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17 August 2021

From the NS archive: Cool Britannia’s big chill

10 April 1998: The government’s repackaging of the national image continues apace. But it’s driven by an obsession with populism, not innovation.

By Hugh Aldersey-Williams

In this article, the author and journalist Hugh Aldersey-Williams reviews “Powerhouse::UK”, an exhibition commissioned soon after Tony Blair came to power and designed to show “how Britain leads the world in terms of diversity, the individuality and the sheer energy that makes up its creative industries”. In 1998 footballers, pop stars and fashion designers were already queuing up to disown the idea of “Cool Britannia”, Aldersey-Williams writes; even the trendy NME, once supportive of Tony Blair, had turned its back on him. The exhibition’s talking heads, “responding to their standard prompts about Britain, remain willing, or unwitting, propagandists for an invented national image”. And here lies the problem with “Cool Britannia”: while “fascist and communist regimes constructed their iconography”, “this is a reverse process, in which a government tries on the raiment of its people in order to win their favour”. But what happens to that strategy when the people change their minds?

***

While transferring books to the new British Library, philologists have discovered some lost pages of Johnson’s Dictionary. We publish here some of the missing entries.

Britannia: the figurehead of these islands;

Cool B: a mall disturbance of the equilibrium temperature of these islands made to seem significant by journalistic hot air;

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Millennium: an arbitrary date;

M Dome: an arbitrary dome;

M Products: thing to place in the M Dome;

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Powerhouse: a facility for generating publicity;

Creative industries: businesses run by people who don’t wear suits;

Rose: i) a flower; ii) a romantic symbol of England; iii) past of rise.

Let’s start at the top. I think Tony Blair may have underestimated the importance of hair. Margaret Thatcher’s image-making is remembered for two things: the lowering of the tone of her voice and the softening of her hair. Blair is up to his neck in Cool Britannia. But he should go in deeper and restyle his hair in the manner of the designer he so admires. A year in office has already thinned his thatch. He should bow to the inevitable and lay bare that impending bald crown; the rest should be savagely cut to a stubble.

Then he might look a bit like Nigel Coates, the architect of the “Powerhouse::UK” exhibition, or the product innovator Paul Priestman, or the fashion designer Hussein Chalayan, who are among the many British creative figure whose work is featured in it. Last week Blair escorted leader from Europe and Asia through Powerhouse’s cloverleaf of four inflatable silver chambers. What must they have made of it? Maybe they were impressed. But maybe some of them took secret solace. The “Lifestyle” lobe contain a Generation Game-style conveyor belt with designs by leading British lights, most of it manufactured by the Italians, Germans and Japanese.

The “Networking” section is filled with the noise of trimphones. “Communicating” contains a model of the Dome and other state-of-the-art packaging, while a Scalextric track dotted with buses and taxis slices through them. I get no answer from the “invigilators”, taking a moment out from organising their Grand National sweepstake, when I ask why the buses aren’t running. No change there, then.

The most satisfying theme, although the least well presented, was “Learning”. Displayed in greenhouses (catch that metaphor) was the work of Createc, the digital offshoot of the government-backed film school at Ealing Studios; a robot insect constructed at Sussex University; and user-friendly gadgets imagined by the computer-related design department of the Royal College of Art. Throughout, Powerhouse designers appear on monitors telling us embarrassedly why Britain’s so great and what their aims are. “We’d like to create more awareness,” one says.

How much more awareness can we take? Gordon Brown claims to hear Oasis through the walls from next door. But on 1 April it was Robin Cook who emerged as Cool Britannia’s beau, at the announcement of Panel 2000, the latest taskforce of 33 people whose job it will be to consider how to present Britain abroad. He liked the ice cream of the same name, he quipped. The next day Ben and Jerry’s said it would be dropping the flavour from its range. Vermont’s dynamic duo could hardly have guessed it would be so short-lived, especially after they had been canny enough to avoid choosing one of the runner-up names for their British product, Charles and Di Split.

It’s not only this manufacturer of cool that is distancing itself from Cool Britannia. Footballers, fashion designers and pop stars are queuing up to disown the idea. The suddenly influential NME has moved from calling Blair the “hippest prime minister in history” last May to devoting a clutch of pages to musicians’ rejection of the government’s attempt to schmooze them. The star-struck Blair invites them to his parties at No 10; but really he’d like to be invited to theirs. Other creative industries have yet to show signs of rebellion. The close-cropped talking heads in Powerhouse, responding to their standard prompts about Britain, remain willing, or unwitting, propagandists for an invented national image.

Although the obsessiveness of the government’s tampering with the national image may seem frightening, what’s happening is different from superficial historical parallels. Fascist and communist regimes constructed their iconography. This is a reverse process, in which a government tries on the raiment of its people in order to win their favour. It claims to be about modernity, but in reality it’s about popularity. It is Noel Gallagher and not, say, Thomas Adès, with whom Blair is photographed sharing a joke.

What’s new is the appropriation (a very cool cultural studies word) of ready-made icons. And what’s amazing is the relentless, indiscriminate way it is being done. Anything that could conceivably represent Cool Britannia is quickly clasped to the new Labour bosom.

When it comes to DIY icons, the government is more hamfisted. What did it say about British culture for Blair to wine and dine Jacques Chirac in Canary Wharf Tower, a dull building designed in an American style by a New York-based, Chilean-born architect? It was not a bad idea to get schoolchildren to design stars for European countries to mark Britain’s presidency of the European Union; it was a terrible one to put it on ties that even Tie Rack wouldn’t touch, but which ministers wore like a halter when discoursing on EU matters.

Much of the iconography predates the election. The Demos report on rebranding Britain that has become central to government thinking on the national image is largely a reheated collation of research done by the British Tourist Authority and others before the general election. Even the term “Cool Britannia” stems from 1996 when a Newsweek cover story first caused Britons to double-take how their nation was perceived. (Before that it was the title of a 1967 song by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.)

The Design Council’s Millennium Products initiative was a dreary publicity stunt until seized upon by new Labour. (The council’s other plan of burying a time capsule containing representative nineties objects to be dug up in 50 years’ time, has been wisely left alone.) Now the race is on to find 1,000 recent British innovations to display in the Millennium Dome. The first tranche of 202 products was unveiled last week. They include surgical gloves that discolour if pierced; the Lotus Elise; an iris recognition system that could replace PIN numbers; Father Cred, a web browser that picks the coolest Internet sites; and a solar blanket to wrap around a mug of tea to keep it warm. (All right, I invented the last two.)

The Dome itself, of course, began life under the Conservatives. How cruel that its M-on-a-roll logo should be taken to suggest Mandelson’s influence. Indeed, it was the last government that planted many acorns of the new modernity. The Millennium Commission-funded glass and aluminium oaks soon to rise nationwide will deliver a lasting message with a force that will astonish the British people.

Nor is the Powerhouse idea new. The Department of Trade and Industry (whose baby it is) and the British Council habitually put on these shows for the infidel. Coates is something of a veteran at this, and a number of the Powerhouse exhibits have been culled from travelling exhibitions to promote Britain abroad since before the election.

What’s new is the turn inward. Ostensibly Powerhouse, too, is organised to promote British exports. But Horse Guards Parade seems a funny place to start. Its hidden agenda is presumably to address the point revealed in the Demos research that we esteem British products even less highly than the Japanese do.

Whether the message gets across is another matter. Last weekend a good proportion of Powerhouse’s visitors were involved in the creative industries. The designers were checking out the work of friends and rivals. The media students were doubtless stashing away material for disquisitions on postmodernism.

It’s hard to explain why these initiatives have become so intertwined with the government’s message. The remit of the spin-doctors, learnt from Bill Clinton’s people, runs only to verbal messages and television presentation. Theirs is the credit for such motifs as the Labour rose (although it came in the wake of the Tory torch and both now look dated), the much mocked pistachio backdrops and the modish mix of light and bold sans-serif type in the “New Labour, New Britain” message.

But it’s hard to imagine Washington coopting innovative American products and architecture for its own purposes. Perhaps there is an envious glance across the Channel at the cultural legacy of the Mitterrand era. Perhaps there is the memory of tales told of the Festival of Britain by Herbert Morrison as he dandled his grandson on his knee. Certainly the happy coincidence of Britain’s launching a national lottery with only a few years to go to the millennium is significant.

At the moment the government doesn’t need to be loved. But one day it will. The hard thing will be to keep these images alive, or replace them with new ones, after the vast distraction of the millennium. The second term may not come until mid-2002. By then Tony Blair may have that new hairstyle. And John Prescott and Robin Cook may even have learned to dance for the cameras outside the Festival Hall.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

[see also: From the NS archive: Reflections in recess]