The Political Narratives of Britain in the Nineties

This post is the second 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 Alfie Steer (Hertford College, University of Oxford)

Compared to the crises of the 1970s and the turbulent clashes of the 1980s, popular memory of the 1990s has tended to see the politics of the era as boring: a period of consolidation for the neoliberal hegemony first established by Thatcher, or, as put by Peter Sloman, a kind of ‘phony war’ before the inevitable arrival of Tony Blair’s New Labour. But, just as wider historical reassessments are now seeking to challenge perceptions of the decade as a ‘holiday from history’, the second panel of the ‘Rethinking Britain in the Nineties’ series demonstrated how it was also far from a ‘holiday from politics’.

In an engaging provocation paper, Colm Murphy challenged the popular interpretation of nineties’ politics as consensus or the consolidation of neoliberalism. Rather, the nineties not only witnessed dramatic political events (the poll tax riots, IRA bombings and divisive debates on the future of Britain’s relationship with the European Union), but also developments that could not be easily placed within a neoliberal category (John Major’s conflict with self-proclaimed Thatcherites and New Labour’s social reforms on child poverty, low pay or gay rights). Murphy also presented two key frameworks to aid a more nuanced understanding of the decade. First, 1992 was presented as a pivotal year. Labour’s election defeat provided the psychological blow that gave impetus to the radical policy changes overseen by New Labour, Black Wednesday destroyed the Conservative government’s reputation for economic competence, and division over the Maastricht Treaty saw the return of European integration as a political issue. Second, Murphy argued that a “constitutional lens” could also shed light on the period, with a focus on the growing salience of constitutional issues, devolution, human rights, and the Good Friday Agreement helping to highlight key controversies and new areas of contestation. Throughout the following discussions, respondents focused on both these themes and questioned whether the origins of our current political circumstances could be traced to the nineties.

Labour Leader Neil Kinnock conceding the 1992 UK General Election.
Photo provided by John Chapman via wiki commons:

Ben Jackson argued that the salience of constitutional issues in the nineties could have been caused by the relative lack of serious political disagreements on economic policy. Indeed, Jackson made the intriguing suggestion that the so-called ‘long 1990s’ of relative consensus on economic policy could extend as far as the fall of Lehman Brothers and the Financial Crisis of 2008. Peter Sloman, on the other hand, argued that the emergence of cultural issues in political discourse could also be traced to the recession of the early nineties, with the Conservatives believing that they could no longer win on their economic reputation and Labour believing there would be no money to spend.

Beyond economics, Emily Robinson placed the emergence of constitutional issues in a wider post-Cold War setting, arguing for the influence of constitutional reform campaigns in post-Soviet Eastern Europe as having an explicit impact on organisations such as Charter 88. Robinson also brought attention to cultural debates over history and nationhood in the nineties, citing conservative anxieties over Blair’s construction of a progressive majority, debates on public education of Britain’s colonial past, and the emergence of New Political History.

However, Tim Bale remained sceptical as to whether constitutional issues could really have been more than a minor sport for the ‘chattering classes’. Bale shared Murphy’s opposition to viewing the nineties as a period of consensus, stressing how John Major was certainly perceived as a Thatcherite at the time and that, in hindsight, Labour’s 1997 manifesto now reads as a surprisingly populist document. Focusing on perceptions from the time, Bale also listed other issues that conversely disappeared in the 1990s despite their previous salience, such as defence, immigration and housing.

On the centrality of 1992, Jackson demonstrated its contingency through some intriguing counterfactuals. He asked whether Labour winning the 1992 election could have seen a Kinnock government damaged by the ERM crisis and the Conservatives benefitting from the dividends of the late-nineties economy, or whether the impact of the defeat may have been obscured had John Smith lived and won 1997 as a more traditional social democrat. I found this a particularly interesting thought experiment, as John Smith’s brief leadership remains a remarkably understudied interregnum between Kinnock and Blair, and highlights how New Labour was far from an inevitable end point of Labour’s modernisation process. A reappraisal of Smith’s leadership as a break in Labour’s shift to marketing-based electoral strategy could play a key role in challenging the consensus view of nineties politics.

In one of the most fascinating areas of discussion, Emily Robinson explored a “media studies lens” to compliment Murphy’s constitutional one. She considered the influence of mediatisation on political life, discourses on spin, and authenticity, as well as the emergence of satirical political programmes such as Have I Got News For You and the politics it portrayed and helped create. This appeared a rewarding potential approach. As argued by Bale, the 1992 defeat not only had a dramatic effect on Labour’s policy changes, but crucially its approach to the media. Indeed, both the changes in politics and media strategy were largely intertwined. While Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell would embark on a disciplined media strategy often labelled “control freakery” out of a fear of repeating the 1992 media attacks, much of the justification for New Labour’s iconoclastic policy changes were found in the difficult findings of focus groups led by marketing gurus like Philip Gould. Just as the role of spin shaped discourses and perceptions around politics at the time, its architects gained greater political prominence, and its practices (focus groups, polling) became new resources of power in shaping policy, opinion and stratergy.

Indeed, with an eye to finding the origins of our current crises in nineties’ politics, the mediatisation of politics has had potentially numerous effects. John Agar asked whether we could detect a direct line from the sleaze that affected John Major to current populism and hostility to the political class today. And even if, as argued by Bale, New Labour were able to avoid the damaging scandals of the nineties, Blair’s own professed image as a “pretty straight guy” came undone when facing his own, such as the Bernie Ecclestone affair in 1997 or Peter Mandelson’s first resignation in 1998. More broadly, the origins of populism could even be found in the technology itself. As argued by Robinson, the nineties saw the emergence of the internet as a platform for political communication and discussion. This took forms such as the Hansard Society’s e-democracy programme, designed to utilise online technology to enhance parliamentary democracy, and online political discussion forums. Echoing recent comments from Quinn Sloboddian, Robinson asked whether the individually empowering nature of the internet could have played a role in populism’s rise. This struck me as an important point of enquiry that will hopefully be explored during the digital panel in the coming weeks.

The desire to trace the origins of our current political environment was an overarching theme throughout the panel. Jackson argued that New Labour’s failure to pursue a macro-economic strategy for industry facilitated the north-south polarisation that has defined Brexit, while the popularity of Scottish Nationalism could also be traced to much of the discourse around devolution; feelings of alienation and dispossession leading to the radical questioning of Westminster’ legitimacy. In a broader perspective, Matt Kelly also suggested how the Good Friday Agreement affected the working assumptions of Westminster, seeing the rise in prominence of Sinn Fein and the DUP, and their difficult relationships with the mainland parties.

Poll Tax Riot 31st March 1990 Peaceful March.
Photo provided by James Bourne via wiki commons

As David Geiringer mentioned in summing up, the panel viewed the political largely through the lens of high politics either in Westminster, Whitehall or the devolved parliaments. As such, it is important to recognise that grassroots campaigns and social movements also saw a burst of activity that further challenge the consensus narrative. The poll tax riots at the beginning of the decade saw the continuation of class-based political action from the 1980s, the growing prominence of single-issue campaigns, and the desire on the far left for independence from the increasingly moderate Labour Party. Opposition to the pit closures of 1992-93 and the Liverpool Dockers Dispute of 1995-98, as highlighted by Lucy Delap and Colm Murphy, also demonstrated the continued importance of trade unions. The murder of Stephen Lawrence and tentative gains of the British National Party saw the return of anti-fascist movements such as the Anti-Nazi League and Anti-Racist Alliance. Anti-road protests, Reclaim the Streets and other anti-capitalist/globalisation movements also exploded in activity, encapsulating a reassertion of radical energy after the Thatcher period and a rejection of traditional forms of party politics. In considering these wider social movements we may also trace the origins of the radical politics of the 2000s and 2010s, from Occupy to Extinction Rebellion, and Stop the War to the electoral coalition that elected Jeremy Corbyn leader of the Labour Party.

Bringing to attention many overlooked themes (too numerous for this blog alone), the lively panel and wider discussion demonstrated a growing desire to reclaim nineties politics from the stereotypes of boring consensus. By focusing on these overlooked moments of contestation, from issues such as Europe, economic policy, and even the very nature of how people politically contribute, the nineties appear not only more dynamic, but also as a pivotal moment in shaping our political environment today.

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