Cool Britannia: Tony Blair hosts Noel Gallagher at Downing Street in 1997

When things could only get better

Fans of the 1990s aren’t nostalgic reactionaries. They celebrate an era of optimism, peace, prosperity and great popular culture


This article is taken from the July 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

When I heard Rishi Sunak was about to call the election, I went online and saw the tragic spectacle unfold in real time. I watched as the heavens opened, and then struggled to hear the Prime Minister’s voice as Steve Bray’s loudspeaker started pumping out “Things Can Only Get Better”. 

Later, some schoolfriends of exactly my vintage (I turned 18 in May 1997) shared their approval of Bray’s idiocy. Apparently oblivious of the Partridge-esque nature of their exclamations, one wrote “Genius!”, and another, “Back of the net!” I tried not to alienate any more schoolfriends than I already have by commenting, “Jurassic Park!”, or “Smell my cheese”.

Whatever your political views, there was an unquestioned civilisational self-confidence in the West

I was struck by just how abysmally different that moment was from May 1997, the time it was meant to conjure up. Even someone who disliked Tony Blair as much as I did could sense the freshness, optimism, and youthful exuberance in the air back then. By comparison, the scene at Downing Street in May 2024 just seemed silly, tired, and absurd. I watched it again on BBC that evening. Bray’s loudspeaker had been edited out to a minimal volume, leaving just a polite tinkle in the background. 

Memories of the optimistic 1990s were lurking in different ways that day — deliberately invoked one moment, unknowingly present the next, or just edited out. On one level, consciously celebrating the Nineties is increasingly common. The 2014 documentary The Last Great Decade? sets the tone for a view that something reached a climax when the millennium approached, something which has now disappeared. 

There are obvious reasons why people see it this way. New Labour and Clinton evinced immense optimism, crystallising around their shared commitment to the “Third Way”. More generally, the Nineties were a time when, whatever your political allegiance, there was an unquestioned civilisational self-confidence in the West. 

Watching films from the Eighties and Nineties, this can be one of the most striking things — the presumed fact that how we live is good, that people here for the most part have an enviable quality of life, that good will win out — and indeed that things will only get better. 

Chuck Klosterman’s The Nineties: A Book offers a compelling analysis of the decade. He dissects the view that the years between the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the fall of the Twin Towers in September 2001 was a time of unparalleled “peace, prosperity, and stability” for Western democracy. 

Philip Pilkington recently coined the term “unipolarity” to describe the geopolitical climate after 1989, a time with one superpower toward which nearly all other powers had to orient themselves in some way. He describes today’s geopolitical breakdown as a move to “multipolarity”, in which the old Pax Americana is threatened by multiple encroachments it cannot withhold simultaneously. Then there is the United States’ own decline, with a president that makes the Nineties’ embarrassingly inebriated Boris Yeltsin seem well-balanced by comparison. 

When it comes to popular culture, the 1990s again function like a kind of climax moment. “Youth culture” requires young people having time, disposable income and confidence in their futures to ensure they can spend their formative years dropping out and challenging their square elders. 

What began with rock ’n’ roll in the 1950s, climaxed with grunge, Britpop, and rave. The last of these seemed to embrace all the subcultures that preceded it, combining blissed-out optimism and anti-establishment aggression while normalising recreational drug use in such a way that few people were left untouched by it. Today drug use conjures images of flesh-eaten amputees carrying blankets around downtown Philadelphia. 

Then there was the biggest civilisational change of the 1990s, when the internet first became widely available. Klosterman dwells on this particularly effectively. He shows that as soon as there was a universally available repository in which anything is recorded, we cease to remember. Memory apportions significance. 

In this sense, the Nineties were the last years in which people shared collective memories, widely-held narratives, broadly accepted moments of significance. Once people started installing clunky modems, they began to get mired in endless oppositions and tribal battles over insignificant factoids. 

As a case in point, 1990s-appreciation isn’t nearly as straightforward as it first seems. For some, there’s a suspicion of “nostalgia”. James O’Brien launched into one of his tedious monologues when a caller phoned his LBC radio show to say he voted Brexit because he wanted to go back to the Nineties. Owen Jones has written ad infinitum on why the Blair years should not be celebrated by Labour’s younger supporters. 

Agnes Arnold-Foster, author of Nostalgia: A History of a Dangerous Emotion, argues the renewed interest in Nineties music and dress is cynically motivated. Matthew Yglesias warns of the reactionary nature of rose-tinted spectacles, pointing out that the Nineties had much inequality and poverty. The idea that nostalgia is a petri dish for Terrible Opinions casts much Nineties-appreciation in a “problematic” light. 

Yet Nineties-appreciation isn’t just about believing things were great then, but that it was the last decade in which things could be great in a recognisable way. From the moment Osama bin Laden attacked the Twin Towers, the previous era unravelled. 

Deeply-held assumptions became unsustainable, including concepts as profound and all-encompassing as the belief in progress, inevitable prosperity, the Western project, the history of ideas and in civilisation itself. 

This is why it was so illustrative that those most likely to rail against nostalgia were re-enacting 1990s-style posturing about Steve Bray. Just as you can only give a eulogy for someone you know to be dead, you can only be nostalgic for a period you have accepted is over. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and 90s-appreciators are those who accept that the possibility of an achievably great period is now absent. Those people making such quintessentially Nineties exclamations as “genius!” and “Back of the net!” are those for whom the basic dynamics of the 1990s still hold sway. 

The themes of contemporary British politics offer no optimistic narrative or ideological direction. There isn’t any of that decade’s freshness or vigour, regardless of one’s views on Blair. The old “Tory scum” narrative is difficult to square with the Red Wall crumbling in 2019. There isn’t really subversive youth culture anymore, merely well-rehearsed identities which are all derivative of some moment between 1950 and 2000. 

Those who revel in rebelliousness struggle to explain why children are drilled in observing their liberal-progressive symbols, flags, and feast days in schools, which are also saluted by large corporations and state institutions. 

What critics of Nineties nostalgia fail to acknowledge is how many purportedly left-liberal positions depend on an assumption that the basic dynamics of the 1990s still endure. Take migration: the difference between a net migration figure of 48,000 (1997) and 764,000 (2022) is that then making a fuss about migration probably did mean you were narrow-minded, lacked compassion, or were even “far right”. Now it doesn’t. 

Take the controversies over sexuality and gender. In the Nineties it could be fun and even intellectually invigorating to read critical theories about subversion, but only because there were still dominant familial norms and none of the horror stories that provoked the Cass review. 

Take also the ubiquitous Ukrainian flags or the chanting of “From the river to the sea!”. In the unipolar 1990s conflicts could be distilled into a relatively straightforward good vs bad binary — exemplified by Blair’s intervention in Kosovo. 

Then there’s the housing crisis. In the Nineties you could still posture about “the many and the few” while being confident that nearly all people would be adequately housed via an affordable mortgage or social provision. 

Now there is the unpalatable reality that it is the many that have the houses. That is, the vastly greater number of people aged over 50 hold all the housing stock because they didn’t have enough babies either to maintain the economy or make younger generations a voting bloc sizeable enough to be worth caring about — and many of the migrants they welcomed now occupy what council housing remains. 

So who, then, are the true children of the Nineties? Is it those who see it as the end of an epoch because they accept that life has now become so radically different? Or is it those who pour scorn on such “nostalgia” because they’re still stuck in that decade? 

Fans of the Nineties aren’t deluded reactionaries, they are more like the Nietzschean madman in the marketplace, saying the 1990s are dead, but you don’t know that you killed them.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover