At twenty years’ distance, the era of Cool Britannia feels like something from a completely different age. Like most of the industrialised world, Britain was in the midst of the carefree time that had begun with the fall of the Berlin Wall and ended horrifically, with 9/11. Once the recession of the early 1990s had finished, there was a sense of an endless economic boom, and a country largely untroubled by the ghosts of the past: a vision that, by 2017’s standards, looks almost hilariously quaint. But most of all, what feels so dated about the trumpeting of a new national spirit and what Tony Blair habitually called “a young country”, is how much the whole thing was based around two slightly mythical ideas about London and Britain as a whole.
Both now feel painfully problematic. In 1997, the capital was in the enviable position of being in rude cultural health, while also being a viable place in which the young creatives who made it all happen could live. I speak from experience here: when I came down to London from the North West in 1993, the rent on my first shared flat – in the newly-fashionable neighbourhood of Hoxton – had been a measly £55 a week. Three years later, when I moved upmarket to a two-bedroom property off Westbourne Grove, my partner and I were still paying less than £1000 a month. For those of us who had made it to the capital, the cost of living was a rising concern, but not an impossible obstacle.
What Vanity Fair magazine called “Swinging London Mark II” was based on the way that London had drawn in talent from around the UK, and the way that its vibrancy said something powerful about Britain as a whole. That is still partly true, but London is also now a byword for a completely insane cost of living, a sense that its ruthlessness excludes too many people with potential, and the idea of a lofty city-state, too often cut off from the country at large. These ideas certainly sit at the heart of politics, and a deep resentment about London’s wealth and power was clearly evident in the tensions that led to the vote for Brexit.
And what of Britain? Devolution for Scotland and Wales had yet to arrive in 1997, and when it did, it was presented as another sign of a new, confident Britain: a change that, as Blair said, had “strengthened the UK, not weakened it.” In Northern Ireland, the commendable work done by John Major’s government was about to be accelerated, leading to the Good Friday agreement of 1998. The cultural omnipresence of the Union Jack (witness Noel Gallagher’s flag-adorned guitar, or the mini-dress Geri Halliwell of the Spice Girls wore at the 1997 Brit Awards) might have harked back to the 1960s, but it also spoke of a modern sense of confidence in the UK.
And now? Scotland is arguably already independent in all the cultural and political basics, and may soon be decisively on its way out of the Union. Politics in Northern Ireland is in a state of ferment. Meanwhile, whenever I travel throughout the country, I meet a new(ish) tribe of people who defiantly describe themselves as English, a byword for a social tribe that collectively voted to leave the EU with the aim to somehow take power back from the London establishment.
There is, then, no going back to the Red, White and Blue of the mid-1990s. Rather than blankly celebrating the wonders of London, we should now be asking ourselves whether a place so economically overheated is well on the way to losing its cultural cachet, and talking about how the city can be re-opened to the young people it needs to renew itself. Moreover, how the city might offer a viable home to people well into their thirties and forties; working age people leaving in droves.
At the same time, however, there is a developing conversation about how London’s impossibility has sparked an urban renaissance in other English cities, and a sense that if some of the ideas that underpinned Cool Britannia are to be updated, they will have to be rooted in places that the 1990s too often overlooked.
In 1997, Manchester was just setting out on a journey of reinvention that soon led to quite spectacular achievements. Now, the city skyline is routinely dotted with cranes, the median age of its population is 29, and it is teeming with start-ups and growing businesses.
Equally, as Bristol has developed the cultural identity that was decisively manifested in hugely successful music that kept Cool Britannia at arm’s length – witness Massive Attack, Tricky, and Portishead – it has blazed a similarly impressive trail. In 2016, it became the first major European city to be run by a black Mayor, and its abiding culture mixes egalitarianism with the urgent excitement of a people who do not wait for anyone’s permission before getting started. Elsewhere, one sees signs of similar revivals – in the waterside artists studios and burgeoning bohemia of Plymouth, the profoundly creative culture and resilient spirit of Newcastle, or the bustling culture of the too-often overlooked Leeds.
This year, a new wave of devolution to City-Regions – Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, the wider area around Bristol, and the West Midlands – offers the chance of giving some of these developments a strong political expression. Even if the centrifugal pull towards London remains a chronic problem, new figureheads for the country beyond the capital ought to be able to powerfully make the case for the places they represent, and the economic changes many of them need. Inevitably, any success will only be the first step along a very long road. But in a country as imbalanced as ours, these acts of decentralisation seem full of an overdue sense of possibility and opportunity.
For Britain as a whole, the picture seems altogether more complicated. The “young country” Blair talked about often seems like a family reaching its twilight period, ridden with old tensions, and ready for some final convulsive fall-out. Post-devolution, Scotland has clearly alighted on a new sense of purpose and identity comparable to what has happened in English cities, but its reinvention has been bound up with a dramatic pulling-away from the UK; Wales has a much smaller appetite for self-government, but its troubled atmosphere was crystallised by its majority vote for Brexit.
The place of an identifiable Britain in cultural and political discourse seems to be shrinking, and growing ever-more awkward and troubled – and that, I suspect, is something we will have to get used to. For those of us in England who would like our country to be a byword for something more than Brexit-related angst, it underlines growing challenges: how do we give voice to the England that is urban, diverse, multi-lingual and outwardfacing? If we are English too, what does that mean? That job of answering those questions has not even been started: at a time when the country is being recast along much uglier lines, it is surely a matter of urgency.
In the end, the 21st Century is too complicated to allow for monolithic understandings of whole countries. Cool Britannia was a fantasia, buoyed by impossible economics, and always destined for an inglorious end. The conversation we need to have now should be altogether more hard-headed, and based as much on the tensions that bedevil Britain as its ongoing sense of possibility. But herein lie reasons for the best kind of optimism: even at a time so full of uncertainty and danger, it is exactly that need for realism that makes this moment so exciting.