So farewell then, Tony and Harry
The author of The Irresistible Rise of Harry Potter traces the parallel journeys of a political wizard and a schoolboy wizard.
Education, education, education.’ (Tony Blair, 1996)
‘We will be following a carefully structured, theory-centred, Ministry-approved course of defensive magic this year.’ (Professor Dolores Umbridge, 2003)
As Tony Blair slouches towards Jerusalem for his lucrative rebirth, and we turn disappointed from the blighted New Labour regime born in hope and spin and dying in the Orwellian war on terror, we wait to bid a fonder farewell to someone else who emerged in 1997 and whose last act is imminent – Harry Potter.
JK Rowling’s stories, and their impact, are part of the New Labour years. Knowingly straddling the boundary between children’s and adults’ literature, constantly invoking current anxieties – about education, or the family, or the problem of good and evil – the Potter novels are among the ways in which we have thought, delighted and feared, through these last 10 years.
New Labour’s original impact felt magical. The election-night defeat of Portillo, the statement about a foreign policy with an ethical dimension, even the Blair-led popular wash of sentiment on the death of the People’s Princess, gave Cool Britannia an air of enchantment. But the New Labour government had arrived in a wash of well-spun media interest, and though they tried to keep it that way, the counter-narrative grew in intensity and impact – Bernie Ecclestone’s donation on behalf of the cigarette companies sponsoring Formula 1, Peter Mandelson borrowing money for a flash flat so he could pretend to be rich – until we realised that we were dealing with conjurers rather than magicians.
Meanwhile Harry Potter’s original impact was made not through the spin of publishers’ hype but through the enthusiasm of readers, before film rights were sold and the big PR bucks moved in for the launch of book three, Prisoner of Azkaban. And despite this hype, Harry continues to be a cultural icon because of his place in this relatively autonomous world of popular culture, which works outside the official political and commercial realms and is – at the moment, in the relatively early stages of Web2.0 – also outside any formal control of meaning. The exchange of enthusiasm is the most positive aspect of the information age, and the Harry Potter phenomenon has played a part in the development of this benignly global culture. Interest in politics has never been lower, but when I Googled ‘Harry Potter’ last week he had over twice the number of references for ‘Jesus Christ’. Over 53million.
Widely discussed by the literate, Harry Potter helped to develop literacy. Responsible for a revival of reading among the children of the PlayStation era, the Potter books provided a magical solution to the widespread fears over falling literacy and school participation rates. This is not just because they are read. They are about reading; without it Harry, Hermione et al would not defeat their demons.
Literacy was important to government not as an absolute but as an adjunct to work and play. Indeed, in the post-industrial world, it seems that only through playful, magical, ‘creativity’ will the economy grow. Addressing this issue, New Labour at its most post-Thatcherite insisted that the ‘creative industries’ would be the saviour of the British economy, and then set up the DCMS (the Department for Culture, Media and Sport) and numerous policies and initiatives to encourage them. Sure enough such changes are represented in the Potter books, by the Weasleys. They appear at first to be a 1950s family – the mother at home, the father a harassed civil servant – but there’s more. One of the older boys works for a bank, but is nonetheless ‘cool’ (representing the cultural shift of the 1980s), and the younger generation become creative entrepreneurs. At the end of book four, twins Fred and George start a business selling their magical inventions; in book five it is thriving.
Though New Labour, born early in the decade of ‘the end of history’, came to power dreaming of education and creativity in the service of the economy in a largely peaceful world, the politics of national, ethnic and religious difference soon asserted themselves – for example, in the former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, and in the global impact of al-Qaeda. Tony Blair’s assertion of moral certainty in an ambivalent world will doubtless form the principal part of his ‘legacy’. Harry and friends, too, grew older in a wizarding world which was increasingly polarised around ideological faultlines. The rumours of Voldemort’s return, combated by individual heroism in the first two books, have led by the fourth to group conflict in which Hogwarts students and adults are engaged on both sides of a struggle around the emergence of a new Evil Empire.
And yet the books don’t simply propose a good ‘us’ and evil ‘them’. One of JK Rowling’s repeated narrative devices is the progressive revelation of characters such as Snape or Sirius Black, which allows us to see them, or indeed Harry himself, as rounded characters capable of both good and bad acts. Harry lies, cheats at homework, and breaks school rules. He also has doubts about his own identity, including suspicions that he is far too close to Voldemort in skills and abilities. Neither the actions nor the doubts yet make him the equivalent of Voldemort, who wants to rule the world and is happy to kill in order to do so.
At the end of book four, Goblet of Fire, Dumbledore attempts to stir the wizarding world into preparation for the coming war. Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge – no Blair he, it might seem – denies the threat, an Attlee to Dumbledore’s Churchill. But in book five, Order of the Phoenix, Fudge acts as New Labour has done throughout the Blair decade, spin-managing the press, and sending Dolores Umbridge to Hogwarts to undermine Dumbledore’s authority. Through Umbridge we are introduced to ‘knowledge’ fit only for the achievement of useless ‘course aims’, and to the government control of teachers, students and educational institutions alike, denying them autonomous agency.
Umbridge’s attempted takeover echoes current anxieties about the educational experience at school or university in a world of league tables, audit culture and target-meeting gameplaying, vocationalism rather than education, and pseudo-choice. This instance also leads us to reflect whether inaction, or the removal of agency from public-sector professionals, are forms of collaboration with evil. Certainly the students see it that way, as they form their own training regime in practical defensive magic, led by Harry, who at the end of book six, Half-Blood Prince, leaves the confines of the school for his final confrontation with the powers of darkness – which the world awaits….
Andrew Blake is author of The Irresistible Rise of Harry Potter: Kid-Lit in a Globalised World, published by Verso.