Over ten years ago now when Labour was elected and Tony Blair became prime minister it was something of a euphoric moment in Britain. It was a new dawn with all kinds of hopeful pronouncements for the future being made. The new government wasn’t just condemning the old one to history it was going to transform all our futures into the promise that had been denied for so long.
Bullshit of course. Although, cynical old bat that I am, I did enjoy the moment and look back on it with some fondness, sitting up at night watching the Tories being trounced from power. It wasn’t long though before it was business as usual and the New Labour politicians seemed to be just as dodgy and ineffective as their predecessors.
I feel the same with the election of Barack Obama today. The triumphant Americans are doing cartwheels at what the electing of a dark-skinned man means. It is understandable and no small thing. And yet it really is a small thing only having such huge significance because of the barbaric stupidity of past racial transgressions. In an enlightened world a person’s colour would matter nothing. But in our world it’s a big deal. Obama’s success is thus a happy thing as well as an indictment.
So, I feel as I did in 1997. The massively exaggerated hopes and high expectation garnered from a political appointment asks for disappointment. Like that’s going to make a difference when the endless infinity of the world remains largely unchanged. It is pretty much as it was the day before. Only a relatively small symbolic ritual has taken place, important for that certainly, but no more. It is as much a mark of America’s puffed up sense of its own importance as anything more useful.
Still, I’m not that far discouraged to get nothing positive from the new president. At least Obama can make a speech which the previous guy seemed incapable of doing, an astonishing defect in a senior politician, like a singer who can’t sing or a footballer who can’t kick. Surely a leader should be able to stand up and be impressive with words. Obama is certainly that, and that I do admire. That his acceptance speech borrowed style from the call and response of the Black church was clever, itself indicating a sense of potential culture shift in public life. I wondered if we might see more of such a shift. I hope so.
“Yes we can,” he said repeatedly. As someone who comes from a country whose unspoken mantra is “naw ye cannae”, this was refreshing. I liked it because it reminded me of how I used to live my life, almost oblivious to the fact that I was stuck in a community of nay-sayers who too much enjoyed their capacity for the put-down. I may feel like criticising Americans sometimes for their unabashed optimism and self-belief but much more do I respect it and wish that just a little of it ran in Scottish veins.
written 2008 following the president's first election victory
commentary • 05.11.08