Matchbox Tracy Island. 1990s Classic.
Matchbox Tracy Island. 1990s Classic.

In 1992, against expectations, the Conservative Party won their fourth consecutive general election – I was five years old. My parents, in their mid twenties, worried that the world would remain as bad for them as it had been in the long, dark years of the 1980s, and around us all the economy that had limped along badly after the pit closures finally collapsed. The Barclays Bank branch closed down, the Woolwich building society closed down, the ice cream shop closed down, and eventually so did the warehouse where most of us spent our pocket money on toys and sweets. The toys were typical of the early 1990s: action figures from Ghostbusters, Thunderbirds, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. That’s a young boy’s recollection, of course – my sister’s toys were a bit different.

Looking back on the period as a historian, if it is, in fact, possible to read periods through which you have lived in that way, one word emerges: nostalgia. The whole period is pitched in a kind of nostalgic glow, focused primarily on the 1960s. In September 1991, the BBC repeated (for the first time) the entire run of Thunderbirds on Fridays at 6pm on BBC 2. On Wednesdays in the same slot, the corporation was showing repeats of Star Trek: The Next Generation and from the summer of 1992 a re-run of the original Star Trek. From January 1992, Fridays at about 7pm also saw repeats of Doctor Who. My first memory of that programme is the old gramophone in The Time Meddler – the first serial in this run of repeats. Finally, 1992 also saw the repeat run of The Man From UNCLE, another of those classic 1960s spy programmes. As a boy of five or six, I was hooked. I made Thunderbirds models from Lego, had a Star Trek duvet cover, and have never given up on the Doctor (even if I’m more of a fan of classic Who than Nu Who).

But why was there this degree of nostalgia for the 1960s right at the start of the 1990s, and to what extent can understanding it help us to understand the 1990s as a decade of history? Pretty much everyone is agreed that the 1980s, and to a lesser extent the 1970s, were deeply divisive decades in British history. Whether you blame the trade unions or Margaret Thatcher or nationalists or a combination of all three, these two decades cast a more sympathetic light on the 1960s. For all that historians have now filled in many of the memory gaps and demonstrated that the 1960s had their fair share of tensions and problems, popular culture and popular history remains wedded to the idea that the 1960s were the ‘golden years’, the high point of social democracy, social equality, and the post-war promise. And yes, all the booze and drugs and sex really did go to the heads of certain babyboomers but far from all. For the nonconformity of the 1960s identified by historians (albeit in the context of memoir) such as Tony Judt or Arthur Marwick was not shared by everyone. Nor were the complaints the same.

Nevertheless, the 1960s were the last time, at least from the point of view of post-Thatcherite Britain, that things were calm and straightforward. Nostalgia feeds off this notion of an imagined, safe past. And so, in fact, did the government. Launched in 1993, John Major’s Back to Basics campaign was both a spectacular failure and a remarkable attempt at corralling nostalgia for official purposes.  Major delivered his opening gambit in a speech on 8 October 1993:

The old values – neighbourliness, decency, courtesy – they’re still alive, they’re still the best of Britain. They haven’t changed, and yet somehow people feel embarrassed by them. Madam President, we shouldn’t be. It is time to return to those old core values, time to get back to basics, to self-discipline and respect for the law, to consideration for others, to accepting a responsibility for yourself and your family and not shuffling off on other people and the state.

He continued:

We must go back to basics. We want our children to be taught the best, our public services to give the best, our British industry to be the best and the Conservative Party will lead the country back to those basic rights across the board. Sound money, free trade, traditional teaching, respect for the family and respect for the law.

Major, in short, wanted to lead Britain back to a perceived memory of his early years. This was, to borrow from Raphael Samuel perceptively observed Theatres of Memory, an act of ‘Retrochic’ – random appropriations of elements of the past to manufacture and ideal that never actually existed. How, for instance, could communities in the (by now former) British coalfields recover ‘respect for the law’ when it had been used to brutalise them less than a decade earlier? As Owen Hatherley has demonstrated in his rather brilliant The Ministry of Nostalgia, this very same process of Retrochic has now pushed us back into a rather more perverse reading of the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s. Back to Basics in the post-2010 model means a literal stripping away of the remaining vestiges of the 1940s Labour-Unionist project: a justification, as Hatherley argues, of neoliberal politics, economics, and social degradation, through direct appeal to the resilience of ordinary Britons during wartime and post-war austerity.

To think of Thunderbirds, Doctor Who, or Star Trek as nostalgia might seem a bit perverse: are these not programmes which project optimism about the future? Yes, that’s certainly true if you accept that these were programmes made in the 1960s. Central concepts such as Star Trek’s ‘first contact’ moment, or the setting of Thunderbirds, both of which take place in the 2060s (a decade within the expected lifespan of many born in the 1980s, but few born in the 1960s), are more difficult to imagine from the perspective of the 1990s. Apart from Mir and the construction of the International Space Station a few years later, there was no space race to capture the imagination of young people, and futuristic technologies like nuclear power and space shuttles had suffered disasters of their own in the 1980s. There was nothing exciting about nuclear power after Chernobyl, and the Challenger disaster had robbed the space race of its post-Apollo utopianism. Instead, these reruns appealed to a sense of certainty that had faded over the course of the 1980s, as if to say weren’t we once great.

Of course, programmes that were nearly thirty years old could hardly be made nostalgic all by themselves, that required more intervention – something the BBC were quite happy to provide. Who can forget, assuming you were alive, of course, the great push for a Tracy Island model and the Blue Peter ‘make it yourself’ alternative for those who couldn’t afford one. There’s literally nothing more ‘back to basics’ than making your own toys out of ‘sticky-back plastic’, cardboard boxes, pipe cleaners, newspaper, and pva glue?  But that’s precisely what it was. Back to Basics aimed squarely at children whose parents had to find a way to say, sorry son we just don’t have any money.

Ahh, the memories.

Back in the 1960s it was possible to believe, as Star Trek suggests, that different peoples can work together for common good. It also supposes that, if we listen to ourselves carefully, we can avoid trampling over the rights of others, as this somewhat belaboured (over-referenced) scene in Star Trek VI implies:

Chekov: We do believe all planets have a sovereign claim to inalienable human rights.

Azetbur: “Inalien…” If you could only hear yourselves. “Human rights”. Why, the very name is racist.

Back then it was also possible to believe, I suppose, that someone who worked out of a police phone box might actually want to help you rather than beat you up. That spies really were suave and sophisticated (or young and naive as Deutschland 83 offers at the outset), rather than slumped over a desk analysing intelligence data. And that technology would work out in our favour, bringing us all much closer together in a benign kind of way. Half a century later that all seems a little optimistic, doesn’t it? Even in the nostalgic glow of the early 1990s, it was a little unbelievable.

There’s a serious point to this brief excursion into the 1990s, with which I shall conclude. Contemporary history offers complex methodological challenges but exciting possibilities. It’s easy to step away from history that has occurred in your lifetime and leave it to someone who wasn’t there. But I think that robs us of something important, namely the opportunity to explore our own chronology with our own, highly-trained, critical eye. It’s not difficult to step away from our childhood love of certain television programmes and see the bigger picture, if we hold onto the skills that allow us to step away from our grandparents’ lives and see the bigger picture of the 1940s and 1950s, for instance.  One early advocate of contemporary history wrote that it ‘begins when the problems which are actual in the world today first take visible shape’. Clearly, the post-Thatcherite, post-Communist context of the early 1990s marks a major turning point, but it’s rarely the case that historians of Britain would pick 1990/1992 as the break over 1979 and 1997. I think perhaps that’s a mistake. 1997 is much less of a turning point in retrospect than was considered at the time (and has been the case in mainstream historiography over the course the last twenty years).

If we take the early 1990s as our turning point, rather than 1997, nostalgia, a desire for the certainties of the 1960s, enables us to understand our times and our politics more effectively. Gone are the left-right politics of Nye Bevan or Stanley Baldwin, that much has been clear for a very long time, but in its place – a scenario playing out here with the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn, and in the United States with Bernie Sanders (and before him Barack Obama) – is a spectrum of nostalgia. Left-nostalgia, as Hatherley observes, takes us back to the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, and paints a remarkable picture of cohesion and solidarity. Right-nostalgia, on the other hand, paints a picture of acceptance and tolerance of difficulties. A nostalgia for ‘putting up with it’. Older millennials like me, whose childhood was analogue but whose transition to adulthood has been digital, are caught in the middle of this spectrum. We have no connection to the positive State, which drives so much of the left-nostalgia of Sanders and Corbyn; but we do not believe the promises of those proponents of right-nostalgia that after the hard times come the good either. For the moment, left-nostalgia sounds more enticing, more secure, more hopeful. But more realistic? Either way, until we shake ourselves out of it, we remain not at a post-Blatcherite nation but rather a nostalgia nation.