A History of My Lifetime | 1994: Smokescreen

Britain had been an island for eight thousand years, cut off from its continental neighbours by the English Channel. Suddenly it was no longer a barrier. An idea that had been floating around since eighteen hundred and two finally came to fruition and by the end of nineteen ninety four a person could finally travel between England and France without ever once having to see water. The Channel Tunnel was open for business and Britain was now well and truly connected to the continent, a part of Europe, seemingly forever. The actual breakthrough during construction, way back in December 1990, had been one of those significant moments in history, a moment where it looked as though the world was entering a new era of peace and brotherhood. It was a moment to celebrate.

Nelson Mandela

Over in South Africa, the first multi-racial elections, the first in which all citizens shared an equal vote, saw the victory of Nelson Mandela over incumbent president F.W De Klerk The apartheid regime had now well and truly been extinguished. Mandela, who had been imprisoned for almost thirty years due to his opposition to apartheid, would begin a process of rebuilding and reconciliation for his country. He would take a nation, torn apart by an evil regime, and he would make it something to be proud of. If he wasn’t already, he would become one of the shining examples of what a human being can be, of what a politician can be. His election as president of South Africa was another of those moments where it seemed that peace on earth might soon be on the cards. It was another moment to celebrate.

But as much as it looked like it was the start of a golden dawn for humanity, the sun was never to rise. Mandela was, sadly, a rare example on the political stage. Few other world leaders, even those who came to power long after him, followed in his footsteps or learned from his example. Though they might pretend to be guiding us to a better world, our leaders were doing no such thing. Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world had been a troubled place. Despite the moments where it looked like a golden dawn was due, the bigger picture revealed a planet that was diving headlong into chaos. The men and women who could have prevented it, those who could and should have learned from Mandela’s example, did nothing of the sort.

Ninety four, on the whole, would be a year that seemed to demonstrate this. On the whole it would promise peace and a better world, but looking back it was clear that this was all just a mirage.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, came into force on the first January. Clinton had been a prominent supporter of NAFTA during his election campaign, taking the opposite position to fellow candidate, Ross Perot, who prophesied it would bring nothing but doom and depression to the US. Perot was incredibly wrong and, ultimately, NAFTA was phenomenally good for business and trade, opening up neighbouring markets and creating trans-continental business partnerships. It brought significant wealth and prosperity to all signatories. Without it, it has been claimed, the US, Canada and Mexico would not be able to compete upon the world stage today.

Clinton signs NAFTA

Yet, NAFTA did have its darkside. Though it largely proved beneficial, the agreement itself was poorly constructed and resulted in more negative consequences than was necessary. The agreement exacerbated industrial decline in the US, with industries relocating to Mexico where labour and costs were significantly lower. Due to a non-unionised workforce, it allowed for the serious exploitation of Mexican workers. US companies were able to use the threat of moving to Mexico in order to stop workers joining trade unions and suppress wages. Food imports from the US crippled Mexican farmers and land belonging to indigenous Mexicans, which had hitherto been protected from privatisation, became an open target thanks to the privatisation protection being, allegedly, incompatible with the provisions of NAFTA. This even resulted in an uprising by the far-left Zapatista group, a group who are still active to this day.

NAFTA is still controversial and the double edged sword that it created is plain for all to see. Yes, the economic benefits are clear. Trade across the North American continent is thriving. NAFTA has allowed the continent to thrive and compete against other parts of the world in a way that the previous system would not have allowed. However, little has been done to alleviate or correct the problems it created. The problems have been allowed to fester, to grow worse. Exploitation of Mexican workers continues, as do the troubles of Mexican farmers. It has led to widespread immigration towards the US, a lot of it illegal. US industry, as industry has in much of the western world, has continued to decline, with the mid-west and the Great Lakes area being most affected. This region, which has become known as the rust belt, became a major source of support for Donald Trump when he made his bid to become president. Though NAFTA was not solely to blame for this decline, it was already happening before the agreement was put into place, it did accelerate the process and perhaps made it worse than it otherwise might have been.

Again, NAFTA looked like it was promising a new age of prosperity, and though some prosperity did result, it brought a lot of the opposite with it as well.

Meanwhile, away from the issue of trade, the Kremlin Accords, signed by Yeltsin and Clinton on the fourteenth of January, ended the practice whereby Russian and US nuclear weapons were routinely targeted at the other country. It marked another step in the long thawing of the Cold War, another hurdle away from the threat of mutually assured destruction that had dominated since the end of the Second World War. It signified that US-Russia relations would from now on be cordial and friendly. Gradually, and especially from the resignation of Yeltsin in 1999, the relationship would again turn sour and though nuclear weapons are still not automatically targeting D.C and Moscow as routine, tensions have still been brought to a point where that is once more a real possibility. Corruption and shady, warmongering practices in Moscow under Vladimir Putin and significant failures, diplomatic, military and political, orchestrated by the American State, especially under W. Bush and Trump, has allowed a new frost to develop and a second Cold War looks increasingly likely. Indeed, some are already saying it has begun.

Clinton and Yeltsin

Unlike the problems created by NAFTA, this could not have been forseen. In ninety four Putin was not yet the major player he would become. The corrupt Russian state that Putin would preside over, that which would pursue its own sinister agenda through the likes of electoral meddling and imperial bluster, had not yet come into being. There was little sign that it would. Few could have predicted the dark turn that would be taken by the Russian Federation towards the end of the Yeltsin presidency. Likewise, though to a lesser degree, nobody could have forseen the American imperialist agenda in the 2000s under W Bush, or how that would negatively impact both the US and its relations with the rest of the world. As Clinton and Yeltsin signed the Kremlin accords, there was absolutely no reason to suspect that relations would again turn sour. Things, for the foreseeable future, looked more or less cordial.

Moving into place at this time, visible beneath the veneer of peace that was being put about, were the pawns that would turn the world inside out. Iraq was causing trouble, a problem resulting from the failure to resolve the issue of Saddam Hussein at the end of the Gulf War. What became known as the Iraq Disarmament Crisis had been continuing ever since. Iraq refused to disarm, in accordance with UN resolutions. By September of ninety four they were once again threatening to invade Kuwait by placing troops near the border and in response the US would deploy its own troops to Kuwait, in order to pre-empt any threat of future invasion.

Whilst, looking back, this does appear to show that a second gulf conflict was inevitable, at the time it was not necessarily the case. Under repeated threats from the UN, Iraq did eventually back down, but the problems were not resolved forever. The disarmament crisis would flare up again and again and again, each time becoming more serious and raising the threat of a second conflict to the point where it did become inevitable.

nineteen ninety four would, in fact, see both of the key figures in that second conflict begin their march to power. At this point they were both relatively obscure but they would both go on to make a dramatic mark on the history books.

John Smith

Thanks to a series of scandals and an overly weak and hugely unpopular government under John Major, by the end of January ninety four Britain’s ruling Conservative party were trailing twenty points behind the Labour opposition in opinion polls. By April they had fallen yet further behind. Though this was by no means an absolute certainty, it was likely that at the following General Election the Prime Minister would become John Smith of Labour. Having succeeded Neil Kinnock after his failure to win the 1992 election, Smith had been slowly and cautiously reforming his party. Increasingly, throughout the eighties, Labour were seen as out dated and old fashioned, a party of left-wing agitators not fit to govern. Smith began to change that. He started to sever the party’s close links with the trade unions, giving them less overall power when it came to the governing of the party by removing the previous practice of bloc-voting, replacing it with a single vote for each member. His reforms, although moderate, were a significant step in the right direction. Smith was well aware that he had to balance all sides of a complex and diverse party, and not divide it between the right and left wings like it had been during the eighties. By keeping his reforms moderate and inextreme Smith was able (though only just barely) to both hold his party together and to make it appear, in the eyes of the British populace, to be fit for government. In this way he can be seen as a leader in the same vein as Harold Wilson, who attempted much the same thing in the sixties, though who was unsuccessful in the long term.

Sometimes, however, history takes a sudden twist. Unlike Wilson, Smith was never to become Prime Minister. On the 12th May nineteen ninety four Smith died of a heart attack.

What may have happened had he lived remains one of the greatest ‘what ifs’ in British political history. Instead of Smith, alas, the party would be guided for much of the next decade and a half by Anthony Blair, a man with (compared to others) little experience of front line politics and who was cut from a radically different cloth to Smith.

Whereas Smith had been state educated, born into a lower-middle class Scottish household, Blair was the privately educated son of a university lecturer. Though by no means aristocratic or upper class, Blair was still the product of a highly privileged upbringing.  Smith had been a highly principled man who held no truck with the politics of personality, preferring to focus on policy and serving the people, but Blair was the opposite. Blair was all personality, though his was a carefully cultivated and stage managed personality designed to appeal specifically to the voting public. It was all schmooze and smile and what has been dubbed as charisma.

Architects of ‘New Labour’- Anthony Blair and Gordon Brown

A more American style, casual approach and demeanour, especially when compared to other politicians of the day, who were still very stiff and formal and very professional when appearing on the public stage, made Blair stand out from the crowd. The British public would fall for his act- hook, line and sinker. They fell for the mirage, the idea that Blair was this charismatic, cool dude who’d pop round to your barbecue. What they failed to see was that, unlike the absolutely genuine John Smith, Blair was utterly and completely false. His charisma was nothing of the sort, merely the patois of a used car salesman. His whole public image was managed by a PR machine as oiled up as his patois. He was not a man who was genuine or honest, but who would tell people exactly what they wanted to hear, who would worm and slither. Blair was an archetypal example of The Emperor’s New Clothes, he looked all swishy and flash but underneath he was a very different sort of man.

But why did the public fall for this? Looking back it is easy to see the cracks and holes in Blair’s carefully coiffured image. In many of his speeches his sincerity is clearly lacking. It is almost, at times, as if he does not believe in what he is saying. His smile is blatantly false. There is something uneasy about the man, something untrustworthy. But people still fell for him.

We must remember that at the time all of Blair’s corruptions and deceptions had yet to be exposed. They would not be exposed until his second term in office. The British public had no reason not to trust him at this stage. The culture of ‘spin’ and ‘spin doctors’ was still an alien concept in British politics, at least on the public side of things, so it was less easy to see the lines between untruth, half-truth and reality. A lack of awareness meant that Blair’s schmoozy smokescreen stood a far stronger chance of taking people in, of duping them on a mass scale. We must also remember that his opposition, throughout Blair’s time as leader, was both fundamentally weak and headed by fundamentally weak politicians. John Major, William Hague and Michael Howard were all ineffective leaders and when put up against them Blair was made to look like the strong and charismatic personality he pretended to be. Even against David Cameron, when Blair was at his weakest, this was still true to some extent. Had Blair faced a strong opposition leader, someone of the likes of Margaret Thatcher for instance, he would not have had such an easy ride. His second face, his true face, would have been quickly exposed to the British public. He was merely lucky that he was in charge at a time of such weak opposition.

John Major

Blair would also seize upon the sole credit of reforming the Labour Party. In the wake of more radical reforms (such as the removal of Clause IV of the constitution, which committed the party to nationalisation) and a complete rebranding of the party, which was dubbed as ‘New Labour, the moderate reforms and the slow work of his predecessors would be forgotten. Smith and Kinnock before him would become footnotes in the public consciousness. Kinnock, today, is only really remembered for his defeat in the 1992 election and Smith, if he is mentioned at all, only for the fact that his death was so sudden and that it paved the way for Blair to become leader. Little is made of their attempts at moderate reform, to restore the party to a position where they were seen as fit to govern. Without them, Blair would never have been in any sort of position to even challenge John Major’s position. Without them, Blair would have been nothing.

Over in the US the main instigator of the second gulf conflict was also moving into position. Son of former president George Bush, George W Bush was elected as Governor of Texas in November, during an election period that would also see Clinton lose control of both the Senate and House of Representatives. He had previously attempted to run for the House of Representatives and failed, though he had also been his father’s campaign advisor in 1988 and 1992. He was not without political experience, but, in the same manner as Blair, what experience he did have was limited.

Together these two men would go on to shape the political landscape well into the twenty first century. British and US politics, even world affairs, are still being shaped by their actions. The ghost of Blair, in particular, still haunts Westminster and the Labour party. Neither man would take the example that Nelson Mandela would set in South Africa. Neither man would become the leader, the politician, that both countries deserved and needed. Instead of serving the people, as was John Smith’s philosophy, instead of a program of peace, rebuilding and reconciliation, as Mandela followed, they would pursue their own agenda to disastrous effect. Bush would attempt to remedy the failings of his Father, initiating that second gulf conflict, and Blair, lusting for glory and desperate to leave a mark on history, would blindly follow. The world would suffer because of these two men who were now moving towards power.

Overall, nineteen ninety four was a quiet year for much of the world. Though there was some violence, in the Balkans for example, it was nowhere near on the same scale as it had been for the previous few years. There were few overly dramatic political events and very few earth shattering events. Yet, the stage was being set for the future. The men who would shape that future were moving into position. It could not be predicted, but looking at some of the things that were happening a person could have been forgiven for thinking that it was going to be some kind of golden age of peace. Peeling back the curtain would reveal the truth, that the pieces now moving around the chess board would bring sorrow in their wake.


Nelson Mandela- sahistory.org.za

Clinton signs NAFTA- cdn.history.com

Clinton and Yeltsin- cdn.history.com

John Smith- BBC News

Blair and Brown- Independent.co.uk

John Major- londonglossy.com




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