Uncool Britannia - Can Pop Culture Save the UK?

Article published on April 3, 2014
Article published on April 3, 2014

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The Brit Awards Cer­e­mony, 24th Feb­ru­ary 1997, Lon­don. The Spice Girls enter the stage. Fire­works ex­plode and teenage girls scream as they begin to per­form Wannabe. Geri Hal­li­well, Gin­ger Spice, wears a Union Jack dress - far too short, just as she likes it. This performance went down in pop culture history. Can Britain be cool again as it was in 1997?

In this very year Cool Bri­tan­nia, pop cul­ture ver­sion of pa­tri­o­tism on the cusp of the new mil­len­nium, is at its height. On 1st May the Labours will beat the To­ries in the elec­tion, for the first time in eigh­teen years, and Tony Blair, a young and rel­a­tively hand­some prime min­is­ter, will move into his new apart­ment at 10 Down­ing Street.

It was not hard to be cooler than John Major, a Tory prime min­is­ter who has still re­mem­bered Eng­land of hay­mak­ing and Queen Vic­to­ria. The youth, as al­ways, wanted a rev­o­lu­tion. Even Damon Al­barn and Noel Gal­lagher united under a com­mon ban­ner – „The only thing they hate more than each other is the To­ries”. The econ­omy has grown in­terupt­edly since 1993 and peo­ple seemed to like bankers from the City. Im­mi­grants were con­sid­ered as a use­ful and re­fresh­ing ad­di­tion to British so­ci­ety. The cov­ers of Van­ity Fair and Newsweek an­nounced the re­turn of swing that once rocked Lon­don in the 60s. Brits have been look­ing at the world through Lennon glasses again.

Al­most two decades later...

Today The Great Britain is iso­lated from the world by build­ing an­other pieces of Hadrian’s Wall. Cool­ness has gone with the wind and the eco­nomic cri­sis. Be­cause how cool can be prime min­is­ter David Cameron, who smiles awk­wardly to the boys from One Di­rec­tion? Sorry, but the con­ser­v­a­tives are not meant to be cool. But it is not only Mr Cameron’s fault. There was some­thing rot­ten in this par­tic­u­lar idea of Cool Bri­tan­nia at the very be­gin­ning. Not only it was a cam­paign slo­gan, but it was ad­dressed to a par­tic­u­lar elec­torate - white mid­dle and work­ing-class from the big cities.

But with the threat that is Scot­tish in­de­pen­dence an­other issue may be con­sid­ered. Look at those boys from Blur and Oasis - Brit­pop didn’t re­flect the cul­tural mo­saic that is the UK. Blur was formed in Colch­ester, Oasis in Man­ches­ter, Pulp in Sheffield and Suede in Lon­don – this is not Britain, this is pure Eng­land. It was only the sec­ond wave of Brit­pop that put em­pha­sis on the local ac­cents. But the con­cepts of Cool Cale­do­nia and Cool Cymru dis­credit the ex­is­tence of Cool Bri­tan­nia as a whole. Eng­lish­men screwed up be­cause the club was too ex­clu­sive.

So we re­turn to a sad image of the Great Britain A.D. 2014 – with grow­ing na­tion­al­ism, iso­la­tion­ism and Eu­ro­pho­bia. The UK, that once used to sell British­ness, now wants to hide it in the crys­tal ball. And look­ing in the eyes of Nigel Farage there is no too much to offer. The spec­tre of Scot­tish in­de­pen­dence is haunt­ing Britain. But what if Scot­tish na­tion­al­ists fail in the ref­er­en­dum and Scot­land will stay in the union?

Does pop cul­ture have a power to unite peo­ple?

Well, foot­ball cer­tainly does. The Union Jack be­came a pop cul­tural icon after Eng­land's home vic­tory in the 1966 World Cup. And then in 1990, when Eng­land Na­tional Team reached the semi-fi­nals, na­tional eu­pho­ria emerged again that helped to re­claim foot­ball from the clutches of the hooli­gans, who have ruled at foot­ball sta­di­ums in the 80s. The Euro 96, that Eng­land hosted, was the mo­ment when peo­ple felt pride to live on their small is­land. It isn’t an ac­ci­dent that the de­vel­op­ment of pop­u­lar cul­ture hap­pened at the same time.

But there is a small prob­lem. There is no British foot­ball as­so­ci­a­tion. Team GB only oc­curs dur­ing the Olympics. Be­fore Lon­don 2012 the idea to cre­ate a British foot­ball team came up. But when two Welsh foot­ball play­ers, Aaron Ram­sey and Gareth Bale, were pho­tographed in the po­ten­tial kits, there were in­structed by the Welsh as­so­ci­a­tion to bet­ter shut up.

Still, Lon­don 2012 was a time of the biggest emer­gence of the Cool Bri­tan­nia spirit since the 90s. The games helped to re­build na­tional self-con­fi­dence and were a huge eco­nomic boost. Every­body, even tena­cious Scot­tish na­tion­al­ists with Mel Gib­son poster on the wall, have cheered on Team GB. In Feb­ru­ary David Cameron wanted to bring back the spirit in his mes­sage that he de­liv­ered at the Olympic sta­dium, when he asked Scots to stay in the union.

Quo Vadis UK?

But does any­body need the United King­dom today, es­pe­cially Scots? They can han­dle them­selves pretty well with their oil money and renewable energy. Their re­sis­tance is not dic­tated by some eth­nic dif­fer­ences. Their ‘no’ is a po­lit­i­cal state­ment against the hated To­ries and Lon­don-cen­tric pol­icy. But if they sep­a­rate the Queen will re­main the head of state, they will­ing to keep the pound and ac­cess to the BBC will still be as­sured. But what if they were de­prived of their favourite TV shows? How valu­able is the in­de­pen­dence if you are not able to watch Sher­lock and Doc­tor Who?

It is not ironic. Pop cul­ture is an im­por­tant uni­fy­ing fac­tor for the youth. Favourite TV shows, music, films and Face­book likes con­nect them more than na­tion­al­ity. Es­pe­cially for those with mixed cul­tural her­itage British­ness seems more at­trac­tive and tol­er­ant, be­cause it is fil­tered by pop­u­lar cul­ture. The younger and di­verse the com­mu­nity is, the more it iden­ti­fies it­self as British. For the con­tem­po­rary multi-eth­nic United King­dom it seems as a great al­ter­na­tive to na­tion­al­ism and Eu­ro­pho­bia rep­re­sented by old white men in socks and san­dals.

There are two pos­si­bil­i­ties for the UK: ei­ther noth­ing is gonna change and the coun­try will sink into ap­a­thy or it will rein­vent it­self and cre­ate this New Bri­tan­nia where all com­po­nents will be equal. 1997 and 2014 – these two dates have some­thing in com­mon. Sev­en­teen years ago the whole gen­er­a­tion saluted the out­go­ing To­ries with their mid­dle fin­gers. Have that in mind on 18th Sep­tem­ber, the very day of the Scot­tish In­de­pen­dence Ref­er­en­dum, be­cause that day Scots may do the same with the United King­dom.