How Cool Britannia Helped Fuel Brexit
Brit-pop entered Downing Street, soft nationalism took over British culture, and we started to shut ourselves off from the world.
Tony Blair chats to Noel Gallagher at a Downing Street reception shortly after his election victory in 1997 (Rebecca Naden/PA Archive/PA Images)
An elegant brown sedan with a cream roof turned slowly into Downing Street. The small crowd of autograph hunters on the pavement cried out and, in front of them, the jostling TV crews shouted at each other. As the car stopped at the tall wrought-iron gates, one man at the front of the crowd asked, "Who's this guy?" But everyone else knew exactly who this guy was. "I'd only signed off the dole four years earlier," Noel Gallagher would recall, "and I arrived at Downing Street in a Rolls-Royce." It was a second-hand one that his label had bought him as a gift, but it was what it was.
Farther down the road, inside Number 10 and up on the first floor in the grand state rooms of the prime minister's official residence, Tony Blair was chatting to the guests who had already arrived. Several of that evening's invitees were celebrities, but, as he and his spin doctors would have anticipated, Gallagher's invitation had attracted by far the most press attention.
Blair was trying to encourage journalists and the electorate to see him as youthful and cool, and he was doing so with a degree of success that former prime ministers had never dared strive for. Over three years in charge of his party he had weakened Labour's traditional alliance with the trade unions, but, having done so, it had become all the more important for him to associate his leadership with the macho, white and working-class identity that dominated the prevailing stereotype of organised labour. By hanging out with Gallagher, Blair was connecting himself to a genre of music that celebrated being British, being a lad and being rebellious in a way that seemed glamorous, but which had little prospect of changing the world.
Bands like Oasis were going to give Britons the impression that an age of rock'n'roll rebellion was upon them. Throughout the mid-1990s their music had gained in popularity, but in 1997 it would achieve a new kind of success: it became a bland orthodoxy. It was the strongest expression in pop culture of the broader promise of that year, that the future would be fairer and more egalitarian. Labour was not going to return to socialism, but this new, national rock music seemed to prove that the wider culture would become more representative of the country as a whole, and the working class in particular.
This genre was supposed to say something meaningful about Britain as it really was, about the importance of the lives and experiences of ordinary young Britons. It looked like proof that much more of what people saw on their TVs, heard on the radio and saw in the papers would, from now on, be built upwards from ordinary experience. A large section of mass culture seemed to be transforming from a bland soporific contrivance into a more authentic creation of the grassroots. The greatest positive legacy of these musicians is that pop songs reflecting the reality of life in the UK no longer seem unusual.
The story of Gallagher et al. is one of de-radicalised messages accessing a wider audience. Their generation of guitar bands, like the Spice Girls' feminism-lite, was exploited by the music industry, but their work was appropriated a second time when they were used to bolster Tony Blair's political project. These bands had found fame under the Conservatives, but their scene became strongly connected to New Labour nonetheless. As it had entered the mainstream it had become less weird and iconoclastic, and more like something that could fit neatly into the new prime minister's project.
Blair's involvement with the scene, in turn, made it more pervasive and bland than it had ever been. "I'm from the rock'n'roll generation," Blair explained. Rock'n'roll would never be the same again, and British culture would become no more representative of the lives of ordinary people. Instead, the pervasive whiteness and parochial focus of the late 1990s indie rock scene would feed a national culture that was unaware of how much it shared with the outside world, and how dependent it was on it. Therein lay the cultural grounds for anti-migrant resentment and Brexit.
At the gates of Downing Street, a rock star was waiting to hang out with the people who defined Britain's new establishment. Britpop was about to achieve its crowning glory: not the moment of its best work, but the time when it became the most extreme version of the compromise that it embodied. How had a pop music movement become so popular, and in the process become so irrelevant and elite?
Britpop's rebellious macho nationalism had not been rebellious, because it had become a game for middle class fans, an opportunity to play with a few specific conservative elements of working-class culture. Through this, and through a broader culture of laddism and parochial arrogance, British culture would be encouraged in its sexism and xenophobia.
Mainstream culture would increasingly be filled with national signifiers that were as empty as Geri Halliwell's Union Jack dress, Blair's invocation of "the People's Princess" and "new Britain", and the celebrity excesses of Britpop. British culture was abundant with Union Jacks and the labelling as "Great British" of things – TV shows, music festivals, supermarket advertising campaigns – that were not distinctively British, except in their location. This was understood as an effective branding strategy in the liberal media, the personnel of which identifies itself as considerably more cosmopolitan than its imagined audience. However, the consequences of suffusing our culture with soft nationalism have been far-reaching. Whether or not Brexit will open the UK to a world of trade, as its advocates claim, its supporters were motivated more by the prospect of sealing off the country from the rest of the globe.
Britpop did not cause this, but it was the most significant cultural movement in a wider trend.
This is an extract from '1997: The Future That Never Happened', which is is out now on Zed books