What were the Nineties?

Paddy McKeating

What were the Nineties?

This decade began with the first lockdown. The fifties with a new queen. The sixties with the Suez Crisis. The seventies with the OPEC crisis. The eighties with Thatcher. The noughties with 9-11. And the nineties? The fall of the Berlin Wall. (And what of the 2010s? I feel someone blaring a vuvuzela is the appropriate start for that decade of division, don’t you?) Of course crowbarring the complex weave of History into succinct divisions of time shouldn’t work. The past is too complex. Life is too complex. But we all need a narrative. We need hooks on which to hang our own stories of the past. Decades, just like the reigns of monarchs, do that for us. So what were the nineties? In essence they were a decade of new beginnings and a decade of hope. The fall of the Berlin Wall took the world by surprise. Like dominoes the nations of eastern Europe began to fall from the grip of communism. There was no great showdown to herald the end of a struggle that predated the Treaty of Versailles. The Cold War unraveled with a whimper. In the words of Austin Powers, “Yay Capitalism.” The First Gulf War ended after fifty days. It was no Vietnam. It was no Afghanistan. Was policing the world going to be this easy? In Britain, and indeed the western world, industry was gone. So was state control. Thatcher and the neo-liberals had won. The new new post-war consensus had begun. The invisible hand of the free market would guide us all to prosperity. What could possibly go wrong? The internet was ticking along in the background without ever really making a dent. By the end of the decade only 8 million Britons were online. But as Chuck Klosterman wrote, “there was no reason to believe it would be anything but awesome.” He also wrote, “it was, in retrospect, a remarkably easy time to be alive.” Britain entered the nineties with Margaret Thatcher in Number 10 Downing Street. To quote Alwyn Turner, “she had won an economic argument but not the moral one.” Her replacement was the youngest Prime Minister of the twentieth century so far - John Major. A man to whom few rock solid political principles could be attributed. A man born in Brixton who left school early and thrived in business. A man who genuinely believed in the power of compassionate conservatism. He spoke of creating a, “truly classless society.” An underdog going into the 1992 election, Major’s moment was literally standing on a soap box and addressing a crowd in the ultimate old-school style. It won him the election. Relations with the European Union came to cast a shadow over his premiership. Not through populist debates and passion on the streets, but from his own MPs. Three of whom he famously called, “the bastards.” Yet the public didn’t really care. Britain’s role in the EU didn’t capture the imagination. But Britpop did.
What were the Nineties?
PM Tony Blair

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In 1995 Blur and Oasis fought it out for the number one chart position with ‘Country House’ and ‘Roll With It’.

490,000 CDs or tapes were purchased in the days leading up to the big Sunday evening reveal on Radio 1. 55% of those were for Blur. Cynics point to the huge reduction in the price of CDs as the real driver behind this cultural phenomenon. They may even point to the growth of the economy since 1992 giving people more change in their pockets. But cynics kind of miss the point don’t they? As months rolled on into 1996 the Spice Girls exploded onto the pop scene. They broke Britain, they broke Europe and they broke America. Their ‘Girl Power’ mantra was applied to Thatcher whom they called ‘the first Spice Girl’ and even Nelson Mandela confessed that they were his heroes. Any cursory internet search of the Spice Girls will show Geri Halliwell wearing that dress. The union flag (Excluding in Northern Ireland whose own experience of the nineties surely merits it’s own discussion) went under a transformation during the decade. When Blur posed with it in 1993 NME magazine commented upon their flirtation with fascist imagery. Noel Gallagher played at Maine Road (Manchester City’s former football stadium before, well, never mind) with a union flag guitar while his brother lamented the flag’s journey, “down the sh*tter,” and that he would, “do something about it.” Corporations and politicians weren’t far off in cashing in on Britain's new found feel-good factor. Indeed the phrase ‘Cool Britannia’ was created by Ben and Jerry’s. It was a tub of strawberries, vanilla and shortbread all perched in front of a, yes you’ve guessed it. A union flag. Euro 96 certainly captured the imagination of English football fans. ‘Three Lions’ by the Lightning Seeds featuring David Baddiel and Frank Skinner became the anthem of the tournament. Wembley Stadium belted out the chorus as the song perched at the top of the charts. Indeed, it is the only song to have done so a further three times. The tournament, which was won by Germany who defeated the Czech Republic in the final, captured the mood of a nation. To some extent it still does, only three years ago England’s matches were all shown on TV during the first lockdown. Yet while Euro 96 captivated crowds, a more impactful football revolution had been underway for years. The Premier League was launched in 1992 as a way for the top English teams to rule themselves. They could set their own rules (And set their own prices) away from the old institutions of the Football Association and Football League. Inspired by the total entertainment stylings of the NFL and by potentially huge TV deals, the Premier League became an entertainment package. David Dein, one of the creators of the league, was obsessed by toilets. He could not believe how clean and accessible the American ones were. And in contrast how disgusting the English ones were. Long queues, horrifying smells and… should I go on? He felt that toilets symbolised where English football was - and where it could go. From number two to number one. The import of foreign players, then foreign managers and eventually foreign owners changed the face of the top tier of English football. It transcended what was happening on the pitch. Baddiel and Skinner enjoyed three seasons of ‘Fantasy Football League’ on ITV from 1994 onwards, Posh and Becks became the ultimate celebrity couple and football bit by bit became a pursuit of all classes in Britain. The reliability and relative affordability of satellite television helped grease the wheels of progress. And in this decade of hope and of new beginnings, the social views of Britons began to liberalise. The government in the late eighties had sought to prevent the ‘promotion of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. In 1990 69% of the British saw homosexual relations as wrong. By the end of the decade this had fallen to 10%. Throughout the decade legislation had lowered the age of male consent to 16, discrimination on the basis of sexual identity was banned in the civil service and armed forces. Even The Sun newspaper graciously committed itself not to, “not out homosexuals unless there is a major public interest reason to do so”. Yet unlike the liberalising laws passed by Harold Wilson’s Labour government in the sixties, these laws of the nineties were responding to changes within society. The successful Channel 4 show ‘Queer as Folk’ in which all the central characters were gay was released in 1999. Although condescending tabloid pieces were penned, the show reflected national views changing quite rapidly. It seems like the touch paper of social liberalism was lit during the nineties. Since then the views of your average Briton have become more and more liberal, indeed, they continue to do so.
Ancestry UK

In 1992 there was a small change in the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee (NEC).

This rather odd group is made up MPs, trade union reps, constituency Labour parties and leadership appointees. It provides a direction for the broad church of the party. Now, back to that small change… Two relatively new MPs Tony Blair and Gordon Brown replaced Bryan Gould and Dennis Skinner. Months later Harriet Harman replaced Tony Benn. Tony Benn had once been the face of socialism in Britain. The man who almost personified the white heat of change in the sixties. These three replacements were the future of the Labour Party. They accepted and even embraced the Thatcherite changes to the economy. No return to nationalising industries. No return to trade unions being granted power that had been snatched away. The New Labour Party would commit to privatisation as a fundamental reality of life. What could possibly go wrong? Tony Blair was born in Edinburgh to a Scottish father (Whose own parents were an Irish catholic and an Orangeman. But more on that in a future ‘Northern Ireland in the nineties’ piece) where he attended a fee paying school before going to Durham University. Unlike Gordon Brown who would become his chancellor, he had little background in the Labour Party. He did not have socialist beliefs. He was a young and engaging politician who seemed, in the nineties anyway, to reflect what Britain wanted. ‘Tony Blair has become the Gary Lineker of British politics,’ complained a Conservative minister; ‘anyone who criticises him ends up sounding nasty.’ Blair led the Labour Party to a storming election victory in 1997. Power was devolved from Westminster to Edinburgh and Cardiff, a minimum wage introduced, huge injections of money into social services and parliamentary reform was initiated, to name only a few. Until the debacle of a foreign policy mirroring that of George Bush’s America, the Labour government of the last quarter of the decade seemed to represent the themes of hope and new beginnings. ‘Blair’s Babes’ was a Daily Mail jibe at the record 101 female Labour MPs who were elected in 1997. 19 others took the total number to a record breaking 120. Again, politics was reflecting society. That very year the number of women in the workplace exceeded that of men for the first time ever. In the sixties there were 15 million men at work but that was reduced to 11 by the end of the century. Male unemployment rates were higher for all ages and classes across the board. Key positions were also attained by women with Betty Boothroyd becoming the first female Speaker of the House of Commons, Stella Rimington became the Director General of MI5 and Barbara Mills the first Director of Public Prosecutions. The Church of England, once an institution so lauded that no comedian dare make a joke at it’s expense, permitted the ordination of women. Society was pointing in a certain direction and accelerating. The nineties will most likely be remembered as the decade when the internet really developed. The decade saw the creation of the world wide web, Google, Amazon, cheap and almost indestructible mobile phones, text messages, Napster, the list goes on. In ‘The Nineties: A Book’ Klosterman wrote, ‘The internet was an amorphous concept constantly described as encroaching, yet always two years away.’ By the noughties it had arrived and today we can’t live without it. Ah maybe I’m wrong. None of us know what the nineties will ultimately be remember for but wouldn’t it be nice to have some of that hope and a sense of new beginnings that were floating around three decades ago?
What were the Nineties?

Paddy McKeating

Paddy is a prep school History teacher based in Canterbury. He has a passion for all things historical yet his time and energies are somewhat side-lined by three year old twins.
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