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Be Cool, Brits Told. Is That Cool?

By Alexander MacLeodSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 30, 1998


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.

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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.

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."