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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 June 2007, 09:01 GMT 10:01 UK
Shaking off a hangover
Angel of the North

Andrew Marr
The 1990s began as the hangover years but ended on a wave of optimism and unbridled emotion, says Andrew Marr, whose TV history of post-war UK concludes on Tuesday.

In January 1991, John Major was thrown into the first act of the Middle Eastern drama that still engulfs us today.

He flew south of Kuwait, to rally the soldiers he was about to send into battle in the first Gulf War.

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Some of them unfurled a welcome banner - "Hello Tarzan" - clearly believing the new prime minister to be Michael Heseltine.

Later, the humble Major ordered ahead for sandwiches - no sit-down lunch for him.

Angel of the North
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When the sandwiches were unwrapped, Major's aides were alarmed to find there was a note inside.

It turned out to be a heartfelt plea from a desperate man on the eve of battle.

"Dear Prime Minister", it said, "Can you please do something to sort out the chaos at Chelsea Football Club. "

Major, who was a Chelsea fan himself, sat down in the desert and wrote back saying he'd do his best.

At the end of the century, it seemed, the British still had their priorities intact.

Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait had threatened to rob us of the safer world we'd been promised at the end of the Cold War.

He was being taken on by a huge coalition of countries, backed by the United Nations. Operation Desert Storm was quickly won and victory gave Major an early boost, but what had been hailed as the New World Order wouldn't last long.

Great changes were coming and not just in the Middle East. And time and again, Britain would be at the forefront, often in unexpected places.

In miles of tunnels near the Swiss Alps at Europe's Nuclear Research Centre, a vast project was investigating the origins of the universe, the Big Bang.

Tony Blair on 2 May 1997
A new dawn in 1997
Here, a young British computer programmer called Tim Berners-Lee decided to devise a new system to organise the staggering amount of data being produced.

Inspired by a remarkable, Victorian book called "Enquire Within Upon Everything", and its random web of links, Berners-Lee came up with a revolutionary idea to allow the experiment's computers to share information. He called it the world wide web.

Berners-Lee could have been rich beyond the dreams of avarice with his invention. Instead, he handed it, free, to humanity. A remarkable man in more ways than one.

The internet-based, web-speaking global economy surged on, making billions and shifting power away from governments and towards consumers and global markets.

By the end of the decade, Britain was in the grip of a shopping boom - partly driven by the dotcom surge - which has yet to falter to this day.

This modest, public-spirited, English scientist has done more to change the way we live now than any politician.

Read Andrew Marr's take on the decade in the Magazine every Tuesday
Watch his History of Modern Britain on BBC Two on Tuesdays at 2100 BST
Read and watch your written memories, pictures and videos every Friday in the Magazine
Meanwhile, after the long boom of the Thatcher years came the hangover years. Britain's economy was wilting. Unemployment was well over two million. Interest rates were at 10% and rising. House prices were tumbling.

The obvious solution would be to lower interest rates. But Major couldn't. His whole economic policy was built around shadowing the strong German mark - as part of our membership of the scary-sounding Exchange Rate Mechanism or ERM.

On the 16th of September 1992, the City of London trading floors opened to the buzz of gossip that the pound was overvalued.

The markets panicked. It would lead to a brutal test of wills about who really ran the British economy - the politicians or the money markets? History remembers it as Black Wednesday.

Interest rates were raised to an eye-watering 15% to restore confidence in the pound and the Bank of England was pouring away 2 billion an hour trying to stop the market frenzy.

But it just wasn't working. Finally, at around 4 pm, they cracked. John Major phoned the Queen and told her Parliament would have to be recalled from its summer recess. Britain was leaving the ERM.


This was the single most humiliating moment for the British economy since the dark days of the 1970s. Released from the ERM, Britain's blighted economy would, in fact, start slowly to recover. But Major's authority wouldn't.

These were grim times - no-one seemed in charge. The news seemed to be all about crime, poverty and violence, such as the James Bulger murder in 1993. One opposition politician called Tony Blair described it as "a hammer blow against the sleeping conscience of the nation, an ugly manifestation of a society no longer worthy of the name".

John Major decided to launch an urgent, aggressive campaign to restore old British values of respect for the family and law, traditional teaching and public service.

All it needed was a memorable catchphrase: "I want to get back to basics - back to those old, core values."

Blair fashioned himself as a new kind of leader - the easy-going bloke in Number 10

Back to Basics. Although it was never supposed to refer to private, sexual misbehaviour, the phrase was used as a fail-safe, catch-all charge of hypocrisy by the press every time one of Major's ministers was caught behaving less than perfectly. Which, of course, they were - again and again and again.

New Labour came to power as the most media-obsessed party in British political history.

But Tony Blair really did embody a shift in attitudes - a more liberal Britain, more compassionate, more informal and more image conscious.

This was the honeymoon summer of Cool Britannia. The hip, young and artistic swanned into Downing Street to share nibbles with Tony, Cherie and Peter Mandelson.

Blair fashioned himself as a new kind of leader - the easy-going bloke in Number 10, a celebrity - never happier it seemed than on daytime TV.

He escaped an early crisis over the exemption of Formula One racing to new laws banning tobacco advertising from all major sporting events.

Kensington Palace, August 1997
Diana's death prompted an outpouring of grief
Bernie Ecclestone, who runs Formula One, had secretly donated 1m to the Labour Party before the election. The suggested link between the exemption and Ecclestone's influence on Blair was hotly denied by Downing Street.

But it left the dangerous impression that New Labour, who'd attacked the Tories so vigorously over sleaze, was nothing like as minty fresh as it seemed.

But in the summer of 1997, Tony Blair's celebrity status was matched in Britain by only one other person. For no celebrity gleamed more brightly than the beautiful, troubled Princess Diana.

Diana, Princess of Wales, wasn't simply a pretty woman who happened to be married to and then divorced from, a King-in-waiting. She was by now the fantasy friend to scores of millions of people.

The pain in her life and, more particularly, her fashionable readiness to share that pain, simply made her more accessible than the formal monarchy. They were figureheads. She was an icon, a super-celebrity.

'People's Princess'

So it's perhaps fitting that the most resonant words ever spoken by Tony Blair as prime minister came as a direct result of her death.

"She was... the People's Princess and that is how she will stay, how she will remain in our hearts and our memories forever."

After his eulogy to Diana, his approval rating rose above 90%. That was astonishing. It doesn't normally happen in democracies and, in terms of raw popularity, this was his highest point.

And the response to the death of Diana - a gushing outpouring of emotion - revealed how far the British people had travelled since the War.

Andrew Marr's History of Modern Britain ends on BBC Two on Tuesday, 19 June, at 2100 BST.

Thanks for your memories of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

Now send us your memories of the 1990s - the decade of the dotcom boom, Black Wednesday, New Labour, Britpop and the death of Princess Diana - using the form below.

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Your memories of the 1990s

The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.

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