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How to make Britain cool again Sometimes, you've got to fake it until you make it

The antonym of cool (Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images)

The antonym of cool (Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images)


August 17, 2023   5 mins

“Britpop’s Back. But What Happened to Cool Britannia?” asks a recent headline in the New York Times. Quite a lot, it seems. Pessimistic about our prospects, and uninspired by our King’s agenda, Britain is in search of a new story. The afterglow of the 2012 Union Jack-waving optimism has long dimmed. Today, a hollow libertarian boosterism battles with provincialism, self-loathing post-colonial regret and plain indifference. To many, Slowthai’s Mercury-nominated lyrics capture it perfectly: there’s nothing great about Britain.

What we need, then, is something that both binds us and shines to the world: a new Cool Britannia to resurrect the “swaggering sense of national self-belief” we have lost. The problem here is that our former bluster was powered by the fundamental belief that Things Can Only Get Better. Today, most of us simply hope that Things Can’t Get Any Worse. Liz Truss’s short-lived Big Bang 2.0 and Rishi Sunak’s Californian techno-utopian dreams of a start-up Britannia have failed to provide any sense of collective belief in a better future.

Cool Britannia’s optimism was turbocharged by an onslaught of aspirational cultural production that gave Britain a joyous vibe of buzzy creativity and irreverence. We had Blur, Oasis, The Spice Girls, Suede, Massive Attack and Pulp. Our fashion industry was trailblazing with Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood, Paul Smith, Ozwald Boateng, and John Galliano. The YBAs made British art the talk of the planet. Hugh Grant looked fabulous.

We still have star power. The problem is that so many of our icons — consider Harry Styles, Adele and Daniel Kaluuya — have a British-accented charisma that feels more Hollywood than Blighty. They are too geographically and thematically distant and mainstream to build a new national myth around.

So, what do we do? The answer can perhaps be found in Tara Isabella Burton’s latest book Self-Made: Creating Our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians. Here, Burton explores how figures through history have mastered the art of self-creation to fulfil their wildest dreams. From Renaissance Italy to Instagram, Burton reveals the dark arts of building a hypnotic brand that bends an audience to its will. From narcissist painter Albrecht Dürer and Regency dandy Beau Brummell to the proto-fascist Giovanni D’Annunzio and Paris Hilton, each character offers a playbook for how Britain can build a brand that delicately synthesises a new inspirational self-image.

Burton’s theory is simpler than you might expect: concoct a cocktail of mesmerising vibes and fake it until you make it. Quoting Baldassare Castiglione’s 1528 handbook The Courtier, she explains that the best brand-building comes from going “about selecting this thing from one and that thing from another. And as the bee in the green meadows is ever wont to rob the flowers among the grass, so our Courtier must steal this grace from all who seem to possess it”. Castiglione’s methodology is captured in the mysterious concept of sprezzatura — translated as nonchalance or lightness. Sprezzatura, Castiglione explains, “conceals design and shows that what is done and said is done without effort and almost without thought”.

Burton says that this can be achieved by “lying, at least the delicately artful ‘little white lie’ kind, is integral to self-making”. To become who we want to be, “we first have to convince other people that we are what we are not”. In other words, modern Britain might be far from a fountain of relentless creativity, but if we take on the sprezzatura mindset of Castiglione’s honeybee, perhaps we can begin to give the impression that we are. After all, it is also the case that everything was not fine in the Nineties — no matter how much Blair wandered around pretending to be Jesus in chinos.

One bee who is already busily buzzing about is Daniel Lee, Burberry’s new Chief Creative Officer. Lee, a 37-year-old working-class Bradford-born designer, has been working in the shadows cultivating a Cool Britannia 2.0 that is both scintillatingly hot and British. Only five years ago, his predecessor Riccardo Tisci torched Burberry’s classic crusader knight logo and replaced it with an Instagram-friendly orange monogram. Trampling over a century of heritage, he turned Burberry into yet another bland cosmopolitan luxury brand. Yet, this year, Lee launched a whipsaw reversal. Not only has he restored the knight, but he has revived an even more ornate version of the logo from 1901 that emphasises the Latin prorsum slogan, meaning “progress”.

But Lee’s new Burberry is far from jingoistic heritage maximalism. With adverts that feature foxes, corgis, swans, rabbits, Vanessa Redgrave, Raheem Sterling and Skepta, his rebrand captures the timeless equities that Britain has leveraged in our greatest moments. Lee recognises the dynamic contradictions that underlie the nation’s soul: the heritage and the zest for innovation, the aristocratic and the punk, the local and the global. Harmoniously resolving these tensions is the key to driving modern Britain forward — and making it sexy.

Of course, the quiet revolution triggered by Lee must not solely be led by a fashion brand; Burberry’s Britannia is not a substitute for a whole nation’s hopes and dreams. A national mythology cannot be driven by adverts alone, it should be accompanied by a wave of art and culture that transmits something new.

Moreover, if Cool Britannia 2.0 is to thrive, it needs a conductor. In the Nineties, that role was partly filled by Tony Blair. And he was desperate to make sure everybody knew it, constantly orchestrating photo opportunities that placed him in the thick of it. Comparably, despite an equivalent lead in the polls, Keir Starmer is the antonym of Cool Britannia. Not even a photoshoot in a Stone Island polo shirt next to a graffitied wall in Berlin would convince Britain that we are entering a new dawn of cool. Nor will his faux-nostalgia for football, the smell of hamburgers and horse shit.

This leaves a vacuum, a gaping hole awaiting a Arch-Sprezzatura Honeybee who will come out of the shadows and deliver us this hallowed new Cool Britannia. They must have the stature of a statesman, the respect of the masses, and the nonchalance that makes the nation gush and gasp. With Starmer and Sunak ill-equipped for the role, and King Charles now 74, the throne lies empty.

Princess Kate, Britain’s most popular royal, may stake a claim with her Vampire’s Wife dresses, misspent youth, and ketamine-fuelled-rave attendance, but ultimately she is too above culture to really drive it. Stormzy, the rap phenomenon and emerging national treasure, has signalled a willingness to wear the weight of the crown. In his Banksy-designed Union Jack stab-proof vest, he has demonstrated pedigree in wrestling with Britain complex modern identity. Perhaps more importantly, he is also on Burberry’s roster. However, as an already iconic creative powerhouse, he seems better suited as the first violin.

Noticeably lurking is Manchester mayor Andy Burnham. The bookies’ favourite to succeed Starmer has already signalled his honeybee credentials. After two failed leadership bids, Burnham has rebranded from strait-laced Blairite Westminster drone to a laid-back-but-serious, 24-hour-partying King of the North. In October, he will launch his new SXSW-inspired Beyond The Music festival and conference in Manchester — the originator of so much of Britain’s cool. The event, Burnham claims, will be about building “a creative alliance for the future” that brings together music, tech, gaming, brands and more.

Amid the pessimism, however, the prospects of a Cool Britannia resurgence feel dim. Yet consider this: in the age of self-making, the currency of vibes trumps stark realities. The ultimate heroine of Burton’s book is Caroline Calloway, the audacious Scammer Priestess. Despite squandering a half-million-dollar book advance and selling Snake Oil, Calloway has thrived by distorting reality. From faking exam results to get into Cambridge to selling fake workshops and proudly buying Instagram followers, every lie she tells sees her soar to new heights. Her audacious approach, an intoxicating dance with risk is the brand-building equivalent of Bazball. She throws everything at the wall and does not care what sticks. She’s the master of fucking around and finding out. Perhaps Britain’s path to rediscovering its swagger lies in harnessing the spirit of Calloway, simply ignoring the gloomy reality and playing without fear.


Louis Elton is a theological anthropologist, strategy consultant and conceptual artist.


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Peter B
PB
Peter B
8 months ago

What utter BS.
The UK needs another vacuous, puerile Blairite PR exercise like a hole in the head.
What we need is to get on and do serious real work and start dropping productivity draining wasteful activities and parasites. Including this sort of nonsense.
Get on your bike and get a real job Mr Elton !

Peter B
Peter B
8 months ago

What utter BS.
The UK needs another vacuous, puerile Blairite PR exercise like a hole in the head.
What we need is to get on and do serious real work and start dropping productivity draining wasteful activities and parasites. Including this sort of nonsense.
Get on your bike and get a real job Mr Elton !

Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
8 months ago

“Ignoring reality and just playing “ is exactly what our politicians have been doing for several decades.

Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
8 months ago

“Ignoring reality and just playing “ is exactly what our politicians have been doing for several decades.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
8 months ago

Oh goodness, the very thought of building a new “cool Britannia” around Adele…why? Is it because she captures so well the exquisite misery of Britain anno 2023? Is it because, by sitting in her Hollywood mansion, plastic-surgeried up to the max and bleating on about how she’s “still just a Tottenham girl”, she confirms what we all know anyway, i.e. Britain has largely outsourced forward cultural progress to the States?
I was a teenager in the 90s and I still do miss that sense of swagger and optimism that was around back then. But, as I grew older, I realised that it was all a castle built on sand.
If these pleasant little sugar rushes of presenting oneself as “cool” don’t inspire and galvanise people to create something real and lasting that underpins the sense of confidence and optimism – the bubble bursts and (just like eating too much sugar) you are left feeling more miserable than you did before.
Surely it would be far better to embrace the uncoolness of actually getting the nuts and bolts of the country to work properly?

Stu N
Stu N
8 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

As a fellow 90s refugee, thank you for summing up my feelings so well. I might be going grey and dealing with subsidence in certain places, but I wouldn’t be a teenager now if offered the chance. We might be disillusioned now, but at least we had the good times!

Katharine Eyre
KE
Katharine Eyre
8 months ago
Reply to  Stu N

Let’s put on some Echobelly, Gene and Sleeper and dance around a bit with our greying hair and slightly achy knees!

Last edited 8 months ago by Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
8 months ago
Reply to  Stu N

Let’s put on some Echobelly, Gene and Sleeper and dance around a bit with our greying hair and slightly achy knees!

Last edited 8 months ago by Katharine Eyre
Stu N
Stu N
8 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

As a fellow 90s refugee, thank you for summing up my feelings so well. I might be going grey and dealing with subsidence in certain places, but I wouldn’t be a teenager now if offered the chance. We might be disillusioned now, but at least we had the good times!

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
8 months ago

Oh goodness, the very thought of building a new “cool Britannia” around Adele…why? Is it because she captures so well the exquisite misery of Britain anno 2023? Is it because, by sitting in her Hollywood mansion, plastic-surgeried up to the max and bleating on about how she’s “still just a Tottenham girl”, she confirms what we all know anyway, i.e. Britain has largely outsourced forward cultural progress to the States?
I was a teenager in the 90s and I still do miss that sense of swagger and optimism that was around back then. But, as I grew older, I realised that it was all a castle built on sand.
If these pleasant little sugar rushes of presenting oneself as “cool” don’t inspire and galvanise people to create something real and lasting that underpins the sense of confidence and optimism – the bubble bursts and (just like eating too much sugar) you are left feeling more miserable than you did before.
Surely it would be far better to embrace the uncoolness of actually getting the nuts and bolts of the country to work properly?

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
8 months ago

You simply cannot have a headline with ‘cool’ and a picture of Starmer!

Lesley van Reenen
LV
Lesley van Reenen
8 months ago

You simply cannot have a headline with ‘cool’ and a picture of Starmer!

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
8 months ago

“Victorian dandy Beau Brummell”

Regency. He was “Victorian” for less than 3 years.

Without a good grasp of this sort of detail, articles like this just come across as a breathless sharing of cultural enthusiasms.

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
8 months ago

“Victorian dandy Beau Brummell”

Regency. He was “Victorian” for less than 3 years.

Without a good grasp of this sort of detail, articles like this just come across as a breathless sharing of cultural enthusiasms.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
8 months ago

Whoever chose the picture for this article has a delicious sense of humour. Well done.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
8 months ago

Whoever chose the picture for this article has a delicious sense of humour. Well done.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
8 months ago

Keir Starmer was the Director of Public Prosecutions when the Crown Prosecution Service blocked Andrew Malkinson from appealing despite knowing by then that he was innocent.

In the words of Doughty Street Chambers, on its page about Starmer, now amusingly removed from public view: “He was Director of Public Prosecutions and Head of the Crown Prosecution Service from 2008-2013. As DPP, Keir was responsible for all criminal prosecutions in England and Wales.”

Therefore, Starmer would have been responsible for this decision even if he had never set eyes on the file. Whether or not he took it, he was responsible for it. His supporters contend that his qualification to be Prime Minister is that he has borne such responsibility. This ought to be career-ending. If it is not, then why not?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

Precisely, well said.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
8 months ago

Thank you.

David Lindsay
DL
David Lindsay
8 months ago

Thank you.

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
8 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

Desperately stuff. Never sure why you have so much animosity towards KS, and yet Liz Truss & Boris Johnson, who have done more than KS could possibly have done to bring this country to its knees, never gets a mention. Brilliant how KS has never been in power but is already a boggy man. Its becoming weird. Think it’s just desperation. Given the Tories have made such a pigs ear of the last 13 years, it must be hard for Tory voters.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
8 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

I’m not a Tory voter by any means, but I’m just as doubtful about Starmer as the most rabid rightist. His record is just too full of equivocation, pandering and plain moral cowardice to make him a good potential PM.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
8 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

I’m not a Tory voter by any means, but I’m just as doubtful about Starmer as the most rabid rightist. His record is just too full of equivocation, pandering and plain moral cowardice to make him a good potential PM.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

Precisely, well said.

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
8 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

Desperately stuff. Never sure why you have so much animosity towards KS, and yet Liz Truss & Boris Johnson, who have done more than KS could possibly have done to bring this country to its knees, never gets a mention. Brilliant how KS has never been in power but is already a boggy man. Its becoming weird. Think it’s just desperation. Given the Tories have made such a pigs ear of the last 13 years, it must be hard for Tory voters.

David Lindsay
DL
David Lindsay
8 months ago

Keir Starmer was the Director of Public Prosecutions when the Crown Prosecution Service blocked Andrew Malkinson from appealing despite knowing by then that he was innocent.

In the words of Doughty Street Chambers, on its page about Starmer, now amusingly removed from public view: “He was Director of Public Prosecutions and Head of the Crown Prosecution Service from 2008-2013. As DPP, Keir was responsible for all criminal prosecutions in England and Wales.”

Therefore, Starmer would have been responsible for this decision even if he had never set eyes on the file. Whether or not he took it, he was responsible for it. His supporters contend that his qualification to be Prime Minister is that he has borne such responsibility. This ought to be career-ending. If it is not, then why not?

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
8 months ago

“Louis Elton is a theological anthropologist, strategy consultant and conceptual artist.”
Well that’s a good illustration of what is wrong with brand UK

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
ER
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
8 months ago

“Louis Elton is a theological anthropologist, strategy consultant and conceptual artist.”
Well that’s a good illustration of what is wrong with brand UK

N Satori
N Satori
8 months ago

Louis Elton – who gives himself the Pseud’s Corner CV description of theological anthropologist, strategy consultant and conceptual artist – posts an article in which he extolls a book by one Tara Isabella Burton, an American socialite with a PhD in Theology. Burton does a bit of extolling herself – praising important historical figures who have forged new cool identities for themselves (allegedly). I guess Theology ain’t what it used to be.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
8 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

Burton’s ‘Strange Rites’ is not a bad book. Tho I had low expectations, first chapter being about immersive theatre.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
8 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

Burton’s ‘Strange Rites’ is not a bad book. Tho I had low expectations, first chapter being about immersive theatre.

N Satori
NS
N Satori
8 months ago

Louis Elton – who gives himself the Pseud’s Corner CV description of theological anthropologist, strategy consultant and conceptual artist – posts an article in which he extolls a book by one Tara Isabella Burton, an American socialite with a PhD in Theology. Burton does a bit of extolling herself – praising important historical figures who have forged new cool identities for themselves (allegedly). I guess Theology ain’t what it used to be.

Prashant Kotak
PK
Prashant Kotak
8 months ago

Burberry, pah! I have a better idea.

This week I think I will revive the spirit of the ’70s by forming a new 5-man US style urban combo, (all 5 will be clones of me of course but different) complete with bell-bottom trousers, overhang lapel collars, and big afro hairstyles.
https://youtu.be/9rGgsEU9hCE

Next week, I will (all 5 of me) up sticks and move into the twenty-first century, move to the coast, genetically change my ethnicities, and ma style. Gotta move with the times you know.
https://youtu.be/wyx6JDQCslE

The week after, I plan to move into the sanatorium on Bedlam Lane for a long visit.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
8 months ago

Burberry, pah! I have a better idea.

This week I think I will revive the spirit of the ’70s by forming a new 5-man US style urban combo, (all 5 will be clones of me of course but different) complete with bell-bottom trousers, overhang lapel collars, and big afro hairstyles.
https://youtu.be/9rGgsEU9hCE

Next week, I will (all 5 of me) up sticks and move into the twenty-first century, move to the coast, genetically change my ethnicities, and ma style. Gotta move with the times you know.
https://youtu.be/wyx6JDQCslE

The week after, I plan to move into the sanatorium on Bedlam Lane for a long visit.

Ian Cooper
Ian Cooper
8 months ago

Lie for success? Isn’t our culture trashy enough as it is ?

Ian Cooper
Ian Cooper
8 months ago

Lie for success? Isn’t our culture trashy enough as it is ?

Liam F
Liam F
8 months ago

The article starts promisingly enough . But if the suggested way forward is something as vacuous as a fleeting internet scammer …well, I think we not delay ourselves here too much longer. (Rather like theological anthropology .)

Liam F
Liam F
8 months ago

The article starts promisingly enough . But if the suggested way forward is something as vacuous as a fleeting internet scammer …well, I think we not delay ourselves here too much longer. (Rather like theological anthropology .)

Samuel Gee
SG
Samuel Gee
8 months ago

self-loathing post-colonial regret

I’m 62. I think my grandfather might have had post-colonial regret. Certainly, the best quote on it about losing an Empire but having yet to find a role by Dean Acheson is carbon dated to 1962.

Samuel Gee
SG
Samuel Gee
8 months ago

self-loathing post-colonial regret

I’m 62. I think my grandfather might have had post-colonial regret. Certainly, the best quote on it about losing an Empire but having yet to find a role by Dean Acheson is carbon dated to 1962.

Gordon Arta
Gordon Arta
8 months ago

A ‘theological anthropologist’. Just the chap to explain why an omniscient god would need so many failed prototypes, hominids and hominins, before getting to homo sapiens. What was wrong with the Neanderthals? Didn’t god like the low brows, hairy bodies, and short bandy legs of ‘being in his image’? Well, he’s got Piers Morgan now, so should have stopped while he was ahead.

Katalin Kish
KK
Katalin Kish
8 months ago
Reply to  Gordon Arta

Thank you for the laugh.

Katalin Kish
Katalin Kish
8 months ago
Reply to  Gordon Arta

Thank you for the laugh.

Gordon Arta
Gordon Arta
8 months ago

A ‘theological anthropologist’. Just the chap to explain why an omniscient god would need so many failed prototypes, hominids and hominins, before getting to homo sapiens. What was wrong with the Neanderthals? Didn’t god like the low brows, hairy bodies, and short bandy legs of ‘being in his image’? Well, he’s got Piers Morgan now, so should have stopped while he was ahead.

Wesley Rawlings
WR
Wesley Rawlings
8 months ago

The real problem is there is simply no place for British culture in a globalised world. Everything needs to be marketed to the biggest audience possible, so if it’s in English it needs to be in American English with the correct accent prominent. Anything that falls outside of this is considered a defective product. The NYT article is correct that most popular British cultural exports have their British origin very carefully concealed these days.

Peter B
Peter B
8 months ago

Patently untrue. I assume you’re not familiar with market segmentation. There are always sections within a market.
Case in point: Top Gear. Exported all over the world. If that’s not British culture at its best (or worst, depending on your viewpoint), I don’t know what is. Likewise pop and rock music. British pop/rock music is recognised and played all over the world. Premier league football teams are followed worldwide. I don’t think I need to list more examples.

Peter B
PB
Peter B
8 months ago

Patently untrue. I assume you’re not familiar with market segmentation. There are always sections within a market.
Case in point: Top Gear. Exported all over the world. If that’s not British culture at its best (or worst, depending on your viewpoint), I don’t know what is. Likewise pop and rock music. British pop/rock music is recognised and played all over the world. Premier league football teams are followed worldwide. I don’t think I need to list more examples.

Wesley Rawlings
Wesley Rawlings
8 months ago

The real problem is there is simply no place for British culture in a globalised world. Everything needs to be marketed to the biggest audience possible, so if it’s in English it needs to be in American English with the correct accent prominent. Anything that falls outside of this is considered a defective product. The NYT article is correct that most popular British cultural exports have their British origin very carefully concealed these days.

Louise Henson
Louise Henson
8 months ago

Thanks, but ‘Cool Britannia’ was embarrassing enough the first time around.

Louise Henson
Louise Henson
8 months ago

Thanks, but ‘Cool Britannia’ was embarrassing enough the first time around.

j watson
j watson
8 months ago

The original Cool Britannia – Harold Wilson c1964 – seemed to capture the zeitgeist with a pipe and Gannex raincoat.
Certainly Sunak’s sliders and matching trouser length halfway up his shins seems to suggest he’s looking for his equivalent and trying a bit too hard. Keir should take note.

N Satori
N Satori
8 months ago
Reply to  j watson

“…capture the zeitgeist with a pipe and Gannex raincoat” watson?!
What happened to The White Heat of Technology post Empire Britain was supposed to deliver under Wilson’s Labour government?
Perhaps the brain-drain of technical and scientific expertise out of Britain in the late 60s better captures the zeitgeist. Not that it concerned our managerial class overmuch. Then as now, they prefer to buy in the products of other nation’s innovative spirit rather than nurture innovation on home soil.

j watson
JW
j watson
8 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

Capturing the zeitgeist to get elected and then delivering in Govt of course two different things. Doesn’t mean that for a period he didn’t capture it. Article was about Col Britannia and strange though it may seem Wilson once represented that.
Of course a separate debate about the dreadful inheritance that Govt was bequeathed and the historical debate about whether he should have devalued immediately rather than hold off til when it had potentially done too much damage. Anyway one for another time perhaps NS but one suspects a few more parallels there than we might like to admit if Starmer does get elected re: inheritance.

Peter B
Peter B
8 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Not sure what you’re on about here JW. Was the country really is such a dreadful state in 1964 (as you imply – if it were, it’s perhaps surprising that Labour barely scraped the election win in 1964) ? And was that really worse than in 1951 when Labour were last in government ? And did Wilson’s government leave the country in a much stronger state in 1970 ? Or 1976 ?
This isn’t a story I’ve heard much before. Please enlighten me.

j watson
j watson
8 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

We can’t do justice fully here PB but have a look at the Treasury reports his Govt received, particularly regarding value of the pound, cost of propping it up and balance of payment deficits.
Yes he won a majority of 4, but that was a huge swing from 59. And just maybe a similarity and warning to Starmer about what may occur again despite the current Polls.

j watson
j watson
8 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

We can’t do justice fully here PB but have a look at the Treasury reports his Govt received, particularly regarding value of the pound, cost of propping it up and balance of payment deficits.
Yes he won a majority of 4, but that was a huge swing from 59. And just maybe a similarity and warning to Starmer about what may occur again despite the current Polls.

N Satori
N Satori
8 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Wilson representing some sort of Cool Britannia? Come off it watson. As I remember, he did try to gain a bit of kudos by acknowleging (and even praising) aspects of the growing youth culture of the 60s. He was noticably pleased when British pop music proved to be a lucrative export. But representing Cool Britannia?! The term wasn’t even in use then. The media eventually came up with “Swinging Sixties” and “Swinging London” but most of the country just didn’t swing and Wilson certainly wasn’t noted for it.

j watson
JW
j watson
8 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

Cool Britannia of course wasn’t a term back then but little doubt the period had big elements that were later plagiarised in mid 90s. he was probably the first politician good with the media and who understood the power of capturing popular culture. Smart.
Clearly Beatles at the forefront of a cultural revolution that was just gaining momentum and to whom he awarded MBEs in his first NY honours and famously met. As an aside that caused a proper stink with the establishment conveying the idea entertainers etc should get such as unbearable. Wilson ignored the wails.
The difficulty now with seeing how Wilson captured the zeitgeist is we know the subsequent history and that distorts the impression. But at the time the juxtaposition with the Alec Home and the aristocratic duffers who’d led the Tories and the Country for the prior 13 years v marked. Wilson represented modernity and the common man and woman, strange as it seems now I know.

Peter B
PB
Peter B
8 months ago
Reply to  j watson

I think it’s more true to say that Wilson positioned himself as representing modernity in 1964. But I wasn’t there, so that’s just my opinion. The “White Heat” speech actually makes a lot of sense and has aged well – but people just don’t read it in full. It’s treated as some sort of parody. He clearly understood what needed to be done (and how many politicians can claim that ?). He just didn’t get that far in doing it. A shame.
I do recall the 1974 elections though, and by that stage I think it’s quite a stretch to claim that Labour and Wilson represented modernity. He seemed much more the comfortable “normal bloke” with a dog and a pipe – more of a Stanley Baldwin figure than a moderniser. While has was actually far smarter and more intelligent than Edward Heath – but hid it very well (channelling his inner Boris Johnson perhaps ?).
Well, I’ve done it now – written something slightly favourable about Wilson …

j watson
j watson
8 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Yes his section about ‘…of all the scientists that have ever lived 97% are alive now’ and hence the UK needed to rapidly seize this direction of travel was a step change in awareness to what was happening. He did ‘get it’ then, but subsequently dissipated with the devaluation saga and Union power overstretch. Nonetheless an Administration that was v radical, for the time, on race relations, abortion, death penalty, homosexuality etc. Of course some will think that’s where it all went wrong but really who would today roll back all those bits of legislation.
I agree by 74 a v different proposition. Not entirely clear how much he already appreciated his early on-set dementia at that point.

j watson
JW
j watson
8 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Yes his section about ‘…of all the scientists that have ever lived 97% are alive now’ and hence the UK needed to rapidly seize this direction of travel was a step change in awareness to what was happening. He did ‘get it’ then, but subsequently dissipated with the devaluation saga and Union power overstretch. Nonetheless an Administration that was v radical, for the time, on race relations, abortion, death penalty, homosexuality etc. Of course some will think that’s where it all went wrong but really who would today roll back all those bits of legislation.
I agree by 74 a v different proposition. Not entirely clear how much he already appreciated his early on-set dementia at that point.

Peter B
Peter B
8 months ago
Reply to  j watson

I think it’s more true to say that Wilson positioned himself as representing modernity in 1964. But I wasn’t there, so that’s just my opinion. The “White Heat” speech actually makes a lot of sense and has aged well – but people just don’t read it in full. It’s treated as some sort of parody. He clearly understood what needed to be done (and how many politicians can claim that ?). He just didn’t get that far in doing it. A shame.
I do recall the 1974 elections though, and by that stage I think it’s quite a stretch to claim that Labour and Wilson represented modernity. He seemed much more the comfortable “normal bloke” with a dog and a pipe – more of a Stanley Baldwin figure than a moderniser. While has was actually far smarter and more intelligent than Edward Heath – but hid it very well (channelling his inner Boris Johnson perhaps ?).
Well, I’ve done it now – written something slightly favourable about Wilson …

j watson
j watson
8 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

Cool Britannia of course wasn’t a term back then but little doubt the period had big elements that were later plagiarised in mid 90s. he was probably the first politician good with the media and who understood the power of capturing popular culture. Smart.
Clearly Beatles at the forefront of a cultural revolution that was just gaining momentum and to whom he awarded MBEs in his first NY honours and famously met. As an aside that caused a proper stink with the establishment conveying the idea entertainers etc should get such as unbearable. Wilson ignored the wails.
The difficulty now with seeing how Wilson captured the zeitgeist is we know the subsequent history and that distorts the impression. But at the time the juxtaposition with the Alec Home and the aristocratic duffers who’d led the Tories and the Country for the prior 13 years v marked. Wilson represented modernity and the common man and woman, strange as it seems now I know.

Peter B
PB
Peter B
8 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Not sure what you’re on about here JW. Was the country really is such a dreadful state in 1964 (as you imply – if it were, it’s perhaps surprising that Labour barely scraped the election win in 1964) ? And was that really worse than in 1951 when Labour were last in government ? And did Wilson’s government leave the country in a much stronger state in 1970 ? Or 1976 ?
This isn’t a story I’ve heard much before. Please enlighten me.

N Satori
NS
N Satori
8 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Wilson representing some sort of Cool Britannia? Come off it watson. As I remember, he did try to gain a bit of kudos by acknowleging (and even praising) aspects of the growing youth culture of the 60s. He was noticably pleased when British pop music proved to be a lucrative export. But representing Cool Britannia?! The term wasn’t even in use then. The media eventually came up with “Swinging Sixties” and “Swinging London” but most of the country just didn’t swing and Wilson certainly wasn’t noted for it.

j watson
j watson
8 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

Capturing the zeitgeist to get elected and then delivering in Govt of course two different things. Doesn’t mean that for a period he didn’t capture it. Article was about Col Britannia and strange though it may seem Wilson once represented that.
Of course a separate debate about the dreadful inheritance that Govt was bequeathed and the historical debate about whether he should have devalued immediately rather than hold off til when it had potentially done too much damage. Anyway one for another time perhaps NS but one suspects a few more parallels there than we might like to admit if Starmer does get elected re: inheritance.

N Satori
NS
N Satori
8 months ago
Reply to  j watson

“…capture the zeitgeist with a pipe and Gannex raincoat” watson?!
What happened to The White Heat of Technology post Empire Britain was supposed to deliver under Wilson’s Labour government?
Perhaps the brain-drain of technical and scientific expertise out of Britain in the late 60s better captures the zeitgeist. Not that it concerned our managerial class overmuch. Then as now, they prefer to buy in the products of other nation’s innovative spirit rather than nurture innovation on home soil.

j watson
j watson
8 months ago

The original Cool Britannia – Harold Wilson c1964 – seemed to capture the zeitgeist with a pipe and Gannex raincoat.
Certainly Sunak’s sliders and matching trouser length halfway up his shins seems to suggest he’s looking for his equivalent and trying a bit too hard. Keir should take note.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
8 months ago

The NYT is cheerleading for Labour already.
I don’t think the Cool Britannia meme will grab, though, despite their best efforts.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
8 months ago

The NYT is cheerleading for Labour already.
I don’t think the Cool Britannia meme will grab, though, despite their best efforts.

Nik Jewell
NJ
Nik Jewell
8 months ago

Zuck and Musk may have suggested how to make politics cool again It could be a weekly event. Political engagement would soar.

Nik Jewell
Nik Jewell
8 months ago

Zuck and Musk may have suggested how to make politics cool again It could be a weekly event. Political engagement would soar.

Sam Wilson
Sam Wilson
8 months ago

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Last edited 8 months ago by Sam Wilson
Sam Wilson
SW
Sam Wilson
8 months ago

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Last edited 8 months ago by Sam Wilson
David Collier
David Collier
8 months ago

‘Cool’ sounds a bit trite. Rephrased as the nation feeling good about itself is more appealing. Probably the UK doesn’t feel very good about itself right now, certainly there’s not much impression of that, football tournaments aside. Does it matter that it doesn’t? Probably it does matter because otherwise some might be inclined to have less regard for authority and the law.
The author is right that any feel-good inevitably involves an element of faking it, or selling it to use a different word. But faking what is not you will never work, the fake has to be real.
Two aspects of Brexit have turned out to be a monumental flop – maybe more than two but two in particular: one is the idea of Britain leading the world in dynamic international trade, which some people hoped for, and the other is immigration, those who hoped it would be stemmed have had their hopes massively dashed, not only are more people coming, they’re coming from a wider range of places.
If you have a flop, though, you shouldn’t be just wringing the hands, that’s not going to do any good. Turn your failures into an opportunity. Is there anything wrong in Britain developing the image of a quaint and eccentric backwater, a little along the lines that Italy had the image of for many years? But one with a twist, the UK has a greater range of migrants than any other country in Europe I think, cannot think of any other that surpasses us. Play on that, sell it! UK is diverse! We thrive on diverse!
I know that some people won’t like that, they can be thinking about rejoining the EU! Or maybe just wring the hands even harder?
The author’s right, it will take a charismatic leader, to do anything at all, though a movement or ideas from below can never go amiss surely.

David Collier
David Collier
8 months ago

‘Cool’ sounds a bit trite. Rephrased as the nation feeling good about itself is more appealing. Probably the UK doesn’t feel very good about itself right now, certainly there’s not much impression of that, football tournaments aside. Does it matter that it doesn’t? Probably it does matter because otherwise some might be inclined to have less regard for authority and the law.
The author is right that any feel-good inevitably involves an element of faking it, or selling it to use a different word. But faking what is not you will never work, the fake has to be real.
Two aspects of Brexit have turned out to be a monumental flop – maybe more than two but two in particular: one is the idea of Britain leading the world in dynamic international trade, which some people hoped for, and the other is immigration, those who hoped it would be stemmed have had their hopes massively dashed, not only are more people coming, they’re coming from a wider range of places.
If you have a flop, though, you shouldn’t be just wringing the hands, that’s not going to do any good. Turn your failures into an opportunity. Is there anything wrong in Britain developing the image of a quaint and eccentric backwater, a little along the lines that Italy had the image of for many years? But one with a twist, the UK has a greater range of migrants than any other country in Europe I think, cannot think of any other that surpasses us. Play on that, sell it! UK is diverse! We thrive on diverse!
I know that some people won’t like that, they can be thinking about rejoining the EU! Or maybe just wring the hands even harder?
The author’s right, it will take a charismatic leader, to do anything at all, though a movement or ideas from below can never go amiss surely.

Alan Colquhoun
AC
Alan Colquhoun
8 months ago

Don’t bother reading the NYT, especially if it leads to an article such as this!

John Galt Was Correct
JG
John Galt Was Correct
8 months ago

I’m not sure there can be another ‘Cool Britannia’ when there is little sense of Britain. Since Oasis and Blur there has been a divisive Scottish independence referendum, then Brexit, and then lockdown. Regionalism and regional inequality is increasing. As people around the country we don’t seem to have much in common with each other any longer. If we are going to rely on music culture it should be remembered that the likes of Joy Division and the UK dance culture came out of different circumstances, they were spontaneous and not ‘created’, not plastic. The warehouses and places used in the past to be creative no longer even exist in the cities as they are now £400K apartments. We shouldn’t try and recreate what was in the past because it is just standing in the way of where we would otherwise be heading to. Something will come, just when everyone least expects it.

Alex More
AM
Alex More
8 months ago

Look no further than the Lionesses surely?

Alex More
AM
Alex More
8 months ago

Look no further than the Lionesses surely?

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
8 months ago

Oh, the fury that will erupt from Unherd readers at this! Let me grab some popcorn and sit back to enjoy it!

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
8 months ago

You’ll get through a hell of a lot of popcorn if that’s how you plan to spend your day.

Last edited 8 months ago by Simon Denis
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago

Popcorn? Surely as a CS you mean caviar?

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
8 months ago

Whichever; CS gas is guaranteed.

Sue Sims
Sue Sims
8 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Don’t feed the trolls.

Sue Sims
Sue Sims
8 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Don’t feed the trolls.

Steve Murray
LL
Steve Murray
8 months ago

Whichever; CS gas is guaranteed.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
8 months ago

You’ll get through a hell of a lot of popcorn if that’s how you plan to spend your day.

Last edited 8 months ago by Simon Denis
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago

Popcorn? Surely as a CS you mean caviar?

Champagne Socialist
CS
Champagne Socialist
8 months ago

Oh, the fury that will erupt from Unherd readers at this! Let me grab some popcorn and sit back to enjoy it!