When Was the Nineties?

This post is the first 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 Mat Beebee (University of Exeter)

Within popular discourse, the nineties for Britain was the decade when many aspects of twenty-first century life became commonplace: the rise of the internet, the cementing of a ‘neoliberal’ political economy, the birth of globalisation, and the ‘new’ politics of spin. It is then perhaps easy to see the nineties as a fulcrum on which transitions into a ‘new era’ rest. Yet as the decade comes more clearly under the focus of historians, we should be careful about accepting the epochal nature of this change on the one hand and buying into ‘the myths we live by’ on the other.

U.S. President Bill Clinton greeting British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the Conference on Progressive Governance for the 21st Century dinner in Florence, Italy, November 20, 1999.
Photo provided by the United States government archive via Wiki:Commons:

Approaching the nineties on these terms will set up historical study of the period on a much surer footing than has been the case with, say, the much-maligned 1970s, a decade that has only recently been the subject of historical ‘reassesment’. Actively engaging with the supposed epochal nature of change throughout the nineties builds helpfully on the work of the 1980s that has sought to decentre Thatcherism, allowing for a much richer picture of the vibrancy of social, cultural and political life during that decade.

In the first of the ‘Rethinking Britain in the Nineties’ workshop series, thinking upon these challenges of conceptualisation was at the forefront of a lively and fruitful reflection around the idea of ‘when was the nineties?’. To my mind, three big themes emerged from the workshop discussion: the value of ‘the nineties’ as a discursive tool for historical research, the place of the nineties in broader metanarratives of post-war Britain, and whose stories of the nineties we tell and amplify. My hope is that the rest of this blog will pull together the key threads that together begin the process of painting a more nuanced macro-level picture of the nineties. These themes serve as a useful framework for orienting future workshops discussions.

In his provocation paper that kicked off the discussion, David Geiringer contested that historians had been slow to use – and integrate – the nineties as a temporal trope into their analysis. In part, Geiringer suggested that this probably had something to do with how the decade was understood in the nineties itself. On the one hand, cultural memorialising within the decade was often satirical in nature while on the other, the decade was perceived as less dramatic than surrounding decades. Retrospectives were largely fascinated with the turbulent eighties and by the end of the decade, thinking about the coming millennium intensified in volume. It is easy to see why the journalist Jonathan Freedland saw fit to deem the nineties “a holiday from history”.

This theme of a ‘holiday from history’ was important for initially orienting the workshop’s discussion. It was especially interesting that Lawrence Black and Pat Thane – scholars who have published important work reassessing the 1970s – were somewhat uneasy about using decades as a category of analysis when it came to the nineties. Both of their justifications for this made a lot of sense. Thane suggested that periods of Government were more helpful chronological tools for tracking political developments, while it is difficult to box cultural change neatly into decades. Black explained that while the 1970s had a defined narrative stereotype, the nineties perhaps did not.

But if any stereotype could be detected, it is that of a ‘holiday from history’. As Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite argued, breaking down the ‘holiday from history’ stereotype is perhaps still difficult for historians due to a lack of archival material. This is especially true when compared to the important role that the accessibility of resources through the Margaret Thatcher Foundation has played in complicating our understanding of the 1980s. But there is reason to be cheerful on this front! The digitisation of the Mass Observation Project’s 1990s Directives, which will become accessible this year, will be especially helpful in broadening and complicating our social and cultural perceptions of the decade.

Matthew Hilton suggested that conceiving of the nineties as a ‘holiday’ may actually have some semblance of truth. For him, historians have not been slow to study the nineties – pointing to work on the de-politicisation and NGO-isation of politics during the decade – but rather we lack metanarratives for post-war Britain more generally to place the experience and contradictions of the nineties within. The most readily available metanarrative is the lens of ‘neoliberalism’. But as many pointed out, ‘neoliberalism’ is a term that can mean a great deal but simultaneously not very much.

I thought Lucy Delap put it best when suggesting that a ‘neoliberal’ metanarrative presents the nineties as ‘wrapping up’ issues from the previous two decades. But, as she suggested, a more helpful narrative discourse could be financialization. This seemed particularly fruitful for thinking through how the nineties experience of fast-paced financial transactions and increasing economic pressure from online retail and big business represented a (dis)continuity with the eighties following the 1986 deregulation of financial services known as the ‘Big Bang’. Similarly, Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite helpfully suggested three multi-decade alternative metanarratives – de-colonisation, de- industrialisation, and popular individualism– that all open up a richer cultural and social framing for the nineties and move beyond the inherently political focus of a ‘neoliberal’ metanarrative.

This sparked a clamour of suggestions concerning other longer-term metanarratives that the nineties could easily ‘fit’ into. There were fascinating arguments presented for Europeanisation, (anti)-globalisation, secularisation and even neoconservatism as metanarrative and discursive tools we should consider.

However, I found the discussion around the value of a post-war Anthropocene ‘environmental turn’ especially illuminating. Lucy Delap initially suggested that when viewed from within a wider post-war narrative focused on the environment, the nineties were merely part of a depressing upward trajectory of anthropogenic climate change. Even within a broader metanarrative framework, Delap was supportive of Black and Thane’s hesitancy towards conducting decade-oriented analysis. But Matt Kelly argued that it was in the nineties that environmentalism really took off as a political phenomenon, and in a manner that had a marked counter-cultural tone. Here environmentalism sits not only within a historiographical ‘environmental turn’, but works alongside other important metanarratives of post-war Britain (I’m thinking of deindustrialisation especially here) while also encapsulating the rise of single-issue political culture during the nineties (such as roads protests, animal rights and fox-hunting). And without wanted to get too far ahead of ourselves, focusing on environmentalism in the nineties will perhaps lay some vital groundwork for historians who come to track the evolution – and ‘mainstreaming’ – of environmentalism in the early 21st century.

The discussion around environmentalism came back to an important point within David Geiringer’s provocation: thinking about when was the nineties was intimately bound up with who and what mattered at this time. As Pat Thane powerfully argued, we should resist lumping the nineties under a single label, instead thinking about peoples experiences of this time that cut across generalisations. From this stemmed a careful discussion of who the historical ‘we’ is when thinking about the nineties. Geiringer himself was open about the nineties as a decade that he perhaps felt rather than understood. Along this line, arguments were made that recent survey texts of twentieth century Britain – that have made the first foray into historicising the nineties – often set the parameters of what is told about the decade that perhaps unconsciously foreground the subjectivities and privileges of the author. As Lucy Robinson pointed out, compared with the political nature of these initial interpretations, nineties Britain looks very different when its history is queered. Similarly, the importance of age as a category of analysis was raised, especially the implications this has for cultural memory and oral history projects on the decade.

Front cover of “Give My Regards to Elizabeth” by Peter Bialobrzeski (Dewi Lewis, 2020). Bialobrzwski documented a wide swathe of everday life in early 1990s England as an exchange student. You can see a selection of his work here.

But perhaps the most thoughtful consideration of the historical ‘we’ was around the topic of violence. It was through an explorations of the different forms of violence that were prevalent during the nineties that the discussion opened up a wider range of voices and experiences: moral panics around violence crime and computer games; the protracted conflict and eventual ceasefire in Northern Ireland; the judicial and media backlash to child sexual abuse and how this speaks to the importance of power relations; the James Bulger murder and shifting concepts of childhood; HIV/AIDS prompting us to consider engendered violence against gay men as a longer phenomenon (such as the 1995 murder of Terry Sweet in Plymouth); and as significant moments in contemporary black British history. Only by focusing on the importance of these, and other ‘who’ and ‘what’ moments, will we move beyond seeing the nineties through a ‘holiday from history’ thesis of an uneventful decade sandwiched between the Cold War and the War on Terror.

Moreover, periodising and conceptualising the nineties in the sensitive manner of the workshop discussion will begin threading the nineties into wider, more ambitious, cross-decade metanarratives of late twentieth century Britain. It will be especially exciting to see how the lens, narratives and voices that came out of the opening discussion filter through into future session and start to shape the boundaries of exciting future scholarship!


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