Be Cool, Brits Told. Is That Cool?

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

This week when a bevy of European and Asian leaders arrives in London, Prime Minister Tony Blair will invite them into four huge silver inflatable tents on the parade ground where Queen Elizabeth II reviews her fur-hatted, red-jacketed Household Cavalry.

The visitors will see an exhibition dubbed "Powerhouse UK" featuring displays of computer games, genetic engineering, and electronic equipment for creating video special effects.

At last year's gathering in Edinburgh of leaders of more than 50 British Commonwealth countries, Mr. Blair arranged for a pop version of the national anthem, "God Save the Queen," to be played when the sovereign made her entrance.

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Her Majesty was seen to flinch.

Both gambits are part of an increasingly controversial Blair plan to "rebrand" Britain and persuade the world that it is young at heart and a happening place. His bid to replace his country's old-fashioned "Rule Britannia" reputation with an image he characterizes as "Cool Britannia" is already well advanced.

Cool, in Blair's interpretation, means modern, sophisticated, and progressive - hence his enthusiasm for the high-tech tents on Horseguards Parade and a remastered anthem.

This week, Blair will appoint a special task force, to be known as Panel 2000, made up of officials and businesspeople charged with helping to boot Britain into the next century.

But as it moves into top gear, the prime minister's modernizing drive is being challenged. Pop stars, fashion designers, and other members of Britain's "glitterati" invited in the early stages of Blair's premiership to lavish cocktail parties at 10 Downing Street, have begun sneering at the Cool Britannia campaign.

In February a male singer attending an awards ceremony in London emptied a bucket of ice water over John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, claiming the government was "condescending" toward popular culture. It was a fortunate escape for Blair, who had planned to attend the ceremony himself. Michael Bogdanov, artistic director of the English Shakespeare Company, complains about Blair's plans to reduce funding for the arts, saying, "I feel like a turkey that voted for Christmas."

More worrying for Blair, who links his rebranding concept to a desire to boost exports to Europe, North America, and Asia, the respected Economist magazine has poured cold water on his cool intentions.

"As any teenager could tell Mr Blair," the Economist editorialized earlier this month, "self-conscious efforts to be cool are about as sad as you can get."

A few days earlier, in a withering attack in the London Times, Lord Hurd, foreign secretary from 1989 to 1995, called the rebranding idea "horrible."

Symbols of 'a new Britain'

Soon after winning the May election, the new Labour government took steps to prepare the people who had voted it into office for adjustments to their nation's idea of itself. Blair gave early approval for building a Millennium Dome costing 800 million ($1,300 million) on the outskirts of London as "a symbol of the new Britain."

When French President Jacques Chirac came to the capital for a summit with Blair in November, the two met at a modernistic skyscraper in the heart of London's rejuvenated Docklands district. But perhaps as a hint of resistance to come, an attempt by Downing Street officials to persuade the chef to restyle himself Tony, rather than use his real name, Anton, failed.

On Jan. 1 Britain assumed the six-month presidency of the European Union. It marked the occasion with a ceremony not in a staid Whitehall palace but in the railroad station from which smoothly styled Eurostar trains race to Paris and Brussels via the Channel Tunnel.

Banging the drum for the concept of cool comes easily from a leader who once played guitar in a university band called Ugly Rumours. In the 1997 general election campaign, Blair kept calling Britain "a young country" and referring to his own party as "New Labour."

Chris Powell, head of an advertising agency that advises the Labour Party, says that while Britain is a world leader in pharmaceuticals and financial services, its image abroad, as well as its image of itself, "needs adjusting." Mr. Powell claims that surveys his firm has conducted in 30 countries reveal that Britain is better known for theater, literature, and modern music than for its industrial products.

Already some leading businesses have adopted Blair's approach, although some moves have proved controversial.

Last year British Airways replaced the traditional Union Jack flag on the tail fins of its passenger jets with paintings by contemporary artists from several countries, including Asia and Africa. Richard Branson, chairman of rival Virgin Airlines, immediately ordered that the national flag be painted on the tail fins of his aircraft, claiming BA had made "a silly mistake."

Some critics argue Blair and his team are wrong in trying to abandon one image and replace it with another. Lord Hurd says the Labour government is "pretending that the past is the enemy of the present.

Defending 'ancient' image

"The monarchy, the House of Lords, cathedrals, country houses, village churches, and ancient universities are not to be airbrushed out of the consciousness of those with whom we deal," Hurd insists.

"The real richness of this small country is its amazing variety of talent, in which past and present intertwine," he adds.

Travel agents and hoteliers in London appear to agree that what attracts tourists is a combination of the old and the new. The manager of a leading hotel near London's Hyde Park Corner says, "It is not just older folk who go to Buckingham Palace to see the Changing of the Guard. Young travelers turn up in their thousands, but are just as likely to want to go to pop concerts or fringe theaters the same evening."

Supporters of rebranding argue that Blair is right to try to tip the balance away from ancient stereotypes in the field of industry and exports because other trading nations around the world are brushing up their images too.

"Image," says columnist John Lloyd, who supports the Cool Britannia project, "is money, sales, and product. Rebranding Britain is serious business and will become more so as other countries hit back with their own versions of modernity."

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