This piece by CAMRI doctoral researcher Christopher Day 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. The full article by Day can be read on Past & Present.
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?