It’s exactly 20 years ago today that I began my four-year adventure as a fresh-faced student at Stirling University. During the next four years, life-long friendships were forged, a future spouse was acquired and I even came away with a degree.
The passing of 20 years seems like a good moment for a wee trip down memory lane and some reflections on where we are now.
Financially, these were challenging times. While we would often go without food and even electricity, somehow we could always scrape together a couple of quid for a night out (at £1.69 for a bottle of cheap cider, I mean a couple of quid).
We were lucky though. In my first two years I got a grant cheque (remember them?). I was also well supported by my parents and was lucky enough to secure a (relatively) lucrative dj-ing job at (ahem) one of the university’s premier nightspots.
At the student’s union we sang along to Oasis Live Forever – and we really did believe we would.
Even Renton was cleaning up and moving on, starting a new life for himself to the strains of Underworld’s anthemic Born Slippy.
Politically too, these were times of great optimism.
The beginning of a new dawn. Or so we were told.
The previous summer (it must have been around May 1994) an exciting young reformer (“just call me Tony”) had become the leader of the Labour Party and in May 1997, towards the end of my second year at university, New Labour won a landslide election victory, ending 18 long years of Conservative government.
It was a night I will never forget. A number of us had essay deadlines for the next day and were planning to stay up all night anyway. With increasing excitement we watched the election results come in, our essays deferred till morning.
When it became obvious by the scale of the landslide that Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland, was going to loose his seat, a couple of my inebriated flatmates hot-footed it to the Albert Hall to yell abuse at him. If you listen carefully you can hear them in the background as a clearly emotional Anne McGuire is announced the winner.
The next morning Tony Blair swept into Downing Street on the crest of a wave of hope and optimism.
Devolution was promised. The windfall tax on the excess profits of the privatised utilities would fund the New Deal, end long term unemployment and provide much needed investment in schools and education.
Of course such optimism couldn’t last.
These were the times of easy credit and it was all too easy to quickly amass massive debts on credit and debit cards, perhaps a forewarning of the financial crisis that was to come.
In September 1998, David Blunkett, the Labour Education Secretary, announced the introduction of £1,000 tuition fees to be paid by every student in each year of study. The student grant was abolished and replaced by means-tested student loans. I took out a student loan in each of my final two years of study. Although modest by today’s standards, the debt was source of some anxiety for a few years to come.
Political leaders invariably disappoint. They become tarnished by power, compromised by office. Blair was no different.
A politician who placed greater importance on making newspaper headlines than affecting real policy change. A socialist with an insatiable appetite for wealth and the wealthy. A leader of the Labour Party who embraced one of the most morally and intellectually bankrupt governments America has ever seen.
But Blair alone shouldn’t carry the can. Too many Labour politicians (with some commendable exceptions) were too quick to abandon their principles. Scottish Labour in particular, is now feeling the backlash of the vacuousness of the New Labour project.
The current refugee crisis, is only the latest manifestation of our disastrous intervention in Iraq.
Which brings us to the present day and the new leader of the Labour Party.
Now I know Corbyn is far from the perfect politician (this is clearly part of his appeal).
And I'm not sure that he is a Prime Minister in waiting - would you want him calling the shots at moments of political or economic crisis?
But what I do know is that he is a socialist. He has moral integrity and compassion (note his first act as leader was to to attend a protest in support of refugees). And he is perhaps just the person that the Labour Party needs to rediscover itself.
I might not be 18 years old anymore, but I’m still optimistic. And I still drink cheap cider!
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