Cool Britannia was a name for the period of increased pride in the culture of the United Kingdom throughout the mid and second half of the 1990s, inspired by Swinging London from 1960s pop culture. This loosely coincided with John Major's conservative government and the 1997 United Kingdom general election where Tony Blair's New Labour government won in a landslide. The success of Britpop and musical acts such as the Spice Girls, Blur and Oasis led to a renewed feeling of optimism in the United Kingdom following the tumultuous years of the 1970s and 1980s. The name is a pun on the title of the British patriotic song "Rule, Britannia!"
Origins of the term
The phrase "Cool Britannia" was first used in 1967 as a song title by the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band (specifically, the first song in the debut album Gorilla) and contained the lyric, "Cool Britannia, Britannia you are cool/Take a trip!/Britons ever, ever, ever shall be hip." The song thereby directly references the lyrics of "Rule Britannia". The phrase "Cool Britannia" reappeared in early 1996 as a registered trade mark for one of Ben & Jerry's ice-creams – which mixed vanilla, strawberries and "fudge-covered shortbread". Channel 4 had a magazine show called "Cool Britannia" in 1996 and 1997.
"London Rules" Newsweek story
In 1996, Newsweek ran a magazine cover headlined "London Rules". The lead article, by Stryker McGuire, celebrated how London had transformed since the 1980s in fashion, food, music and nightlife. This magazine cover is often pinpointed as the beginning of the term's use. The use of this term was similar to that of "Swinging London" for the boom in art, fashion and popular music during the early years of Harold Wilson's Labour government. Many of the creative industries labelled as Cool Britannia were avowedly inspired by the music, fashion and art of the 1960s.
Significantly, the article was about London rather than the United Kingdom in general - this would be a recurring theme in its use, as the British economy continued to centralise around financial services in the capital at this time and people in England increasingly identified as "British" rather than "English" due to a discomfort with the English Defence League and similar groups.
The election of Tony Blair in 1997 marked a change in tone from the previous Prime Minister, John Major. Blair, who liked to draw attention during his election campaign that he had been in a punk band called Ugly Rumours while in university, invited high profile musicians to 10 Downing Street for photo opportunities.
Time described "Cool Britannia" as the mid-1990s celebration of youth culture in the UK. To the extent that it had any real meaning, "Cool Britannia" referred to the transient fashionable London house scene: clubs included the Ministry of Sound and the underground Megatripolis at Heaven, 1990s bands such as Blur and Oasis, fashion designers, the Young British Artists and magazines. Cool Britannia also summed up the mood in Britain during the mid-1990s Britpop movement, when there was a resurgence of distinctive British rock and pop music from bands such as Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Suede, Supergrass, and Elastica. Although they do not fall under the Britpop genre, pop girl group the Spice Girls were also part of the movement, with Time calling them "arguably the most recognizable face" of Cool Britannia.
The renewal in British pride (reinforced by the strong and uninterrupted growth of the British economy from 1993), was symbolised in imagery such as Noel Gallagher's Union Jack guitar and Geri Halliwell's skimpy Union Jack dress, worn at the 1997 Brit Awards. The Euro 96 football tournament, hosted in England, is also considered an event that encouraged a resurgence of patriotism, particularly in England. John Major, who was prime minister at the time, famously took credit (November 1996), accompanied with a press release issued by the Department of National Heritage: "Our fashion, music and culture are the envy of our European neighbours. This abundance of talent, together with our rich heritage, makes 'Cool Britannia' an obvious choice for visitors from all over the world."[unreliable source?] With his high profile bouts, world featherweight champion boxer ”Prince” Naseem Hamed is also associated with the era, as are alcopops and Lads' Magazines.
Released in 1994, Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), featuring one of the era's biggest stars, Hugh Grant, had been an early portent of the new wave of British cinema. Devised by screenwriter Richard Curtis, it set a pattern for British-set romantic comedies, including Sliding Doors (1998) and Notting Hill (1999), the latter also starring Grant. The first Austin Powers film, International Man of Mystery, co-starring Elizabeth Hurley (who was in a high profile relationship with Grant), was released in 1997, and with its Cool Britannia influenced take on the Swinging London era it instantly included itself in the same 1990s cultural moment. Danny Boyle’s 1996 film Trainspotting featured a Britpop-heavy soundtrack.
In March 1997 Vanity Fair published a special edition on Cool Britannia with Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit on the cover; the title read 'London Swings! Again!'. Figures in the issues included Alexander McQueen, Damien Hirst, Graham Coxon and the editorial staff of Loaded. Tony Blair’s speech at the 1996 Labour party conference drew on the optimism of the Euro 96 football championships – accompanied with the summer’s chart-topping anthem “Three Lions”. Alluding to the "thirty years of hurt" lyric in the song (since England last won the World Cup), Blair stated, "Seventeen years of hurt never stopped us dreaming. Labour’s coming home." After the Labour party won its landslide in 1997, there was even more enthusiasm.
By 1998 The Economist was commenting that "many people are already sick of the phrase", and senior Labour politicians, such as Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, seemed embarrassed by its usage. By 2000 (after the decline of Britpop as a tangible genre) it was being used mainly in a mocking or ironic way.
Two highlight DVDs, Later... With Jools Holland: Cool Britannia 1 & 2, have appeared since 2004. Similar terms have been used regionally for similar phenomena; in Wales and Scotland, "Cool Cymru" and "Cool Caledonia", respectively, have been used.
- British Invasion
- Cool Cymru
- Cool Japan
- Korean Wave
- Taiwanese Wave
- Things Can Only Get Better (D:Ream song)
- Stryker McGuire (2009-03-29). "This time I've come to bury Cool Britannia". The Observer. Retrieved 2012-04-06.
- J. Ayto, Movers and Shakers: a Chronology of Words that Shaped our Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), ISBN 0-19-861452-7, p. 233.
- "TV Choice". Aberdeen Evening Express. 26 July 1997. p. 10.
- "Cool Britannia". BBC News. Retrieved 3 February 2015
- "Coalition recreates Cool Britannia 15 years on".
- "Noel looks back in anger at drinks party with Blair". The Guardian. 1999-10-31. Retrieved 2021-04-14.
- "An Important Lesson in British History From the Spice Girls". Time. 31 October 2016.
- "London rules clubs". 22 April 2013.
- Craik, Laura (19 February 2017). "It's 20 years on from Cool Britannia, so how has the fashion landscape changed?". The Telegraph. telegraph.co.uk. Retrieved 20 February 2017.
- "Geri revisits Spice Girls' heyday in Union Jack dress". Hello!. Retrieved 3 February 2015
- Alexander, Hilary (19 May 2010). "Online poll announces the top ten most iconic dresses of the past fifty years". telegraph.co.uk. Retrieved 3 February 2015.
- Ragby, Gretchen. "blog". Retrieved 2021-02-06.
- "Belated recognition for Prince Naseem Hamed, the forgotten man of boxing". The Guardian. Retrieved 27 May 2019.
- "Cool Britannia: where did it all go wrong?". New Statesman. Retrieved 28 May 2019.
- Leaders: "Cool Britannia". The Economist, London: Mar 14, 1998. Vol. 346, Iss. 8059
- "Later... With Jools Holland: Cool Britannia [DVD] ". Amazon.com. Retrieved January 7, 2017.
- "Is it Cool Cymru – again? – Wales News – News". WalesOnline. 2006-05-25. Retrieved 2012-04-06.
- "Nova Scotia: In the heart of Cool Caledonia". The Daily Telegraph. 25 April 1998. Archived from the original on 12 May 2009. Retrieved 21 January 2018.
- "Whatever happened to Cool Britannia ? The UK after eight years of Blair", Cerium, May 2005. Links to papers and video.
- "Cool Britannia: where did it all go wrong?", The New Statesman, 1 May 2017
- "Cool Britannia symbolised hope – but all it delivered was a culture of inequality", The Guardian, 5 July 2017