The heady days of Cool Britannia have reverberated through history: the Spice Girls and the Union Jack dress, Noel Gallagher chatting to Tony Blair in Number 10 Downing Street, Liam Gallagher on the cover of Vanity Fair. Alexander McQueen, Damien Hirst, Vivienne Westwood too.
All of this was located at the intersection of self-confident politics, economic optimism and Britain’s unparalleled cultural cachet. But it’s an energy that has been rather lacking in the UK of late. Because however you might like to describe Brexit Britain (Courageous? Innovative? Myopic? Idiotic?), when coming up with an appropriate epithet, “cool” doesn’t figure anywhere on the radar.
In fact what has come to characterise Britain in its current incarnation is a national insecurity usually associated with smaller, nascent nations.
If we were to solely observe the machinations of the cabinet we would see a country that feels it has something to prove. And in lieu of the self-assuredness that ought to ooze out of a country bold enough to leave a trading bloc integral to its whole economy, there is a pervasive anxiety.
If Cool Britannia was a moment in time where people grew increasingly comfortable with low-key demonstrations of national pride, Brexit Britain is the moment where that has become an unusually divisive act
This is no more evident than in the governmental decree earlier in the year stating that the Union Jack should fly from all government buildings in England, Scotland and Wales on all days (not just special occasions). It is hardly a symbol of a country at total ease with its direction of travel, nor with the fortitude of its union. Self-confident nations don’t usually need to legislate for patriotism.
And here is the big difference between Cool Britannia and the recent days of Brexit Britain. Britain now feels neither giddy nor brimming with self-conviction, but fretful and humourless. The soft-nationalism of Union Jack apparel has been replaced with mandatory flag-waving. And the Pet Shop Boys on Downing Street have been swapped for Ian Botham in Australia.
If Cool Britannia was a moment in time where people grew increasingly comfortable with low-key demonstrations of national pride, Brexit Britain is the moment where that has become an unusually divisive act.
But in this tale of two Britains there are valuable lessons in how culture and politics interact. And perhaps some hints that Johnson would do well to borrow more from the playbook of Blair than any of his Conservative predecessors.
Johnson’s political shrewdness lay in noticing something his predecessor Theresa May never did. May saw Brexit solely as a wonkish policy project, a square that needed to be circled by clever civil servants.
Johnson, meanwhile, saw a symbolic cultural revolution, a means for the electorate to say they didn’t like the so-called elites who were running the show. It is this sensibility that saw Johnson getting a Brexit deal through parliament (it is, unfortunately, thanks to this same sensibility that he is very bad at orchestrating Britain’s actual exit from the European Union).
But for someone who got all of that right, he has demonstrated a poor understanding of how culture actually functions. In a bid to excite the nation about its new future out of the nasty European Union, Johnson has opted for gimmick after gimmick: patriotic coins, bridges, blue passports and everything else we are sick to the teeth of hearing about.
Johnson is perhaps right to notice that Brexit requires a bit of invigorating in the public mindset
He too has tacked on “minister for the union” to the end of his prime ministerial title as though that will be sufficient to salvage an increasingly precarious situation. And let us not forget his ventures into flag waving-by-decree.
Johnson has failed to comprehend that politics doesn’t get to forge culture, it only refracts it back to society. And the government has gone down an errant path of believing it can make Brexit a lively and exciting idea with top-down policy intervention alone. If we gave any credence to this foolish notion we would end up believing that Irish culture was designed by committee in the Dáil, and not on GAA pitches or in Martello towers and Dublin nightclubs.
Where Johnson failed Blair succeeded: in Cool Britannia he understood how to spot a zeitgeist, hop on the train and capitalise on it for all it was worth. Noel Gallagher didn’t become cool because Blair invited him to Number 10. Nor did football enter the national consciousness when Blair quoted Three Lions at the Labour Party conference. But as the atmosphere grew Blair made sure to insert himself in a cultural phenomenon that was already well under way.
Britain has not lost its sense of cool thanks to Brexit. But its current politicians have no idea how to tap into it. There are The Proms and Stormzy, Turners in the Tate Britain and a Tracey Emin on the walls of No 10.
There is Phoebe Waller Bridge and Fleabag and Florence Pugh too. In fact, as Fintan O'Toole pointed out this week, Britain's older cultural icons "did more for Britain's international standing than the entire foreign office". The same can be said of its contemporary ones too.
None of this has anything to do with the UK’s membership or not of the European Union. But Johnson is perhaps right to notice that Brexit requires a bit of invigorating in the public mindset.
If he wants to shake off the staidness and pervasive anxiety that has taken hold, however, he needs to realise that he can’t legislate for a country to be at ease with itself.