Minister declares death of Cool Britannia affair 'was doomed'

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Cool Britannia, the concept that took Oasis to Downing Street and attempted to turn the Union Flag into a global cultural brand, is dead, the Government declared on Thursday.

In the later half of the 1990s the phrase came to represent everything young and trendy about modern Britain. From BritArt to BritPop, from fashion to business, it sought to encapsulate the national creative spirit of the times.

But in a speech finally consigning it to history, Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, said the idea had "missed the point". She told foreign journalists that in fact Cool Britannia was as misguided as Lord Tebbit's infamous national identity "cricket test", which had infuriated anti-racism campaigners a decade earlier.

"You can't distil our national character to a liking for designer water or retro lamps," she told members of the Foreign Press Association, who were representing many of the publications that had taken the Cool Britannia message to news stands around the world.

"This country is just too complex and too varied. Cool Britannia was at least a well-meaning attempt to codify what makes this country special. But it was, I'm sorry to say, doomed to inadequacy because it tried to codify a culture. And if you codify, you ossify."

Yet only four short years ago, the appearance of pop stars, including Noel Gallagher of Oasis, at a glitzy Downing Street party and media reports on Britain's thriving "creative economy" inspired the notion of Cool Britannia.

In the early days of his first government, Tony Blair credited the phrase to the American Newsweek magazine. Though he would not claim an association with the word "cool", he was happy to accept the branding of Britain as a modern, forward-thinking nation and a world leader in creativity and innovation.

Critics who dared mock Labour's apparent love affair with Britain's film makers, pop stars and designers were angrily dismissed by Peter Mandelson, who was then a member of the Cabinet, as "cynics and snobs ... fuddy-duddies ... armchair carpers".

Yet as public disillusionment with the Government's penchant for showbusiness set in, both Mr Blair and Chris Smith, the Government's first Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, distanced themselves from the idea.

Mr Smith pointed out that it was his Tory predecessor, Virginia Bottomley, who had picked up the phrase. She used the words several times in her final year at what was the Department of National Heritage but, with John Major more a self-proclaimed cricket and warm beer man, any Conservative Party attempt to cloak itself in the designer concept of Cool Britannia was doomed.

Ms Jowell said yesterday it was the job of her department to champion everything – from the Royal Ballet to brass bands and sport – that made up an individual's cultural life. Unlike countries such as France that preserved a sense of nationality through institutions including the élite Academie Francaise, Britain did not have a cultural identity set in stone.

Our identity was defined by the building blocks of language, shared popular culture, history and tradition that meant different things to different people and could not be "boiled down to a single phrase or a single issue", she said.

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