Global narratives of Britain in the 1990s

This post is the fourth in a series of six blogs which will document and critically engage with a workshop series hosted by Dr. David Geiringer (QMUL) and Dr. Helen McCarthy (Cambridge) under the title ‘Rethinking Britain in the 1990s: Towards a new research agenda’. Running between January and March 2021, the series brings together contemporary historians from a range of career stages to map existing work and stimulate new thinking on a decade which, from the perspective of our present times, looks very unfamiliar indeed.

by Christopher Day (University of Westminster)

Britain’s global relationships in the 1990s encompassed a huge array of events and themes: the legacy of the Cold War, the deepening and widening of European integration, military conflicts in the Balkans and the Middle East, the expansion of the global human rights regime, public debate concerning immigration and asylum seekers, and ‘liberal interventionism’. It was appropriate, then, that this workshop furnished us with various lenses through which to grapple with these many potential narratives. Historians of Britain, Europe and the Commonwealth demonstrated how, in a decade bookended by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ‘War on Terror’, Britain searched for a world role that could tie together the disparate strands that made up its myriad global engagements. However, this hunt for a coherent narrative instead served to illustrate the centrality of contradictions and uncertainty in shaping this decade.

In her provocation paper, Lindsay Aqui introduced this conception of the 1990s as a period defined by its contradictions. She suggested that we view the decade as one that witnessed not the emergence of a single coherent global narrative, but the emergence of numerous and conflicting narratives. Building upon the ‘holiday from history’ idea dissected in previous workshops, she argued that we need to rethink the global history of Britain in the 1990s and avoid viewing it as a relatively tranquil period between the momentous events of 1989 and 2001. Contemporaries may have viewed the 1990s as a period of certainties, with the West’s triumph in the Cold War (and Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ thesis), and the assumption of moral superiority that underpinned liberal interventionism. Here, however, Aqui presented us with an uncertain world and a clash between the old system of international organisations, including NATO and the European Union, founded in the crucible of the Cold War, and the hopes of fashioning a new global framework at a time when the structures of previous decades seemed obsolete. This raised questions about where we locate the 1990s historically, and how our view of the decade has been shaped by adjacent events. Firstly, should we see the 1990s as the end of the twentieth century (shaped by the old order) or the beginning of the twenty-first century (shaping the new order)? And secondly, should we view the 1990s as the foundation for events – such as the 2016 vote to leave the EU – that have transpired since then, or does this risk obscuring the optimism which flourished during the 1990s?

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 has shaped our perceptions of both the 1980s and the 1990s. Sourced via Wiki:Commons.

These questions raised insightful comments from the other panellists. Paul Betts argued that more recent events have roots in the emergent trends of the 1990s, and therefore we should view the decade not as the end of the twentieth century, but as the beginning of the twenty-first. He saw 1989 as a turning point which marked the beginning of a rising backlash against multiculturalism in Western Europe. As evidence, he pointed to the Satanic Verses controversy that ensnared Salman Rushdie and the debate in France on the wearing of hijabs in schools as ‘litmus tests’ of British and French values. In contrast, Jon Lawrence and Saul Dubow in these workshops, and others elsewhere, have contended that it was during the 1990s that multiculturalism was most often viewed as a success – further evidence of the contradictory narratives which are inescapable when debating Britain’s global relationships. This may indicate a disjuncture between elite and popular discourses, with rhetoric proclaiming the success of multiculturalism not matching the lived experience of many. Aqui and Betts also noted the increasing opposition to European integration within Britain in the 1990s, evident in both elite and popular politics through the tensions within John Major’s Conservative Party, and the rise of the Referendum Party and UKIP. These may, however, have represented an institutionalisation of pre-existing Euroscepticism rather than a real growth of anti-integration feeling. Nonetheless, awareness of this institutionalisation can aid our understanding of the escalating influence of Euroscepticism in the twenty-first century.

Whereas this links the 1990s to the succeeding decades, Tehila Sasson instead connected this period to the preceding imperial and post-imperial eras. She argued that the 1990s could be viewed as the culmination of the twentieth century, suggesting that the humanitarian interventions (for example, in Iraq and Kosovo) which are often seen as emblematic of the 1990s in fact represented the development of a pre-existing concept. Empire had been presented, at times, as a moral project, before this mantle was taken over by NGOs following decolonisation. The 1990s, therefore, witnessed the state reclaiming its moral role. In this narrative, the liberal interventionism of the 1990s becomes the result of long-term post-imperial shifts in Britain’s geopolitical role. Explicit discussion of the Empire was perhaps surprisingly limited in this workshop, though its themes often seeped into debate. Personal memories have permeated this series, as they did here in the reflections of Dubow on the ‘barrier’ between British History and New Imperial history which persisted throughout the 1990s. He also commented on how the prevalence of indirect rule within the British Empire led to an ideal of tolerant multiculturalism, whereas the closer links between the French Empire and the metropole led to an ideal of inclusion. From this perspective, the consequences of the imperial project pervaded 1990s Britain.

Empire also influenced the discussion that sprang from Rafaelle Nicholson’s question about the place of sport in narratives of global Britain. Betts remarked upon the huge investment in elite athletes that followed the UK’s derisory medal haul at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, asking why sport – and being good at it – mattered so much to the British. He suggested it was almost reminiscent of the muscular Britishness of the nineteenth century, determined to prove its superiority. Comment also turned to post-imperial cricketing culture and its growing importance to the Indian diaspora, in particular, as a symbol of national identity. Cricketing culture was both diasporic and domestic, linking it to Kennetta Hammond Perry’s discussion of ‘diasporic intimacy’ in the previous workshop, and to Sam Wetherell’s suggestion that British culture was often global rather than national. Also mentioned was the distinctiveness of English football in the 1990s – the abundance of St George’s flags at Euro ’96, the end of the ban on English clubs competing in European competitions, and the creation of the Premier League as a distinctively English product that was distributed globally. James Ellison suggested that sport may exemplify the disconnect between the views of wider society on Britain’s place in the world, and the views of political elites.

This blog has suggested the presence of a similar disconnect on multiculturalism, and a further one was illuminated in Aqui’s paper. She contrasted the relative pro-Europeanism espoused by the governments of Major and Tony Blair with the popular Euroscepticism evident in the growth of the Referendum Party and UKIP. Additionally, Ellison argued that 1997 marked a distinctive change in British foreign policy because, under New Labour, it became idealistic – through their pursuit of an international ‘third way’ and their commitment to reforming the international order – rather than pragmatic and reactive. This idealism, long present in grassroots activism (examples given included the Trafalgar Square protests during the Suez crisis and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, to which we may add popular campaigns for and against European integration), now replaced the realism that had obscured it in elite politics. For Ellison, this idealism did not match the reality of Britain’s place in the world as a medium-sized power; where action was required to support Blair’s foreign policy principles, it was reliant on American support.

Bill Clinton and John Major enjoy breakfast at the White House in 1994, with Bosnia and Northern Ireland on the agenda. Clinton would later join Tony Blair in supporting a ‘third way’. Sourced via Wiki:Commons.

While contradictions within and divisions over British foreign policy were not unique to the 1990s, some of these inconsistencies were specific to the decade. Celia Donert mentioned that the British state had shown its hostility to immigration (through opting out of the Schengen Area and the 1993 introduction of the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act) while also implementing reforms (including support for the expansion of the EU) that encouraged higher levels of immigration. Further clashing narratives that were raised during the workshop included Jacques Delors’ concept of a ‘Social Europe’ that often sat uncomfortably with the dominant mores of neoliberalism, and the optimism within the high political discourse of the 1990s that has since been problematised by subsequent events.

Given all the contradictory narratives that are available to explain Britain’s place in the world of the 1990s, it may seem an impossible task to find a single theme with which to tie them together. Indeed, this is a challenge which is not exclusive to British history – Betts pointed out that we do not yet have a name for the post-Cold War era. But one suggestion for an encapsulating leitmotif with explanatory power, put forward by both Aqui and Ellison, is that of uncertainty. This acknowledges the formative influence on the 1990s of the end of the Cold War and the loss of its structures, while also foregrounding the debates that were particular to the decade. It tackles the idea that the 1990s represented a ‘holiday from history’ and enables us to accommodate the contradictions that are seemingly ever-present in narratives of global Britain.

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