Cool Britannia leaves me cold

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The Independent Culture
POWER? COOL. First, you need a balcony and a bunch of people. You stand on the balcony and turn them into a crowd by continuously repeating slogans at them. Then you can insult them, threaten them, treat them like naughty children, and they will still love you. Why will they still love you? Because you turned them into a crowd.

That's what Elias Canetti said in Crowds and Power, a book which I suspect must be required "on-message" reading for Tony Blair's exciting New Bibble Party. They are certainly trying their best. Beef-bone bans, doorstep bans, a new proposal to forbid us the right securely to encrypt our communications on the Internet, Mr Mandelson's Nuremberg Dome, endless, contemptuous, smack-botty speeches and equally endless references to The People. But where they are going wrong is in the slogans department. "Wir fahren gegen England" is one thing; "Cool Britannia" is quite another, as absurd in the mouth of Anne Widdecombe as the word "womenfolk" was, emerging from the drenched, porky jaws of John Prescott.

First, they need to come to grips with slogans themselves. Ad-speak, marketing-man, management-style jingles are about as much use to the power- hungry as a one-legged man at an arse-kicking party. They titillate, but they neither bond nor inflame. No army marched to war under the banner of "Cool Britannia". The attempt is as silly and doomed as the last little effort in that direction, the "I'm Backing Britain" campaign of the Sixties, complete with little Union Jack labels on a whole range of cut-price, cardboard, leaking British tat.

The main reason it's doomed, though, is exemplified in Clapham. Just across the road from a rather beautiful Georgian church is a restaurant called The Polygon, which will do you the best broiled rib of beef you've ever eaten (off the bone, of course, and I suggest that they keep the bones to make a cosy sepulchre for the patronising and foolish "Doctor" Cunningham when his "career" eventually disintegrates), and if you want to help it on its way with some garlic-roasted potatoes and a fine bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape, they can accommodate you in that direction, too.

The owners of The Polygon, Stuart and Angus Hopson Jones, wanted to build a terrace outside. They asked Lambeth council for permission and two council officers reportedly said "yes". So Stuart and Angus built the terrace. Lambeth council said the two officers weren't there any more, and didn't have authority, and how would it be if everyone did it, and so the other day they sent in the bulldozers and tore up the terrace.

It would have been nice. It would have been nice, in a part of London so given over to hopelessness and sensual deprivation, to be able to sit outside on a pleasant evening and make eyes at your companion over the pink, dripping beef. But no. No. Sorry. No can do. No. NO.

And as long as you have a single such preposterous collage of personal inadequacy and professional pomposity as Lambeth council, as one such body still persists in the land, there is no possibility of Britannia being cool, or even more than just a slightly half-cock, off-the-boil embarrassment.

If the Government wants to be associated with Cool Britannia, it should understand that "cool" is a word like "gentleman": anyone who uses it about himself is deluded. Cool is about not giving a damn. The moment a politician tries to use some notion of cool in the service of self-advancement, he effectively loses his trousers and stands there naked, his spindly legs and dangling appendages exposed to the world. There can be nothing less cool than Prescott, a big hulk in a suit, out there with the pop stars pretending to be one of what he probably thinks of as the "in" crowd. (Yes! Get with the "beat generation" with New Labour combo-style music for the Young At Heart!) Or, rather, no, because there is something less cool, and that is Fat Prescott in a wet suit, his face swollen with feral rage, blowing off about the womenfolk. Wounded dignity, possibly; and there's a tricky one. Dignity can be cool; but standing on it isn't. Nor is Anne Widdecombe. Can't be. Never was. Never will be. Just ... isn't.

And nor, above all, is Tony Blair, for all his air guitar and his gold lame missus. It's not Cool to have music-biz folk round to Downing Street, as Harold Wilson could have told him. It's not Cool to be voted Marriage of the Millennium, or whatever that fatuous, hands-outside-the- covers "award" was. It's not Cool to be photographed with your entire head up Bill Clinton's bottom, no matter how many people have been there before you. It's not Cool to ban things. It's not Cool to try to be Cool.

Little Tony should face the truth. Britain is not a Cool country. It is a deeply repressed, rather mean-spirited country on the whole, dedicated to a grumpy sort of asceticism and the pursuit of a strange notion of "honour" which tests conduct, public and private, against the imaginary approval of some sort of internal schoolmaster welded to the national soul. Occasionally, a handful of people get so cross with all this that they start yelling "Nuts!", at which point a rather larger number of people get excited and shout back "Hey! Cool!" But a Cool nation? No. And the attempt is just sad, like flirting on a Saga holiday, or Grecian 2000, or men like me who should know better, poncing around the place in our Schott Perfecto black leather jackets and making passes at other people's womenfolk.

Cool is about not caring. Tony Blair and New Cool Labour care desperately. They care more than anyone has ever cared before: about their PR, the press coverage, their image and their power. If they want to be really cool, they should instead try caring about the things we elected them to care about. In the meantime, if anyone has a balcony for rent, overlooking a busy street, please let me know. I think it may be time for me to whip up a crowd.