Creative Industries: Cool Britannia: Labour is lost in luvvie land

Hilary Clarke
Sunday 15 February 1998 00:02
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THE GOVERNMENT'S love-in with all that is hip, cool and trendy looks in danger of turning sour. First there was John Prescott's humiliating soaking at the British pop awards last week courtesy of the anarchist pop star Danbert Nobacon of Chumbawamba. Whether it was a prank or a genuine protest, the deputy prime minister's inability to laugh it off made him look pretty stiff just when he was trying to be ultra-cool.

Then came an attack on Downing Street's attempts to rebrand Britain as "Cool Britannia" by someone who has been at the cutting edge of youth culture for a decade, Wayne Hemingway, founder of the fashion company Red or Dead. In a speech to the independent think-tank the Social Market Foundation, he warned of a backlash: "There is a very grave danger that by simply inviting a few, mostly naff pop stars and comedians to drinkies at No 10, the very people Blair is trying to impress will be turned off."

True, when the Government came to power Britain was in dire need of an image revamp. The stiff-upper-lip-cucumber-sandwiches image the country still has abroad is about as far from reality as Britain as a colonial power. The Government's mistake was that it embraced too hastily a culture and creativity that it was as far removed from as the last Tory government. Tony Blair and his consorts might be intellectually brilliant, but they are not, and never were streetwise. Blair might have played in a rock band but that was at Oxford University - not as a means of escaping the dreariness of unemployment in a cramped council flat. By consciously re- branding Britain, New Labour appeared to be indirectly taking the credit for something it had nothing to do with.

If any politicians can respectably claim some credit for Cool Britannia - and multi-cultural Britain does have a lot more going for it at the moment than the other industrialised countries - then it should be two of Blair's ideological adversaries: Margaret Thatcher and Ken Livingstone. Thatcher, because the austerity her economic policies created provided a fountain of invention inspiring film makers like Mike Leigh and pop groups like UB40. She also created the economic conditions for the rise of the yuppie, now the patrons of trendy Conran restaurants and Islington cafes that have so changed the cultural landscape of London. Even more credit should probably go to Livingstone. As former leader of the Greater London Council he did much to break down the racism and homophobia that threatened to stifle any cultural upsurge. By investing in such activities as jazz and drama teaching in London schools and youth centres, he also had a small hand in the rise of a host of creative talent from saxophonist Courtney Pine to the younger stars of East Enders.

In any case, even if the Eighties had taken a different course, street culture and youth rebellion have been a natural resource of this country since the early Sixties.

The danger of the Blair government's approach to re-branding Britain is that it is in danger of over marketing the already over-marketed (like Britpop for example), leaving the real creative forces struggling unnoticed on the sidelines. And should, for that matter, the Government really be actively encouraging the likes of the overtly sexist epitome of the new lad, the DJ Chris Evans?

That is not to say the Government is wrong in targeting the creative industries as the future economic powerhouse of this country. They will be. But what it needs to do to is step back a bit from the limelight and take a more modest, supportive role. The pounds 7.5m Blair spent entertaining a host of celebrities at No 10 last summer would have been put to better use in the music departments of inner-city schools. Energies would be better spent paying attention to the development of the less glamorous segments of the creative industries, like our nascent software sector. The Government can also assert its influence by means of incentives such as tax breaks for targeted sectors. Perhaps most of all, it should be resisting concentration of the media - which is after all the main conduit for British creativity - into the hands of just a few.

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