Chapter 5: ‘Renaissance’ without enlightenment: New Labour’s ‘Learning Age’ 1997–2010
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In the British general elections of 1997 and 2001, the Labour Party under Tony Blair’s leadership achieved its largest parliamentary majorities ever – greater even than in 1945, the year generally seen as Labour’s highest tide. Labour’s victory in 2005 was also substantial, providing a working majority for two prime ministers: first Blair and then, after his resignation in June 2007, Gordon Brown. As a result, Labour had its longest ever period in government (1997–2010). The Labour government of 1945–1950 was responsible for the bulk of Britain’s welfare state. For many of its supporters, 1997 was also a moment of soaring hope, bringing an end to 18 years of increasingly neoliberal Conservative rule. Hopes were certainly high among those committed to adult education. In the event, vaulting ambitions went unrealized; achievements in lifelong learning were modest. In respect of adult and lifelong education, the government abandoned values which had previously been central to Labour thinking, and accepted policies and practices which were little different from those espoused by the previous Conservative administration. This chapter summarizes what the Labour government achieved, and explains how – at a very early stage – the ambitions of those who sought to ensure that citizenship, democracy and liberal education were key themes of a learning society were defeated.

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