The influence of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band on British political life has received less scrutiny than it deserves. They are also an important band in the short history of Demos because it was a Bonzo song, Cool Britannia, from which the title of Demos’ most infamous pamphlet derives.
In 1997 Mark Leonard’s short work of that name captured the sense that the new Labour government and the wider culture were suddenly walking in step. Cool Britannia (the Demos not the Bonzo version) portrayed a diverse Britain of may subcultures, in which chicken tikka was one of Marks and Spencer’s biggest exports. That notion subsequently became the organising principle for a speech by the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, in which he applauded the capacity of Britain to absorb new influences. It all feels like a long time ago so it seemed like a good moment to return to the questions of how politics and culture collide; hence this pamphlet.
Culture exerts a seductive appeal to politicians. The company of the stars of popular music, television, theatre and film seems to confer, strangely enough, not radicalism but respectability. For a political movement it seems like a vindication and an assurance that it really is new, cool and of the moment. For the Blair government to be associated with the Ministry of Sound, Blur and Oasis and the Young British Artists seemed to reach into parts of the culture that is virgin territory for politicians.
It was a heady time and the temptation is clear. The danger, though, is built-in and obvious. Popular forms are ephemeral. Most careers in the popular arts are short and popularity is shorter still. In his Maxims La Rochefoucauld describes someone as “like a popular song which we only sing for a short time”. The risk of borrowing cultural popularity for political purpose is therefore high. Things go out of fashion quickly and we tend to look back on the fashion of previous eras and laugh. The infamous Downing Street cocktail party at which Tony Blair chatted awkwardly to Noel Gallagher now looks like a relic from a distant age. It did quite soon after it had happened.
In fact, 1997 was not the first time a Labour government had associated itself with the popular culture of the day. The Wilson government in the mid-60s did the same with “Swinging London”. For a brief moment politics and culture collided. Barbara Castle never did wear a Mary Quant miniskirt and neither did Roy Jenkins for that matter. Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton were never invited into Downing Street, although Harold Wilson did meet The Beatles.
The link between the two eras was made explicitly in the March 1997 edition of Vanity Fair which was a special “Cool Britannia” edition which featured Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit on the front under the title “London Swings Again!” The link between the Wilson and the Blair eras is that both described themselves as the conscious modernisation of Britain. And what could be more modern than to enlist The Beatles or their contemporary mimics in the late-90s, Oasis? Indeed, much of the culture and iconography of the late 90s was a deliberate echo of the mid-60s all the way down to the readopting of the Union Jack as a progressive political symbol in Noel Gallagher’s guitar and Geri Halliwell’s dress at the 1997 Brit Awards.
How different it feels now. The very idea of Britain is vulnerable as the Scottish government presses for a second referendum on independence. The identity of being British which, as the historian Linda Colley showed, developed following the union of England and Scotland in 1707, is slipping away. There is no sense of celebration of the idea, only questioning. The alliances of politics and culture were always metropolitan affairs. Even in the mid-60s and late-90s they were not exactly swinging in Swindon or rocking in Rochester. There is little sense of cultural euphoria now. Four years after the London Olympics seemed to exhibit a country profoundly at ease with its multi-cultural identity, the flaws and cracks have been exposed by the referendum on the European Union and the decision to leave. Those verbs were chosen advisedly. The referendum exposed and expressed the division; it did not create it. These days the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band album that seems most appropriate is their 1972 reunion, Let’s Make Up And Be Friendly.
This moment of questioning is when genuinely new forms are created. Culture is a thriving, constant elusive process of striving. So is democratic politics. In the essays that follow these two forces swirl around each other, trying to make sense of a moment in which the British people ask themselves again, as periodically they do, “who are we?”.