Reading Around: Britain in the 1990s

I was born at the height of the Miners’ Strike in the summer of 1984. I’ve often wondered what my parents were thinking of – bringing a child into a world at a time of such strife and division, with the fear of nuclear apocalypse looming so large. As I slowly realised the pictures on the TV and the conversations my parents had related to a world beyond the family and friends we knew personally, a long shadow was cast by Margaret Thatcher (or “that bloody woman” as my dad almost exclusively referred to her for many years). But my first political memory is actually not of Maggie, who left Downing Street a few months after my sixth birthday.

My earliest political memory is of watching TV and seeing John Major stood outside Downing Street making a speech. I think this was in the wake of his surprise 1992 election victory, winning the Conservatives a fourth term in office, as I also remember my mum explaining Prime Ministers and elections to me – though it’s possible these are two different moments of my childhood combined in a cut-and-shut memory.


I’m now working on an academic History article with my colleague Jenny Crane, looking at the multi-faceted political meanings of the NHS in political campaigning and fundraising in the second half of the health service’s seven-decade history (following the half-way point during Thatcher’s 11 years in Downing Street). This means I’m now having my own version of my dad’s dilemma when I told him I was studying the youth movements of the 1960s as part of my History degree. “But that’s not History,” he exclaimed. “I remember it!”

Until now I’ve mostly been researching and writing about the early twentieth century, the formative years of my nan. A year ago I started working on the Cultural History of the NHS project and moved into those of my parents. But this collaboration cements a move further into researching times and events I remember from my own lifetime as History.

This is not because I’m getting old (an increasing number of grey hairs aside), but because my research in this case is distinctly contemporary. So it’s not only that I have to find a way to historicise the period I remember, but that any members of the historical profession turning their attention to these years have to do so. This is not just a personal challenge, it’s also one for the hivemind. So…

What readings, documentaries, etc. would you recommend for making sense of the 1990s as a chapter in recent British history?

This is also something my colleague and soon-to-be co-author, Jenny Crane, has been thinking about…

Like George, I tend to think about my birthday in terms of its historical contexts.  I was born on 11 November 1989.  This marks Remembrance Day, and in this particular year saw revolutions overthrowing communist regimes across Central and Eastern Europe.  Importantly, on 9 November the East German government had announced that East German citizens would be allowed to visit West Germany across the Berlin Wall.  My earliest political memory is May 1997, and I feel like I remember excitement and optimism from the left as Tony Blair swept to power.  My personal narratives of my early life, then, are dominated by thinking of the late twentieth century in terms of a time of liberalisation.
Since studying history and politics, and becoming older and slightly wiser than I was at 7, I of course see more complexity in this story.  Globally, liberal reforms have long been, and are now, challenged by the revival of the ‘alt right’, which includes facets of neoliberal and even fascist ideology.  In the British context, I now better understand early concerns about ‘Blatcherism’, and the extent to which New Labour was shielding market reforms in the language of communitarianism.  Like George’s Dad then, I feel instinctively that the period of my childhood is familiar – and yet on deeper reflection I also find it very confusing.
In my studies, as well as my reminiscences, I am increasingly drawn to the 1990s.  This was a key time for the NHS in many ways – the organisation adopted its current branding, and key (and highly controversial) reforms centralised control.  Following this, my research is finding that campaign groups fundamentally shifted their approach to supporting the NHS at this time.  Groups aimed to defend the national institution and its perceived ideal, rather than to lobby against individual closures, primarily of hospitals.  George, similarly, is finding key shifts from the 1990s in his examination of NHS fundraising.  Reading literature from politics around this time has been very useful.  Speaking to members of the public at our various events has also been fascinating, particularly when reflecting together on our own biases in thinking about this period, or the powers of hindsight.
There seems relatively little historical work on this period, so far, however, though surely historians are creeping nearer as they offering more and more brilliant analyses of the 1980s.  I have found Alwyn Turner’s A Classless Society incredibly useful, thinking about the ‘atomisation’ but also the ‘democratisation’ of society in this decade ran through culture and politics.  Any more recommendations for reading, however, or even random musings from your own childhoods, would be very much welcomed!

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