"I had to do some rapid thinking," the Islington South MP says. "When the then-named Department of National Heritage was set up in 1992, the tabloids called it the Ministry of Fun and the Ministry of Free Tickets. I wanted the department to be serious as well as fun. I decided to set up a task force on the economic potential of the creative industries."
This task force is now helping to crystallise a national debate. Is Cool Britannia for real, or is it a device to co-opt the best and brightest in the country to the Blair agenda? How can the country's creative culture - which at its core is anti-corporate - be nudged toward an accommodation with the markets?
After just two meetings of the task force one member, Alan McGee of Creation Records, publicly cast doubts on the authenticity of the Blair government's pro-attitudes to the creative industries. Was Mr Blair, Mr McGee wondered, a vampire sucking blood from the real Cool Britannia to create a pseudo- Cool Britannia advancing his personal agenda?
Conductor Simon Rattle and director Sir Peter Hall opened up a second line of attack. They wondered aloud if talk about the creative industries was a fig leaf being used to obscure cuts in arts subsidies.
Mr Smith takes Mr McGee's outburst with good grace. "We need free spirits," he says. To Mr Rattle and Sir Peter, Mr Smith replies: "Talk about this government being philistine is nonsense. We inherited the arts budget from the previous government."
This Wednesday, at its third meeting, Mr Smith's creative industries task force will get going in earnest. The objective is to help the creative industries - probably the fastest growing sector of the economy overall - to grow even faster. Mr Smith is not so crass as to say it openly. But there is a sense in his department that Gordon Brown and the Treasury are focused on the depressing business of rolling back the welfare state, while the Department of Culture is focused on the future and the transformation of the national economy.
At Wednesday's meeting, representatives from a half dozen government agencies will sit down beside "creative industries practitioners" - Mr McGee, Lord Puttnam, Paul Smith, Random House's Gail Rebuck, Planet 24's Waheed Alli, WPP's Eric Salama, and Janice Hughes of the consultancy Spectrum.
The 40-odd people in the Cabinet Room will review the results of Spectrum's "mapping exercise" designed to pinpoint the size and prospects of the film, television, music, publishing, computer games and software industries in the UK.
The short-term focus will be on what steps the government can take in the area of safeguarding intellectual property rights from pirates. But Mr Smith has a more ambitious long-term goal in mind. He is shifting the debate that consumed the 1960s baby boom generation - should you sell out your ideals for a comfortable material life? - from the realms of Nick Hornby fiction to the arena of national politics.
With extreme caution, Mr Smith is asking everyone involved in the creative industries to reconsider the balance they have struck between idealism and pragmatism. "The creative industries are where the growth is, where the jobs are," he says. A new accommodation between those industries and the markets, he says, could boost the economy.
Mr Smith stops short of offering any sort of blueprint. He is leaving government, the creative industries, the civil service, the City and industry to work out their own arrangements.
But, he suggests, Britain has the chance to create a new culture for its creative industries. In economic terms, this culture could achieve superior returns on capital. It could also be subversive to the extent that it builds home-grown businesses capable of challenging the economic and political power of multinational media giants like Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, Ted Turner's Time Warner and Michael Eisner's Disney.
Cool Britannia is the Spice Girls, The Full Monty and London's Soho on Saturday night. But Mr Smith's careful words imply a more ambitious dream. Cool Britannia could be a form of post-industrial capitalism that combines hard-nosed profits with a fuller recognition of the human creativity on which they hinge.Reuse content