Book review: Britain In The 1990s

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The 1990s meant much more than lads’ mags, Cool Britannia and rubberised brick mobile phones

A Classless Society: Britain In The 1990s

Alwyn W Turner

Aurum Books, £25

What are the land-marks of the 1990s? The departure of Margaret Thatcher? The landslide election of Tony Blair? The death of Princess Diana? The revival of the Scottish Parliament? Epoch-making events there were aplenty but the decade itself can seem ill-formed, unclear, wedged between the greedy 1980s and the uncertain first years of the 21st century.

The old line about the 1960s is that if you can remember them you weren’t there. I was there in the 1990s but reading this book was shocked at how much I had forgotten. I left university in June 1990 and vividly remember the fin de siècle mood of the dying days of Thatcherism, the collapse of the Eastern bloc, and the portentous newspaper predications for what the new decade would deliver. The Cold War was newly over. The environment, some thought, would be the theme that we would all unite around. Perhaps some futurologists, scanning the historical horizon, might have spotted signs of Blairism, the internet and al-Qaeda, but if they did, no-one was listening. Instead the world seemed divided between those who were looking to the 1990s to right the wrongs of the 1980s and those who saw it as the welcoming anteroom to the technological order of the 21st century.

We drove cars which at the time seemed to be the height of shiny modernity, but when glimpsed in old TV dramas look boxy and tinny. Those who were lucky enough to get their hands on a mobile phone had to cart around a rubberised brick. In the mid-1990s we were uncontactable when we were out of the office or the home, and couldn’t text to say we were running late: answering machines were cutting edge. We kept our diaries and telephone numbers in our Filofaxes.

Politically, the 1992 election which provided an unexpected victory for John Major’s Conservatives resolved few of the tensions which Thatcher left behind her in Downing Street. Was Britain European or Atlanticist? Was our past more important than our future? It took Blairism to give one answer to that question with its mantra of modernisation and Cool Britannia. From the perspective of now the Blair project seems egregiously flimsy and insubstantial, and Alwyn W Turner gives New Labour short shrift for its meretricious sloganeering and manoeuvring.

But the deepest changes were happening in our social life. In an ingenious early chapter called “Lads”, Turner anatomises the rise of new laddism as a reaction against feminism but also a reaction against the deadening seriousness of the 1980s debate on gender. There had always been men’s mags, now lads’ mags displayed acres of female flesh with an ironic spirit; Loaded’s tagline was “for men who should know better”. On television, Tony and Gary were the eponymous Men Behaving Badly, who lived together in a run-down flat as a sign of their immaturity. Two decades later as a whole generation struggle to find a footing on the property ladder, Tony and Gary may become the norm.

At the end of the decade everything seemed to speed up. The election of Blair, the death of Princess Diana with its mass mourning, bordering on hysteria, the Scottish and Welsh referenda (Scotland and Wales only get a few dedicated pages in Turner’s book – his is a rather British analysis). Around the corner was 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan. The nation’s elite spent the night of the Millennium shivering in a large, rather silly, tent.

What makes this book valuable and entertaining is Turner’s understanding of the way that popular culture enacts the themes and tensions of the age. He also has an eye for the details which signify generational shifts. At one point he observes: “It was noticeable too that Blair’s inner circle seemed more inclined towards swearing than politicians had hitherto been.” From that small observation flows a discussion of the changing currents of British political life and what happens when political change is not just a matter of a new party in power, but a new generation too.

Turner’s compellingly readable account of a decade that we ought to remember as if it was yesterday reminded me of plenty I had forgotten. There are details here that will bring a warm rush of nostalgia or make you groan with embarrassment. And beneath this teeming surface of telling details there is a profound analysis of the broader themes of the decade before the one before this. This 600-page history of the 1990s manages to be a page-turner. It also weighs less than a 1990s mobile phone.