Uncool Britannia: how the morning glory faded away

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Indy Politics

Thirteen years is a long time in politics, and the days of 1997 seem an aeon ago, a planet away. Do we remember a time when the UK seemed youthful and spring-heeled, when young English bands (Blur, Oasis, Pulp, The Verve, the Spice Girls) crammed the charts, Young British Artists astonished the global art world, England (all right, the UK) won the Eurovision Song Contest (a year after very nearly winning Euro 96) and the ridiculous Austin Powers made everyone sort-of-proud to be British?

In March of that year, the cover of Vanity Fair magazine showed Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit lying in bed under a Union Jack duvet. The cover line was "London Swings Again!" and the entire issue was a celebration of "Cool Britannia". It was, it seemed, how the world saw us – just as an American magazine had invented the concept of "Swinging" Britain 30 years before – and how we longed to regard ourselves. National pride and individual conceit joined hands and danced. Hope was in the air, along with the Britpop band Ocean Colour Scene. We were vibrant, creative, energetic and sexy. What was not to like about being British?

It was in this heady zeitgeist that the general election was called in May. The Tories crashed at the polls after 18 years in power, and an idealistic young prime minister (the youngest PM since Lord Liverpool in 1812) ushered New Labour into power. Election excitement, a pretty rare phenomenon in the UK, bordered on the feverish. Instead of staying home and not voting, the people voted early, worked all day, then stayed up all night to see the Tory old guard comprehensively trashed, dumped and – in Scotland and Wales – wiped out. In the early hours of 2 May, during a victory party at the Royal Festival Hall, Tony Blair began his speech: "A new dawn has broken, has it not?" And that's exactly what we thought. It felt good. Not only were we groovy, creative and melodic, we were also politically liberal, morally enlightened and intellectually modern. At the turn of the millennium, the United Kingdom was entering a new age, a glad, confident morning....

Then the world of events started again. Princess Diana was killed and the nation squalled and blubbed, and carped about the Queen in a very un-cool way. The Hunting Bill and the Countryside Alliance muscled its way to the top of the news agenda for six months, as though the pursuit of foxes was an issue of huge political importance. Some manifesto commitments (foxes apart) were honoured – the introduction of the minimum wage, the Human Rights Act, Freedom of Information – but New Labour's first three years of in power seemed devoted to finding something to put in the £900m Millennium Dome, and getting it horribly wrong. Instead of a modern funfair or Palace of Varieties, it offered an exhibition of half-baked environmental projects, wanly enlivened by trapeze artists. Like so much of the New Labour project, it hadn't been thought out as well as we'd hoped.

The New Labour years didn't see the UK transform itself into a national powerhouse of liberalism and creativity. Instead, as the rest of the world kept butting in, it lost its identity – thanks in part to the creation of a devolved parliament in Scotland, a national assembly in Wales and a brittle power-share in Northern Ireland. After 9/11, and Tony Blair's ringing statement of alliance with America, our national destiny seemed to be taken out of our hands. British troops went to fight what seemed like America's war in 2003, and to fight it illegally, unconditionally and without popular support at home. Tony Blair seemed helplessly enslaved by his exciting new friend ("Yo Blair!") in the White House and spent increasing time on foreign policy abroad. Islamist cells brought the culture of the extreme madrasa – a hothouse of jihadist radicalism – from Pakistan and Afghanistan to the English provinces, and from there to fatal explosions on buses and Tube trains. Increased rates of immigration in the 1990s meant, in the 2000s, hostile glances in British streets and markets at anyone wearing a burqa, a hoodie or a beard that hung from its owner's chin rather than flourished on his cheeks.

As Downing Street politics shifted from the sophistications of "spin" to mutually hostile briefings by and against the PM's and the Chancellor's factions, the nation stopped being "cool" and decided to amuse itself to death. Rapidly updated technologies of mobile phones, cameras, laptops and MP3 players obsessed millions. Many became slaves to 100-hour-consuming, multiple series of American TV dramas, to home-grown programmes about competitive cooking, and to the spectacle of "ordinary people" raised by talent contests to factitious, temporary "celebrity." The population occasionally raised its eyes from the TV screen long enough to note new strains of disease (mad cow, bird flu, MRSA) new ferocities of weather (the Indian Ocean tsunami, hurricane Katrina, flooded towns in England, earthquakes in the Caribbean) and disturbingly regular reports about British people beating, starving and maltreating their children to death.

In 2007 New Labour's taciturn new PM told the British people he foresaw no return to "boom and bust," supposedly the Conservatives' economic default position. Under Brown as Chancellor, things had boomed for a while. House prices in the UK trebled in value, loans and mortgages were distributed like sweets, fund managers sold the fool's gold called "derivatives". Then things went bust, banks and high-street chains closed down, property and the stock market dropped by an average of 40 per cent in 2008, and the economy slid into the worst recession since the war.

Now we're on the edge once more – not of a dawn, but of a battlefield. We're a sorry, bruised, dazed, bankrupt, querulous, knackered army, tired of seeing our soldiers come home in coffins, contemptuous of politicians, hostile to foreigners, disgusted with bankers, frustrated by the stagnant economy and uninspired by the choice before us, between the airbrushed Etonian opportunist and the moth-eaten grizzly bear of Fife, goaded beyond endurance by a million enemies but somehow hanging onto power. It's a long way, psychically as well as temporally, from the glad, confident morning of May 1997 to the glum, dark evening of the soul that is pre-election Britannia in March 2010.