I blame the government. If the leaders of the Labour Party had not decided in 1995 that a title was needed that both reflected continuity with the principles of the party, yet stressed its revitalisation for the caring Nineties, we would not now have a sudden mild rash of terms in new that echo their introduction of New Labour (though that term had actually originated in the late eighties in New Zealand).
One of these new formations is the new unionism; confusingly, this is already in use by historians to refer to the new type of general labour unions that were formed after the great dock strike of 1889; in its new sense, it is jargon for another reinvented unionism that adheres to traditional principles but also works in partnership with the employers, adopting a stakeholder approach. The phrase New Britain is a another Labour Party buzzphrase, which was, for example, invoked by Tony Blair in his speech to the Party conference in Brighton this week: “Progress and justice are the two rocks upon which the New Britain is raised to the heights”. It has become a fashionable term among London’s chattering classes for that demi-paradisal near-millennium we are now supposed to be growing into. I’m waiting with unbated breath for the shortened form NewBrit to appear, after the model of Britpop; we nearly hit it the other week with New Brit Lit, a name coined by the publishers Penguin for a collection of previously-unpublished writing. We have even had a revival recently of New Deal, as in “the proposed New Deal package for the young unemployed”, which is capitalised as though it had some direct evolutionary relationship with the original. This was also used by Mr Blair in his speech, so it’s now presumably an official description of his policies.
But it’s unfair to blame the Labour party altogether. The word has long been useful as a modifier to distinguish some revised and updated concept from its predecessors, particularly in politics. In the past thirty years alone we have run the gamut of such terms from New Age to New Man, from Kennedy’s New Frontier to the New Left and the New Morality, from the New Feudalism to the New Keynesianism, from a New World Order to the New Hedonism, from New Laddism to New Romanticism. Looking to earlier times, Oswald Mosley had formed the New Party, which soon became the British Union of Fascists, Lenin had introduced the New Economic Policy, Oliver Cromwell had his New Model Army and we have experienced at various times the New Toryism, the New Liberalism and the New Dissent.
But it does seem that the past decade or so has had more than its share of such coinages. The rate of formation feels as though it’s accelerating and we are likely to see more phrases in new in this period of pre-millennial angst.