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City & Business: Exit Cool Britannia, pursued by a fatal cynicism

THE SCENE at the Arts Council last Wednesday is easy to imagine. Sir Alan Ayckbourn, Britain's finest playwright, and Sam Mendes, the country's hot young director, lead a large group of cultural heavyweights in a dignified but dramatic walkout. There is a hush, then there is shock. Ayckbourn, Mendes & Co have voted with their feet on the Government's efforts to form a new kind of partnership between the arts and business, and in so doing have sounded the death knell for Cool Britannia.

Lady MacMillan, who is quitting as head of the Arts Council's dance advisory board, puts the point bluntly. Disgusted at Granada Group chairman Gerry Robinson's plans to reform the Arts Council along business lines, she declares: "If these changes mean that any art is produced in the next 10 years I will be amazed."

Less easy to imagine is the psychology of the protestors. How has Cool Britannia - a slogan that at least briefly united all those celebrating the end of 18 years of Tory rule - turned so rapidly and drastically into a rallying cry of contempt for a growing assortment of the country's centre and left-of-centre tribes?

You run into a DJ in a London club and he assaults the slogan and concept of Cool Britannia with the verbal violence he once reserved for the Tories. You run into a lady from the Arts Council on the plane back from Cannes - over and over she repeats how much the high arts people hate Cool Britannia. Detest it. Loathe it.

Poor Chris Smith. Only six months ago the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport was innocently talking up the economic potential of Britain's creative industries. Film, television, music, computer games, design, fashion - all fast-growth sectors in the world economy - were things we are good at, he noted. Why not bang a few heads together, throw a little money in, and see how we might stop serving as cottage labour for Hollywood and other production sites of American culture, and develop some production sites of our own?

Last week Mr Smith was distancing himself from the launch of his own book, Creative Britain, in the vain hope of escaping further obloquy for being the author of Cool Britannia. Robin Cook may be the first New Labour minister bounced out of office for poor judgement, but Mr Smith could be the first in years to be scorned out.

All this might be amusing in the way that the carefully laid plans of authority going awry always are - except that improving economic performance is a deadly serious business, especially for those least protected from the business cycle. And except that the building up and tearing down of Cool Britannia seems part of a psychological process buried deep in the culture imperilling the Government's plans for putting the overall economy on a sounder footing.

Look at the City and the computer industry. Three years ago, when computers were hot stocks on Wall Street and the industry was a growth engine in Asia, the City didn't want to know about computers. Now the boom is cooling, everybody wants to know. "When Sema shares were selling at pounds 3.80 no one was interested," says CSFB information technology analyst David Greenall. "When they got to pounds 6 everyone became interested."

Mr Greenall's fear is a familiar one: that, as the global IT sector matures and consolidates, UK companies will be left eating the dirt of the overseas competition, and the currently hot market in UK IT shares will collapse.

So what's the link between Sir Alan Ayckbourn's contempt for Cool Britannia and the City's over-excitement about Sema? Gordon Brown and his determination to put an end to Britain's stop-go economy, that's what. Mr Brown's concern is the business cycle. But there is a psychological component to what he says, too.

The psychology of British boom-bust goes like this: 1) I (as businessman, or artist, or simple citizen) have seen so many hopes shattered in the past I vow to be sceptical about hope in the future and leery of risk. 2) Then something new comes along, such as New Labour. I push the boat out. I hope a little. I take more risk. 3) Wham! Reality hits - in 1998, in the form of the competitive pressures of the integrated world economy. Hopes are tested. Risks taken in a fleeting moment of renewed optimism look frightening. 4) Rather than adjust my hopes, recalibrate my risks and rework my ideas, I retreat into fatalism and irony. Safe again in this familiar armour-plating, I turn my discontent on rival tribesmen inside the country.

The psychological component of our boom-bust society may be the gravest threat to New Labour's economic programme. But the cultural and economic convulsions accompanying such emotional about-faces are optional. Sir Alan Ayckbourn, Sam Mendes and others disgusted by the union of art and commerce under New Labour could, for example, walk back in the Arts Council door out of which they exited last week. They could reconsider the uncomfortable juxtaposition of art and commerce. There are, after all, precedents for this going back a thousand years.

Reviewing the history of the British computer industry, David Errington, chief technology officer of the computer services company Sage, recalled the aborted efforts of Amstrad and ICL to compete against IBM, and of Acorn to vie with Microsoft. He mused ruefully on the lack of City venture capital to support UK computer entrepreneurs the way US venture capital supports Silicon Valley.

Instead of armouring himself in fatalism and irony, instead of seeking the moral high ground, Mr Errington offered a formula to put the fragile UK computer industry on a firmer footing. Study the forces driving the global industry, he said - the internet, the convergence of IT, media and telecoms technology, the Microsoft-US Justice Department face-off. Study the giants: Microsoft, Intel, IBM, Netscape. Stay close to the giants. "In the past we used to go off on a tangent," Mr Errington said. "That didn't get us very far. The way forward is to partner with the major players."

This will never satisfy purists. Painstakingly if unglamorously applied it could, however, lead to a rise in living standards benefiting a wide cross-section of the population.

We're all right, Bill

BRITAIN has no lock on moral posturing, of course. On Friday Bill Gates published a ringing defence of Microsoft in the Wall Street Journal. "When Paul Allen and I founded Microsoft in 1975, we shared a common vision - to develop affordable, accessible software that would help consumers everywhere own a computer," he began.

The day before I was talking to a journalist in Seattle, Washington, named Deann Glamser. I asked her what the mood was at Microsoft. "It's OK," she said. "Everyone in the company who holds shares figures they'll do all right. People are saying that when the government went after Rockefeller, the holders of Standard Oil shares all benefited from the break-up."