A History Of My Lifetime | 1992: Division

It was the year Queen Elizabeth would refer to as her annus horibilis. First came the separations of all her married children. Being a devout Christian and against that sort of thing was difficult enough for her but to make matters worse there was a notorious toe-sucking incident involving the Duchess of York, a kiss and tell memoir from Princess Diana, the publication of a series of vomitorious phone calls made by the aforementioned Princess to a friend of hers (James Gilbey), the revelation that Prince Charles had been having it off with Camilla Parker Bowles (and yet more published phone calls), a large fire which burnt down part of Windsor Castle and then, as if fate itself were conspiring against her, she had to start paying income tax. Then she began a lawsuit against The Sun after they published the Christmas message two days before Christmas. Support for the monarchy (though not the Queen herself) was at a very low ebb.

But whilst the Queen was spiralling through a vortex of endless despair, how was the rest of the world coping? The previous year had been one of extreme violence and bloodshed and as it drew to a close all of that looked set to continue. However, in the end, 1992 would turn out to be a much quieter year than its predecessor, although one that would have enormous ramifications for the future.

The fire at Windsor (courtesy of Windsorexpress.co.uk)

On February 7th the twelve member states of what was then known as the European Economic Community signed a new treaty, the Maastricht treaty. When enforced it would rebrand the EEC as the European Union, bringing the continent together into a single entity, not just politically but economically. Most importantly, the treaty brought about the creation of one currency for the entire continent, the Euro, which would be brought into being over the following decade. The new union would spread the remit of the old EEC, branching into foreign affairs, military and judicial matters.

It would not come to pass easily. Unsurprisingly the British had their protests- When John Major, who despite managing to secure an opt-out from the social provisions of the treaty, tried to pass the treaty through the House of Commons he was met with fierce resistance from his own party and much of the opposition. The split was three ways with the opposition opposed to the opt-out and many of the party rebels opposed to the treaty as a whole, believing that it took sovereignty away from the British people and parliament. The following year the treaty passed by a narrow margin, opt-out intact. However, when Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997 he would reverse that opt-out and sign Britain into the social chapter.

Denmark and France too would have their qualms and divisions. The Danes held a referendum on the treaty and rejected it. It was only after exceptions were granted to Denmark, an opt-out from the single currency for example, that a second referendum allowed the Danish government to ratify the treaty. A French referendum would pass the treaty but at just over fifty percent voting in favour it was perilously close. Uncertainty over the treaty was, you could say, widespread across the twelve member states and this would have consequences. For one thing it set a precedent which meant that the fledgling EU would never be on any kind of stable footings. There would always be tensions and divisions of some kind. Nowhere was this more the case than in the UK where international relations would become strained and the very subject of the EU would be a divisive one, eventually becoming the subject of a national discourse. The divisions caused Maastricht would not disappear and Britain as a whole would remain split. Many of the issues dividing people today are the same that divided them in 92, the same caused by Maastricht.

Chancellor Norman Lamont gives a Press Conference after Black Wednesday. (Courtesy of Marketwatch.com)

A more immediate consequence of Maastricht was that those currencies linked to the exchange rate mechanism, which Britain had joined in 1990, were put under pressure, although Maastricht was not solely the cause. Artificially high German interest rates and the decline of the US dollar also played their part but the instability created by the rejection of Maastricht certainly made matters considerably worse and was something of a final nail in the coffin. When the crash came on 16th September, an event known as Black Wednesday, Britain was forced to withdraw from the mechanism, strengthening the arguments of the Anti-EU, Anti-Maastricht lobby. Italy was also forced to withdraw the Lira but their situation was not so precarious as Britain’s was. Italy and other countries that were affected were later able to rejoin the ERM but Britain was not. In Britain the situation would be worsened by the actions of speculators, the likes of George Soros, who sought to cash in on the collapse of the pound and ineffective government interventions.

In terms of Major’s premiership the collapse of the pound, withdrawal from the exchange rate mechanism and the recession that followed had a long lasting negative impact. Although Major had won the 1992 election by a majority of ten (higher than David Cameron’s majority at the 2015 election) his popularity plummeted and never recovered. The Conservative party would not win another election outright until David Cameron in 2015. Maastricht not only split the party but the consequences, the fallout from the collapse of the pound and the exchange rate mechanism, damaged them in the eyes of the public for a long time to come. In many ways we are also still living with the fallout which the divisions created.

Meanwhile, in the US, 1992 was also an election year and things did not go well on the part of George Bush Sr. Bush had reneged on his previous election promise not to raise taxes, a pledge that it has been said helped him to the presidency in the first place. Although this had alienated him from some members of the Conservative grassroots, it did little to dent his overall approval rating. His eventual loss was more due to the decline of the US economy, a feeling that the Gulf War had not been satisfactorily resolved and his lack of charisma compared to that of his opponents. His health did not look to be in good shape either, especially after he was filmed vomiting into the lap of the Japanese Prime Minister and then fainting.

The first of the two men he was up against was Ross Perot, a Texan businessman who quickly became the focus of a populist movement against the then current breed of politicians.  He was seen by his supporters as an alternative to the mainstream but by his opponents as an angry authoritarian. At one point he was leading in the polls but after a combination of poor campaign management, a team not skilled in any political sense and intense press scrutiny he dropped out of the race. At the last minute, in October, he re-entered citing the fact that he wished to ‘explain his economic plans to the American people.’ Any gains he had made before dropping out of the race were lost and at the end he only placed third, behind Bush and the winning candidate, Clinton.

Bill Clinton (Official image, US Public Domain, courtesy of Wikimedia)

William J. Clinton, commonly known as Bill, had twice been Governor of Arkansas (between 1979 and 81 and since 83) and at the start of proceedings was seen as an outsider candidate, looking as though he would place in third behind Bush and Perot. Following that year’s Democratic convention Clinton’s poll ratings received the largest post-convention rise in history. He was labelled as ‘the comeback kid’ and over the following few months the Bush bandwagon faltered further and resorted to defaming Clinton’s character. They accused him of dodging the Vietnam draft but these accusations failed to stick. With 43% of the popular vote and 370 Electoral College votes Clinton won the presidency by a comfortable margin.

Bush’s presidency had seen the promise of a ‘brave new world,’ one in which America would effectively take control in policing the world. It was a flawed policy, one which would only be enacted where the policing would serve American interests and not where it was needed most. The Gulf war and the conflict in the Balkans provide a prominent example. Whilst the US did get involved to stop the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, a conflict that would go on to have severe ramifications, there was no such involvement when the Yugoslav conflict erupted the same year. The US would not become involved until 1994 when they negotiated a peace between Bosniaks and Serbs and they wouldn’t become militarily involved until the following year when, as a part of NATO, ‘Operation Deliberate Force’ began.

1992 would see that conflict in the Balkans escalate, spreading from Croatia into Bosnia. In Bosnia it began, as had the war in Croatia the previous year, with the declaration of independence and it was again a war fuelled by the desire of the Serb nationalists not wanting to be independent from Yugoslavia. It should be noted that many of the Bosnian Serbs either boycotted the independence referendum or were prevented from voting by Serb authorities, meaning that the war which followed was, sadly, inevitable.

The violence began soon after the referendum with a shooting at a Serb wedding, in which the father of the groom and a priest were killed. Serb forces then began to target several major towns and the capital, Sarajevo, would begin to suffer the longest siege in modern warfare, lasting just under four years. In that time there would be almost fourteen thousand casualties, five and a half thousand of which were civilians.

By the end of the year, with the Croatian war ongoing, the situation in the Balkans had becoming a major crisis. Whilst there was UN assistance in the form of Vance Plan for Serb controlled areas of Croatia, and whilst this did stop most of the fighting, in the rest of the Balkans little assistance was given. Sanctions were placed on Yugoslavia although these only served to make matters worse. The lack of international involvement in the early stages of the war shows how little importance the region held in the eyes of the major world powers. In particular it shows how the US had only ever been interested in itself, and what could benefit itself, and the not the general state of the world as Bush’s new world order suggested it was.

As in the previous year the world was still a very volatile place, with the escalating war in the Balkans being only the ugly tip of the iceberg. In London, only a day after the election, the provisional IRA exploded a bomb outside the Baltic Exchange building, killing three and injuring a further ninety one. Ultimately proving too damaged and too expensive to restore, the building was sold and demolished, with the iconic Gherkin building being constructed in its place.

Smoke over LA (courtesy of the LA Times)

Worse violence occurred in the US, in the form of the LA riots. The previous year taxi driver Rodney King and two passengers, Bryant Allen and Freddie Helms, had become involved in a high speed chase with police and after the successful halting of the vehicle several police officers proceeded to assault the three men, with King receiving the worst of it. The incident was filmed from a nearby apartment and the footage spread around the world. These days, whenever an incident occurs, it is fairly common place to see amateur footage used on the news but this was one of the first ever uses of such a thing and would go on to have an enormous impact on the events which followed.

Although there was a suggestion and some evidence that King resisted arrest, the footage clearly showed that there was unnecessary and excessive violence on behalf of the involved police officers. The widespread attention which the footage garnered meant that it came as a shock when a year later the policemen were acquitted, considerably moreso than if it had been an unfilmed incident. The fallout was six days of rioting. This was not just in one area, as with many riots in major cities, but across of much of LA, with the main concentration being in the African American dominated south central district. With the police unable to control the rising tensions, during which fifty five people were killed, two thousand injured and over eleven thousand arrested, the army was eventually called in to quell the situation. The damage caused was estimated to have been in the region of one billion dollars.

The riots highlighted a deep division in American society, one that exists to this day. Many rioters were from the poorest, most underprivileged districts of LA, districts like south central, and the incidents served to highlight an enormous gap between the richest and the least well off, that economic inequality was endemic to the US. On top of this it showed that racial inequality was still well embedded into the culture. Despite enormous strides thanks to and since the civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties, it was still the attitude amongst certain groups, such as the police force, that African Americans and other ethnic groups were inferior to white, European descended Americans. Officers such as those involved with the Rodney King incident no doubt believed in their own superiority and their right do as they pleased. The fact that similar incidents still happen, across America, shows that very little has changed in the intervening years. The lessons of the LA riots and the events leading up to it have largely not been learned or indeed acted upon.

1992 was certainly quiet compared to previous years but tensions that had begun simmering were now starting to boil over. Already the consequences were beginning to show. This year was a year of division, in Britain over Europe and Maastricht, in the US, in the Balkans. Little attempt was made to heal any of those divisions and they would be left to fester. Lessons were not learned and we are still, unfortunately, living with the consequences today.


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