When does the recent past become history? To many of us, the 1990s still feel close. Yet as a 30-something colleague lamented after overhearing teenagers talking about Nirvana (“They were, like, this really cool band in the 1990s”) the Major years are more distant than we realise.
A CLASSLESS SOCIETY: BRITAIN IN THE 1990s
by Alwyn Turner
Aurum, 624pp, £25
Whether this yet renders the decade ripe for a chunky history – Alwyn Turner’s being the first– is another matter. The recentness carries an inherent danger of not seeing the wood for the trees, the turning points amid the self-absorbed babble of a 24-hour media-entertainment industry.
Turner’s solution is to anchor his narrative firmly in the era’s politics, his book splitting into Major (1990-97) and Blair (1997-2001). Many of the debates seem painfully familiar (the Tories divided over Europe, Labour agonising over its post-socialist message), yet this does not make their history ten or 15 years on any less illuminating. Could Michael Portillo really have talked of leading an anti-Europe breakaway party in 1995? Yes: that’s how much trouble David Cameron is in.
Turner has a good ear too for political gossip – Major’s flirtatiousness (to Margaret Beckett: “Would you like a nibble of my mace?”) and Blair’s impatience (on Roy Hattersley: a “fat, pompous bugger”).Yet the 1990s were arguably not a very political decade. Certainly Labour’s 1997 victory was a dividing line, a shared national moment with few political parallels today. But even then, the 1997 election campaign was dull, attracting a record-low turnout (71 per cent).
Both Major and Blair shared largely similar goals of a classless, meritocratic society, while Blair never reversed any significant Thatcher/Major reforms.
Some things did change: attitudes to homosexuality, for example, and the ascendence of baby-boomers raised on pop. Cool Britannia was a shrewd piece of positioning by Blair but also a recognition of generational realities.
Other shifts were more rapid. An entertaining chapter on the Royal Family focuses inevitably on Princess Diana. She doesn’t come out of episodes such as 1992’s “Squidgy-gate” tape well (“Bloody hell! What I’ve done for this f***ing family!”). Add that to the public anger over taxpayers paying the £60 million bill for the 1992 Windsor Castle fire, and the nation’s mid-decade disillusionment with the royals is striking.
Then it all changed on 31 August, 1997. The nation laid flowers feet deep; the press performed vaulting U-turns, though few as spectacular as the US National Enquirer (“We apologise for the headline DIANA GOES SEX MAD, which is still on stands at some locations”.)
Blair calculated, emoted and caught the moment effortlessly. But does all this make Diana more important than Blair? Turner, cultural historian, uses nuggets from TV, film and comedy to enrich his main focus. Yet he ends up implying that Diana – and in Blair’s second term, Jade Goody – were more important, to the extent that they represented bigger trends over which politicians had little control.
So what drove those trends? The hollowing out of Britain’s economy was proceeding apace in the 1990s, for example, as were the arrival of digital technology and the internet — though you wouldn’t know it from the scant attention paid them here. We may have to wait another 20 years for a history that puts Blair, the Spice Girls and the dotcom bubble in proper perspective. This, meantime, is a very credible first draft.