There can be few countries that have spent so much time and energy worrying about their national identity as Britain. But just how easy is it for a nation to reimagine itself? The starting point of the most recent attempt to reimagine Britain is Cool Britannia.
The phrase originated with an ice-cream flavour (vanilla with strawberry and chocolate covered shortbread) promoted by Ben and Jerry in April 1996. Apparently the launch involved Britannia parading around the Royal Albert Hall dragging a large tub of the new ice cream!
The catch phrase was taken up by sections of the British media in late 1996 after the November issue of Newsweek declared London to be the coolest capital city in the world. For the rest of the 1990s an avalanche of glossy articles sought to characterise Britpop, Britart, Britfilm and Britfood as the leading edge of popular culture and taste.
After its 1997 electoral victory, New Labour indicated its desire to modernise all things British. Cool Britannia would be replacing Rule Britannia. Headline grabbing initiatives were launched to shake the nation free from John Major's monochrome warm-beer-and-cricket-greens image of old Britain and to foreground the creative culture potential of New Britain.
The dawning of a new millennium, the sun finally setting on the last outposts of the British Empire, the working through of multi-ethnicisation, a programme of radical constitutional reform and on-going European integration required dynamic living colour images of national identity. These would be used to project New British interests world-wide and build New Britain as an attractive brand label.
Rebranding was deemed to be an economic necessity because, as a result of amalgamations, take-overs and privatisations, many formerly British companies were fading their national identity. Sadly, the once valued tag of Britishness was worth very little in key sectors of an increasingly globalised market place.
Various public events gave a ringing endorsement of Cool Britannia. The glitzy Downing Street reception held in July 1997 for Britain's glitterati enabled Tony Blair the Prime Minister to emphasise the importance of showcasing Britain as a young stylish post imperial nation with leading edge creative cultural industries.
In the autumn of 1997 Commonwealth leaders watched promotional videos of New Britain and listened to a pop version of "God Save the Queen". In the following months overseas leaders were introduced to various aspects of Creative Britain and Powerhouse UK.
Sitting alongside this assertive commercial rebranding were various committees and seminar groups officially mandated to think the unthinkable about national identity and/or the future relationships between the component parts of the UK. The starting point for a much discussed Demos pamphlet was that Cool Britannia had the potential to set the international pace in everything from food to fashion.
Britain: Renewing our Identity emphasised the need to release the country from sentimental, outmoded attachments to tradition. It concluded that Britain needed as a matter of urgency to be trademarked as an outward looking, culturally diverse, creative hub capable of operating successfully in an open, interconnected global economy.
As a result a high-status Rebranding Britain panel was established in 1998. It was authorised to produce a blueprint for re-presenting the nation to a global audience in the count down to the Millennium. Panel 2000 consciously also sought to build upon the Cool Britannia logo projecting New Britain as a dynamic, progressive, sophisticated nation and a world leader in creativity and innovation.
Panel 2000's attempt to define who we are concluded that reliability and integrity; creativity and innovation; free speech and fair play; openness to the world; and unique heritage are the core values and strengths central to Britain. Equally significantly a Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain was established by the Runnymede Trust to analyse the future of the multi-ethnic nation, propose ways of counteracting racial discrimination and disadvantage and transform Britain into a confident vibrant multi-cultural society.
However, Cool Britannia lived and died in a muddle of high hopes, ridicule and recrimination. From the outset, concerns were voiced about the viability and indeed desirability of rebranding something as complex as national identity and identification as if it were just another supermarket product.
As we all know, in a global market place where there is a surplus of new products, brand logos are one of the few means businesses have to endow their product with a mark of distinction and build and protect market position. Strong global brands and logos such as Coca Cola, Levis, McDonalds, Microsoft or Nike dominate the marketplace because of their power to simplify choice and define quality. Research even suggests that the public have more faith in these brands than many public institutions.
The government was warned that any corporate style brand marketing campaign would backfire if it was not underpinned by and connected to concrete, recognisable values, sentiments and routines. It would also not be so easy to airbrush the residual myths, memories and rituals that were constitutive and evocative of the imagined community of Britain.
Critics pointed to the difficulties experienced by straightforward private sector rebranding exercises that happened to touch on national identity: The decision of BA to drop the union flag from its livery in 1997 and to spend £60 million in a highly imaginative attempt to rebrand itself as a multicultural world airline. However, after a barrage of negative publicity, in June 1999 BA announced that it would reintroduce the union flag.
Cool Britannia was quickly co-joined with images of uncool Britannia and more alarmingly rudely upended by cruel Britannia, crumbling Britannia, rip-off Britannia, racist Britannia and xenophobic Britannia. The century ended with unflattering descriptions of a country with collapsing public services, rioting football hooligans, resurgent sectarianism and violent racism, a disastrous Millennium Dome experience and shocking images of the storybook countryside transformed into a massive funeral pyre. All gave new meaning to the idea of the British disease.
The Runnymede Trust report ,published in 2000, warned the government that Britain would not be able to move forward as a multicultural society until it confronted the legacy and current realities of racism and radically revised some of the island nation's most cherished stories of the past.
In a speech given in November 2001, Tessa Jowell, Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, dispatched Cool Britannia to the dustbin of history. She declared that although well-meaning in intent, the Cool Britannia project had failed because it did not realise that "our national culture is something amorphous, something changing, and something complex", defined by and open to external influences.
The latest brand makeover of Britain was unveiled in early 2002. The British Tourism Authority used UK OK to distance itself from Cool Britannia in an attempt to woo tourists back to Britain in the aftermath of foot-and-mouth disease and the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.
Whereas Cool Britannia concentrated on modernisation selling the cool and trendy image of vibrant cosmopolitan home of Britart, Britpop and street cred, UK OK decided that the future of Britain's tourism industry lay in keeping open a range of meanings and representations.
The new back to basics campaign seeks to retraditonalise the country's image. Prospective visitors are invited to join the nation in celebrating the Queen's Golden Jubilee. In addition to the pomp and pageantry of Royal Britain, UK OK plays on the idea that it is impossible to imagine a Britain without the eternal representations of cultural heritage, e.g., historic houses, castles, gardens etc.
The campaign also foregrounds British eccentricity, rather than cultural diversity. Urban Britain is once more surrounded and indeed contextualised by green and pleasant land.
So what can we conclude from the short life and times of Cool Britannia? It is extremely doubtful that any one soundbite or soundtrack can make sense of - never mind symbolise and cohere - the multi-layered contradictory forces that are presently remaking national and local images, e.g., Scottish and Welsh devolution, Europeanisation, globalisation, multi-ethnic cosmopolitanism, the Northern Irish peace process, liberalisation, secularisation etc. The list could go on and on.
Multiple mixed up, awkward, fragmented identities and provisional identifications are being thought into existence at every level of British society. A new generation of Brits have no choice but to work through the undoubtedly noisy, messy, hopefully promiscuous relationships they will have with each other. In the process they will produce and perform new ways of belonging. It is they who will decide whether the term Britishness has outlived its usefulness as a source of not just national but self-identity.
This article was originally published in 2002