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3 December 2022

Cool Britannia, once the envy of the world, is no more

It’s too expensive, nothing works and Brits don’t like foreigners anymore.

By Marie Le Conte

You shouldn’t search for your own name on Twitter if you have an even vaguely public profile, everyone knows that. Still, I like doing it once in a while. It’s a guilty pleasure, and sometimes it makes me laugh.

A few months ago, someone tweeted about me being so lame that, when I was growing up in France, I probably had a Union Jack in my bedroom. I didn’t reply – that would just be poor etiquette – but I was tempted to. As it happens, that person was right.

I like to think that I am merely charmingly nerdy, but I did have a Union Jack in my teenage bedroom, pinned to the lamp by my computer. It wasn’t an especially odd thing to have; several friends saw it at the time and none of them commented on it. It was the mid-2000s and, back then, Britain was cool.

It had the Libertines and all sorts of other boys in bands, everyone there dressed really well and really weirdly, all the best art and culture and nights out were happening there, just over the Channel. Perhaps more importantly, you could be anything you wanted in London, we thought at the time. The city was exciting and fun and full of promise.

That is why I moved here in 2009; it’d just never occurred to me to move anywhere else. It’s why a number of my French friends moved here too: one to study journalism, another to try her hand at photography, and more than a few because they had no idea what they wanted from life and they thought London might help.

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Nearly all of them have left now – gone back to France, or moved elsewhere. Only one besides me remains, and she’s thinking of moving to Paris next year. Why did they leave? Mostly, it was a bit of everything. Brexit was depressing; the rents were too high; dating British people is hell.

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Maybe it was always going to be this way; young people have itchy feet but eventually they age and start missing their roots. Maybe Britain just isn’t cool anymore.

The other week, my younger brother and six of his friends came to London for a few days, and we went for brunch together. They’re all lovely, hungry bright young things in their early and mid-twenties. Several of them have lived abroad before, most of them speak good enough English. None of them have ever considered moving here.

Well, one of their friends did but he asked my brother for advice and was told to consider moving elsewhere instead. “Too expensive, nothing works and they don’t like foreigners anymore,” was his stern verdict. It would be hard to disagree with that assessment: just look at the news.

Attempting to see a GP in a timely manner currently feels about as straightforward as walking on an oily tight rope. Deciding to travel anywhere without googling “strikes” first has become a sign of deranged optimism. Last month I ordered a single gin and tonic in an unremarkable pub and it cost me eight pounds and fifty pence.

Instead of dealing with these issues, the government has decided to retreat to its comfort zone. Following the news that net migration had reached a record level of 504,000 in the past year, No 10 announced that it would seek to lower the number of foreign students coming to British universities.

Too expensive, nothing works and they don’t like foreigners anymore. That’s the Britain I somehow grew to know and love.

Though it saddens me that my brother and his friends won’t experience what I got by moving to London for or after university, I can’t exactly blame them. The country and its capital just aren’t what they used to be.

We moved here because it was possible to live on the cheap and weasel and worm your way into whatever industry took your fancy. You could drink for nothing in awful dive bars and meet fascinating and terrible people, and if you got lucky you could build yourself a life you never could have had at home.

Paris is all about degrees and diplomas from the grandes écoles, but London felt like a magical and chaotic place, where anything could happen as long as you really gave it a try. People moved here like they played the lottery. If you didn’t know what else to do you’d jump on the Eurostar, get a dodgy job and a dodgy flat and hope for the best. It was great. It isn’t anymore.

I wonder if people here realise what they represented to their neighbours, if they know what they’ve lost. Sure, they’re aware of Britpop and Cool Britannia, but that was all a long time ago, and even now it’s often discussed with a smirk, like it was a bit embarrassing or not entirely real.

Perhaps that’s for the best. If it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, it may be preferable never to find out what you once had, given that you have lost it. You used to be cool and now you’re not; you assumed everyone tolerated you at best and now that is actually where you stand. It’s a shame. It’s too late. Life goes on. The little Union Jack is still on my lamp, somewhere in my father’s garage, gathering dust.

[See also: The pandemic was a communal trauma, and we need culture to help us process it]

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