Get Better optimism flourished. The energy of emerging British bands and artists conveyed the impression, encouraged by Tony Blair, that UK plc was a hip place to do business – at least until the young celebrities decided it was uncool to attend drinks parties with government squares. But there were also real-world improvements, not least in better-funded health and education.

Then prime minister David Cameron, left, and former London mayor Boris Johnson prepare to play tennis during International Paralympic Day in Trafalgar Square, London, in 2015. Photograph: Sean Dempsey/PA Archive

Labour can usually rely on the backing of so-called “luvvies”, and a range of creative people signed a letter of support during Blair’s campaign, but there is no artistic movement, creative trend or generational feeling in the air to coincide with Starmer’s rise – no Britpop or YBAs or Trainspotting. He will have to create his own mood music.

Because, in conspicuous contrast to 1945, 1964 and 1997, Britain in 2024 doesn’t feel good about itself. Fourteen years of Tory governments have left the economy flatlining and the country depressed, the twin blows of Brexit and Covid having drained national confidence.

What, then, will be the cultural themes of Starmer’s Britain, the signs and symbols of renewal and fresh perspective? How will society order itself so we can say this is distinctive? And who will personify the temper of the times?

Few observers or voters expect radical changes ahead. The motivation driving many is disillusionment with what’s gone before, rather than excitement about what’s to come.

But the delineation of new eras can take shape in unlikely places, and perhaps that’s where we should look for clues as to any potential societal shifts. According to Tom Baldwin, the author of Keir Starmer: The Biography, the new cultural milieu is “not Soho House and Britpop parties. It’s more community football, kids learning flute in school, obscure indie bands from the 1980s.”

Starmer is fundamentally unflash, he says. “It’s not Camelot. It’s more Center Parcs.”

Gang

If Blair and Gordon Brown projected a new meritocracy – an Islingtonian world of modernist restaurants like the long-gone Granita and brash young movers and shakers like the more recently departed Derek Draper – then the Tories who replaced them were more about privileged backgrounds and well-connected social groups.

There was the Notting Hill set of David Cameron’s early years (director of strategy Steve Hilton and his wife Rachel Whetstone – remember them?), and then the Chipping Norton set of his second term – featuring such conservative luminaries as Rebekah Brooks and Jeremy Clarkson. Those groups lived on through the Tory administrations that followed, with their Old Etonians and Wykehamists, but they won’t fit into Starmer’s cosmos.

Baldwin suggests the political class’s ground zero is set to move to Kentish Town. “That’s where he has spent more than two decades of his life,” says Baldwin. “It’s a huge part of who he is. It’s not chi-chi – there are rough ends of it. On the back of his wallet, it says, ‘Take me home to Kentish Town’”.

What separates the Kentish Town set from its precursors is that it is determinedly not a power gathering. It features people like Colin Peacock. Who? Precisely. He’s an old Starmer friend who, aside from university days, has never lived more than 15 minutes from the Labour leader.

Peacock doesn’t have any interest in politics, a reason that Starmer finds him a grounding presence.

“[Starmer] doesn’t locate himself in politics the way most people in politics do,” says Baldwin. “He locates himself in the life he had before he went into politics: family, friends, football.”

Hangout: The Pineapple pub

Passion

Of course, ever since football became a global obsession and mega-business, all politicians have learned to cite it as a key cultural reference point. In Starmer’s case, however, the interest appears to be authentic – even if he’s an Arsenal fan – and grassroots or, more accurately, astroturfroots. “He lives and breathes it,” says Baldwin.

So instead of the Campden Hill tennis club that boasts Cameron and the Johnsons as members, the new scene of social leisure could well be the Talacre Community Sports Centre in Kentish Town, where Starmer still plays football on an artificial pitch and also referees games – an unusual pairing of responsibilities that harsher critics might consider a conflict of interest.

The problem with football as a unifying concern is that people support different teams. But it would give a large section of the country – namely England – a feel-good factor boost if its team, so far a study in sleep-inducement, actually managed to win the Euros tournament. In 1966, Harold Wilson is said to have quipped that England only win the World Cup when Labour are in government. The flip side is that four years later England were knocked out of the World Cup quarter finals and four days after that Wilson lost the election to Ted Heath’s Tories.

Still, Starmer’s tendency to view life through football metaphors may help introduce a more demotic national conversation, and close the cultural gap between the rulers and the ruled. One thing we know is he likes to start out on the left and drift towards the centre, and sometimes, claim his detractors, he even takes up positions on the right wing.

Hangout: West stand, the Emirates

Starmer and former Manchester United star Gary Neville. The football pundit interviewed the prime minister during a walk in the Lake District last month. Photograph: Kier Starmer/YouTube/PA

Escape

Just as Blair liked to take advantage of the hospitality of Silvio Berlusconi in Tuscany and Cliff Richard in Barbados, Cameron was a regular in the Balearics and Cornwall, and Johnson was partial to a freebie in Mustique, prime ministerial getaway destinations seem to say something about the occupants of No 10 that may not always be evident when they’re at home.

For PMs are not just politicians but also symbols of national interest and approved behaviour. In the age of Just Stop Oil, long-haul holidays are not the done thing. So it’s just as well Starmer, who did recently go to Center Parcs, has a soft spot for the Lake District, his childhood holiday destination, reachable by energy-efficient train from Euston.

The Lakes are not exactly a secret, although they were to football pundit Gary Neville, who confessed to not knowing the place on a filmed jaunt there with Starmer. Maybe the area doesn’t need any more tourists, but there’s something distinctly un-metropolitan about this corner of England that speaks of an unfussy heartiness, as well as of damp B&Bs and low-pressure showers. Looks like the staycation is here to stay.

Hangout: Langdale Valley

The Guardian

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