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Birmingham Six Released

Total eclipse of the Sun

Good Friday Agreement

Diana Admits Adultery

Poll Tax Riots

Britain in the Nineties

It was a very different sort of tension that waved goodbye to the 1990s than that which ushered the decade in with quarrel and disorder. 1999 was the year where pre-millennium anxieties seemed like a quaintly held sci-fi irrationality rather than a bold, capitalised pronouncement of the Apocalypse. And that was the effect the 1990s had on Britain. What with the sustained and soporific media spin of the Labour Party under Tony Blair , delivering in 1994 the country's first change in government in fifteen years, perhaps the country was numbed, or had forgotten the last few months of Margaret Thatcher's reign as prime minister. After all, the millennium bug as it was known did seem overly paranoid for such a rational, stoic lot as the British public. Planes falling out of the sky, hospital equipment failing, personal computers coughing their last, even microwave ovens and digital alarm clocks were not spared: the millennium bug, or the Y2K problem cloaked the IT world in panic. But really, it was fanciful, appearing as merely an aside to ever day living, a minor scare for everyone to invest in. As if the date would roll to '00 and society would be deleted. Arguably, though, society had already been deleted - or at least denounced by Margaret Thatcher. After a decade in power, aligning the country to the monetarist ideals of Conservatism, Thatcher had presided over the oft-brutal landscaping of the British economy and society. Thatcher's resolve - once a source of strength, seeing off the crises such as the Miners' Strikes - was now looking like stubbornness, hubris even.
In an attempt to solve the perpetually vexing issue of local taxation, the Conservative government under Thatcher replaced the rates based system with the Community Charge, the so-called poll-tax, which charged households according to how many people resided in their property. It never took into account the ability to pay, or the inhabitants' income and was a disaster for the government, for Thatcher in particular. Poll tax offices across the length and breadth of the country were picketed. Anti-poll tax demonstrations were seemingly a weekly pursuit. 'Pay No Poll Tax' was a legend daubed on urban Britain's walls. Labour MP Terry Fields took it literally and was jailed for 60 days for not paying his. The most notorious eruption of public ire, however, took place on the 31st March 1990 . A 200,000-strong demonstration had gathered in London , a turnout far exceeding expectations. What began as a peaceful demonstration ended in disorder. The Battle Of Trafalgar Square , as it became known, saw cars overturned and set on fire, shops looted and 340 arrested. Police blamed a minority for the violence. 113 people were hurt during the disturbances. Riots were all the rage that weekend; as London recovered, inmates at Strangeways Prison in Manchester embarked on a riot-cum-siege that lasted 25 days. The media coverage was sensational. By the time the siege ended, two men, a prison officer and an inmate had died, 200 were injured. 55 million was required to repair the prison building. Lord Woolf's enquiry into the riot tackled overcrowding at the prison and recommended ending the practice of slopping out.
Public affray didn't continue throughout the decade. Mercifully, Britain calmed down. The first Iraq War
saw Britain joining a US-led UN coalition in the Persian Gulf, after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein led his troops into Kuwait. Commencing with an aerial bombardment on the 16th January 1991 before ground troops entering Kuwait a week later, Operation Desert Storm didn't unseat Hussein but it did send his forces packing from Kuwait. Elsewhere, the news from the Middle East was more positive. There were celebrations in 1991 when hostages Jackie Mann, John McCarthy and Terry Waite were freed by Islamic militant groups having been seized and held captive in Lebanon. Journalist McCarthy was freed on the 8th August after more than five years in captivity. Former Spitfire pilot, British war hero and Lebanon resident of some 40 years, Jackie Mann was released on the 24 September. Waite, an envoy for the Church Of England, was released on the 18th November. The kidnappings were indicative of how dangerous Lebanon had become for westerners in the 1980s.
In what was perhaps the biggest Anglo-French project since Concorde , the Channel Tunnel opened on the 6th May 1994 , connecting Folkestone with Coquelles. Grossly over budget, the Chunnel was a remarkable feat of civil engineering. 50km long, over three-quarters of its length under the English Channel, with three tunnels burrowing at an average of 40m below the sea bed; Britain and France had never been closer. Taking its first passengers on the 14th November, the channel tunnel offered nervous flyers and landlubbers a third option to get to and from France, and made popular the Channel booze cruise, with thirsty Britons nipping across to stock up on discounted beer and wine. How very continental.
Never one to be enamoured with the European Community's advances, preferring to minimise the role of state governance in all its guises, Margaret Thatcher found herself politically isolated during the 1990s. She wouldn't last long through cabinet mutiny and multitudinous pressures arising from the mismanagement of the poll tax issue. When deputy prime minister Geoffrey Howe resigned from cabinet on the 1st November 1990, Thatcher's time was nigh. Howe's resignation speech on the 13th November effectively ended Thatcher's tenure. Michael Heseltine made a bid for the Conservative leadership. It would not be contested. Thatcher resigned on 22nd November . The following year, Thatcher's replacement, John Major , pulled off an unlikely election victory against Neil Kinnock 's Labour party. Labour were ahead in the polls. But Major boxed clever, literally. It would be known as the Soap Box election. Britain was in recession. Things didn't look too bright for the Conservatives. But the Gulf War helped swing things in Major's favour. Factor in Major's pugnacious electioneering, taking to his soapbox around Britain and crouching into attack dog position, he sunk his canines into the rump of Kinnock's taxation policy. Kinnock's presidential campaign didn't resonate with the electorate. It was Labour who needed to rebrand.
It was a difficult decade for the Royal Family, too. Buckingham Palace was opened to tourists in 1994 as what could be seen as a way of making the monarchy in touch with the people. At a time when the Royal Family were stirred by scandal, with Prince Andrew separating from his wife Sarah Ferguson and a carnivorous fleet of daily newspapers hungry for stories concerning Charles Prince of Wales and Princess Diana 's relationship, Palace officials must have filed some impressive overtime in the early 1990s. Windsor Castle suffered severe fire damage in November 1992 too - this was the Queen's 'annus miserablis'. Charles and Diana's fairytale wedding was long forgotten. Separated some years before, the couple divorced in August 1996 at the Queen and the Church Of England's behest. Taking the title Diana Princess Of Wales, Diana's life was sifted through by the media on a 24-hour basis. Her relationship with Harrod 's chairman Mohammed Al Fayed's son, Dodi, was an obsession amongst the red tops, one which continued long after her death. Diana and Dodi died on the 31st August 1997 , when their car hit the Pont de L'Alma tunnel in Paris. Their driver Henri Paul was also killed. Nearly 33 million people watched her funeral service , televised live from Westminster Abbey .
The 1990s saw the establishment of Premiership Football , with the new premier league in England in place for season 1992/93. Rupert Murdoch's satellite television empire would deconsecrate 3 O'Clock kick-offs on a Saturday. Rugby Union went professional in 1995. Even the Church Of England were modernising, with woman priests ordained for the first time in 1994. Amongst the prevailing catalysts for change was a media that now provided 24-hour coverage - the BBC launched News 24 in November 1997. And so it was no surprise that by the time the 1997 general election was contested, the frontline for campaigning was on the television. There was a box office cool about the Labour Party under Tony Blair. After becoming leader in July 1994 following the death of John Smith , Blair distanced the party from its reputation, the union-led, unelectable party of the late 1970s. Recording a landslide win on the 1st May 1997 , boasting a majority of 179 seats, Blair's new broom swept through huge constitutional changes. Wales and Scotland were offered referendums on devolution - both voting yes to home rule. The Bank Of England was afforded greater independence, and now controlled interest rates. In Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement brokered a template for peace, coming into effect on the 2nd December 1999. Far from the turbulence that ushered in the decade, Britain saw out the 1990s with a sense of optimism over a country rebranded, and all that unnecessary tension concerning the date.

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A young man who isn't a socialist hasn't got a heart; an old man who is a socialist hasn't got a head. - David Lloyd George
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On this day:
The Last public hanging - 1868, Prince of Wales Opens Vauxhall Bridge - 1906, British Find Oil in Persia - 1908, First Female Magistrate Appointed - 1913, First ever Glyndebourne - 1934
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