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Cruel Britannia

Government and culture do not mix.. just look what happened last time

Image: TNE

One of the greatest imaginable oxymorons – and one that would, in time, come to haunt Tony Blair’s premiership – is “military intelligence”. But I’d argue that it’s internally self-destructing forerunner – the mind-child, if you like, of what came to be the collective anoesis of the British establishment – was “Cool Britannia”.

An understanding of this might help an incoming Labour government, so dissuading it from making the same mistakes and expecting different results, but I doubt it. Such folly is deeply encrypted in Britain’s electoral cycle, which, with its busy go-round ceaselessly churns up the waters of Lethe, and renders the events of three years ago – let alone 30 – ancient and irrelevant history.

But before we get on to discussing the naughty nineties, let’s consider some general features of the relationship between political regimes and cultural eras. It’s a sad truth about our world – and one those who haven’t graduated from Utopian kindergarten can never grasp – that all too often the best culture, considered as the finest artistic productions of a given society, is most often created during periods of decadence – if not outright decline – and hardly ever during ones of stability and prosperity.

If we wish, therefore, to speak of Cool Britannia, we must also be prepared to speak of the Wicked Weimar years or the Epic Edwardian era. In all three instances the aim of adding this notionally hip and iconoclastic intensifier is to – let’s face it – sell stuff, but only in the case of Cool Britannia was this a social, political and indeed historical solecism, as well as merchandising. A mistake, the consequences of which are all around us.

But before we get on to the tepid afterlife of Cool Britannia, let’s consider that “cool” in a little more detail: African-American slang to describe the state of ataraxy required to withstand a systemically racist society, its sloppy adoption by the white youth subcultures of the 1950s and 60s is simply evidence of the way cultural hegemons behave: it is, if you like, an anthropological constant, whereby the Other is defanged and corralled, while the hegemon’s dominance is reinforced.

Cool Britannia is next level though – and given that “Britannia” is exclusively a late 19th-century conception of this archipelago and its genius loci, on consideration it’s as insensitive an appellation as, um, Cool Conquistadors, Brilliant Boers, or Sweet Sabras for that matter. But then the whole “Call me Tony” New Labour regime subscribed to this bizarre credo: that popularity alone, plus an Estuarine accent, was enough to effect equality, leaving the real movers and shapers of this world (T Blair, net wealth currently estimated at £47.35m) to be – in the immortal words of Peter Mandelson: “Seriously comfortable about people being seriously rich.”

The uniting of this ambition together with espoused Christianity in the character of a Labour leader who didn’t so much swing to the right during the election of 1997, as triangulate and focus-group his way there, looks a lot like the same sort of hypocrisy – nay, cynicism – that informs Cool Britannia. And it’s this that I also blame for the absurd faux egalitarianism that typifies the public realm in contemporary Britain. Just because you can call someone Tony, it doesn’t mean you have the same privileges – and even rights – as a multimillionaire. To pretend otherwise is, by definition, deeply uncool.

“We’re all Labour now,” the late Martin Amis ringingly declared a year or so before that historic landslide. He was right, if he meant by this that almost anyone in Britain with cultural pretensions (I know: a tautology to vie with those oxymorons), was fed up to the back teeth with a manifestly corrupt Tory administration – one that for 18 years had pretty much ridden roughshod over what remained of the postwar consensus, beginning by flogging off those homes fit for heroes – while having very little idea of which direction in which to turn besides that of, duh, the other party in a political system that has long since reduced all dialectics to crude binaries.

And it’s true: inasmuch as anything cultural can be esteemed cool, almost all the cool things that came out of Britain in 1990s – from Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, to Oasis’s What’s the Story (Morning Glory), to Blur’s Parklife, to Trainspotting (novel and film adaptation), to Sarah Kane’s Blasted, to, well… arguably Amis’s own The Information, which was pretty much the last of his books to be even remotely gelid – was produced prior to Labour gaining power.

Moreover, all the wiggy goings on we associate with the counter-cultures of this period – from the illegal car racing known as “hotting”, to the acid house raves organised around the M25, to the crazed peregrinations of the crusties’ Peace Convoy, to the roads protests in east London and Newbury – all took place before 1997, and involved young people to whom Amis’s universalism almost certainly didn’t apply.

Apropos the last point: if true cool is at all attainable by anyone besides, say, Charlie Parker in 1953, then it definitely belongs to the young, in whom attitudinising remains acceptable, and even creatively productive. Britain was already an ageing society in 1997 – it’s an even older and uncooler one now. Anyway, the result is: New Labour’s Cool Britannia capitalised on the culture that subsisted in the crumbling, inegalitarian “there is no such thing as society”, that was Thatcher’s mind-child.

Damien Hirst’s 1988 Freeze exhibition, which he curated in an abandoned industrial premises, took place in what was about to become Canary Wharf, London’s second metonymic centre of finance capitalism (as if we needed another), and was financed by the tax-avoiding quango, the London Docklands Authority, that Thatcher had herself created. This stands as the signature cultural event of Cool Britannia; because Hirst – and the group of artists around him, known as the YBAs (Young British Artists), moved in nine short years from being edgy shark- and sheep-stuffing outsiders, to being exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Indeed, the Sensation exhibition of 1997 at the RA, deserves to be seen as the apogee of Cool Britannia: the point when the rocket poised hovering on the launchpad for a few moments – before exploding into a frenzied commercial sellout, that would only end up with Hirst worth a third of a billion, much of it garnered from the funny-money activities of oligarchs and international financiers. No, if you think Johnny Rotten doing TV ads for Utterly Butterly is the acme of selling out – think again.

The whole Cool Britannia exercise was about selling right out – true, within weeks of Anarchy in the UK topping the charts, street vendors were flogging knock-off “punk” memorabilia on the King’s Road, right alongside McLaren and Westwood’s Sex boutique, where it all began – but this was mere child’s play compared with the way, in the mid-1990s, the Union Jack began to be plastered over every biscuit tin, plastic mac, manhole cover and cheese wrapper available.

In the Britain of 2024, where no musician can make a living at all without commercial sponsorship, and the Glastonbury Festival is an exercise in corporate glamping rather than hippy navel-gazing, the concept of “selling out” simply doesn’t exist any more: Blair’s Cool Britannia was the plastination of what remained of Labour’s aspiration to socialism, and like the human cadavers in Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibitions (the first was held in Japan in 1995), it set the seal on what, increasingly, became an antiseptic and wipeable culture – one dependent on a facile clarity, rather than any subtleties of appearances and disclosures, and gross anatomy, rather than a feel for diagnostics.

Yes, yes, such a joy it was to be alive on that May morning, as Tony and Cherie glad-handed joyful citizens delivered from the hell of Thatcherism, en route on foot to their new gaff, looking youthful and… cool. An appearance of freshness that lasted for at least a few hours until some snide hack found out many of the joyful citizens were in fact Labour Party workers bussed in from the sticks.

This tendency to create Potemkin villages of one kind or another was very much Cool Britannia’s signature style: the parametrically designed architecture of the new Academy schools and NHS Trust hospitals New Labour built by handing financiers a generous lien on all our children’s incomes unto their graves, and their children’s children’s, as if it were some fucked-up Abrahamic covenant, all feel glassily insubstantial – an origami of glass and dubious cladding. Trust me: along with the tall building clusters which now sprout from most British cities, and which no doubt Tony Blair thinks look, um, cool, these vital elements of our national infrastructure have also been built to short-term specifications, and will be gone long before they’ve been paid for.

But then that was Blairism in a nutshell: the government buy now – the people pay later. Blair was a self-confessed air guitarist, whose student band was called Ugly Rumours. The receptions the Blairs held at Downing Street in the first few weeks of the new government were publicised at the time as a sort of thank you to that great groundswell of “We’re all Labour now” adverted to by Amis.

But there were some ugly rumours even at the time – Damon Albarn of Blur, whose great battle of the bands with the Gallagher brothers’ Oasis reached a crescendo in August of 1995, 18 months before Labour gained power, said in an interview with the Independent a decade later that he’d already “seen through” the wipeable Blair, and declined the invite. Pity he didn’t decline an OBE from a Tory premier as well; but still, that was years later, after Albarn had turned himself into a caricature of the Brit-popper he once was.

What’s notable in that decadent reassessment in the Independent of Cool Britannia, is how dated 2007 seems – in a way, far more historic than 1997. It’s as if the debacle of Iraq – which came in the wake of that other, yet more minatory oxymoron – somehow freeze-dried New Labour’s first term, preserving it in a ghastly Richard Curtis-penned saccharine-pastel nightmare of faux inclusivity and happiness.

Yes: Love Actually (2003), which features Hugh Grant, no less – a man far more beloved by the current British electorate than TB – playing a really rather nice and decent British prime minister, is unquestionably the signature artwork of Cool Britannia.

Theodor Adorno, the high heresiarch of cultural criticism, averred that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” So, let’s face it, to allow such lukewarm pap to give you a warm sentimental feeling after the depleted uranium ordnance Britain’s allies shelled men, women and children with in Fallujah burnt their flesh to an ashen crisp, is all rather worse than merely naff (still the early 2000s demotic for “uncool”).

The likes of Meg Matthews (who she? – Ed), Nick Park, Vivienne Westwood, Tony Robinson, Anita Roddick, and Baron Henry of Premier Inn, who give the plastinated surface of Cool Britannia a wipe with their own personal populist J-Cloth in the closing months of 1997, tell their own story about the almost cosmic reverse-ferret that was the Blair regime. Yes, it seems – even to me, who spoke at the first public meeting of Stop the War, within 72 hours of the attacks on the Twin Towers – like grandstanding, to hear almost all these formerly favoured folk disclaiming any association with Cool Britannia because of Blair’s questionable behaviour during the run-up to the 2003 invasion.

However, I can’t feel too aggrieved by the hypocrisy of Westwood et al., given quite so many of them are… dead. Indeed, that’s what’s most salient about the Cool Britons who attended those receptions now – their recumbence. As I noted above, Britain was an old country in 1997, and it’s an older one in 2024 – which means the kidult phase of human existence is being indefinitely prolonged in a giant orgy of online commerce, dating, and generally wanking into a designer sock. Because that’s where Cool Britannia began and ended: in the chiller cabinet drawer, in the spiritually dead morgue of commodification.

Besides the age of these cool valetudinarians in 1997, what’s striking about them from a contemporary perspective is how white and male they still were: Baron Henry one of the only black people, Roddick, Westwood and Matthews (who she? – Ed), also, withal the electoral breakthrough of “Blair’s Babes”, still in a minority. I could go on about how during the late 1990s, Cool Britannia was reheated in the form of the obsession the British bourgeoisie developed with gastronomy in the late 1990s, and through the noughties: a grotesque fanfaronade, whereby focaccia came to substitute for Boccaccio – but you’ve heard that old tune from me so many times it sounds like… an Oasis guitar riff, or an airy Blair one.

No: if I were to attempt to issue any true admonition to the incoming Starmer administration when it comes to their kulturkampf (and no, I’m not expecting to be summoned to Downing Street in this capacity any time soon… or ever), it would be to consider style over substance: the Blair regime, inasmuch as it looked culturally cool at all, did so by capitalising on large-scale social changes – the acceptance of gay and trans people, the rejection of smoking – they played no part in fomenting. The one major policy change that took place during 1997-2010 that bears on Britannia’s coolness – or lack thereof – was Labour’s general openness towards borders.

And of course, it’s arguably this that’s propelled us into a situation where the oxymoron is even more oxymoronic: after all, Britain is a blacker country in 2024 than it was in 1997 – while it’s also one in which those who believe in an imperialist rearguard action against cosmopolitanism as some kind of Götterdämmerung have been in the ascendant for quite a while now, building aircraft carriers so Britannia can once more rule the waves, while deporting the descendants of her slaves…

Same shit, right – different souvenir bottles and biscuit tins.

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