This time I've come to bury Cool Britannia

American journalist Stryker McGuire wrote the magazine article that initiated the 'Cool Britannia' phenomenon in 1996. Back then, the City was the engine of our prosperity, British music, nightlife, art and fashion were the best in the world, and a young, dynamic Tony Blair was about to topple the Tories. Now McGuire contrasts those heady times with the Britain he sees today, broke and bereft of hope and spirit. Ahead of Barack Obama's visit for the G20 summit, he asks: what went wrong ... and where do we go from here?

A few days before Barack Obama's inauguration I was sitting in a BBC studio in west London, a tiny microphone clipped to my lapel, and waiting to go on-air. On one of the TV monitors there were scenes of exultation as Americans flocked to a pre-inaugural event that formed part of the Passion play surrounding the ascension of the 44th President of the United States of America. One of the BBC presenters leaned over to me and said: "We just don't do hope here, do we?"

I thought about that afterwards. Actually, we did do hope here, and it wasn't that long ago.

True, it feels now like another era. The time was 1997. John Major was on the way out, along with 18 years of Conservative rule. Tony Blair was on the way in. It was the age, as hundreds of headlines proclaimed, of "Cool Britannia". We look back - after Iraq, after all the disappointments - and what we mostly remember, cynically, is this bright, shiny, smiling young man crossing the threshold at 10 Downing Street amid a throng of Labour faithful and party-issue flags.

But the moment was, to be fair, much richer than that. Blair didn't just represent the end of Tory dominance; he represented the beginning of something, too. The electorate, especially perhaps those middle Englanders who voted Labour for the first time, saw him as their skywalker, the man who would lead post-imperial Britain, post-Thatcher Britain, into the uncharted 21st century. It was, all in all, a good time.

How different everything is today. Optimism is a thing of the past ("We just don't do hope here, do we?"). Blair, in the popular imagination at least, is an ex-statesman out making speeches and cashing in on his Downing Street years; Gordon Brown is a well-meaning technocrat incapable of steering Britain through these depressed and complicated times; and Brown's likely replacement, David Cameron, is a nice guy, and getting nicer, but a guy who, again in the public perception at least, lacks the grit, savvy and blockbuster ideas to navigate us through this perilous economic barrier reef.

Having been there at the creation of the "Cool Britannia" phenomenon, I must in all good conscience preside over its demise. In a few days, as the leaders of the world's 19 largest economies and the president of the European Union gather for the G20 Summit, London will once again, and if only for a few hours, be in the spotlight. The London they and the world see will be, if not unrecognisable from the London of the mid-1990s, then a very different place from the London of those days when hope and optimism reigned.

I first came to this country as a visitor in the early 1980s. The London I saw was the maligned metropolis of tiresome clichés: a drab place with great history, poor heating and worse food. By the time I returned to live and work here in 1996, London had been transformed. And I did a story about it. In the breathless language of an American news magazine, London was not only cool but "the coolest city on the planet". "London Rules," said the Newsweek cover, which featured a sleek female model wearing a striking Philip Treacy hat in the shape of the union flag. I never used the words "Cool Britannia" but, as you can imagine, my story nonetheless launched a thousand "Cool Britannia" ships.

This was no mere confection on my part. London was in fact stunning to behold. If loss of empire was once a drag on the spirit of the British people, the immigration that resulted in part from that loss had by the mid-1990s become a major driving force behind the richly multicultural London blossoming before our eyes. It was a heady time, and even Thatcherism could be seen in an appealing light: as detested as it was by so many, Thatcherism had worked a kind of alchemy on British society, effecting a multitude of changes, from the economy to the arts, some of which were not intended by the Iron Lady herself.

Thatcher's Big Bang revolutionised the City. A new generation of masters of the universe (the ones we used to envy and now loathe) replaced the less inventive and less aggressive pinstriped stockbrokers and bankers of old. London was the centre of this revolution in British life. We now scorn the world of finance. But the City was perhaps the single greatest driver behind the prosperity and laissez-faire gumption that cascaded across the country.

During my early years here the number of foreign banks in London grew from 73 in the mid-1980s to 479, including 10 American banks that alone employed 21,000 people. Think back to the sheer energy that crackled through the Square Mile, part of a financial and related business-services industry that makes up roughly a quarter of the British economy. In a show of confidence, even defiance, property developers planned massive buildings in and around sites in the City that had been bombed by the IRA just four years earlier.

As London prospered it drew closer and closer to New York. Money, people and ideas flowed back and forth between the two great world cities. Wall Street salaries, bonuses and even dress codes began to shape City life: in some instances London law firms had to double what they paid newly qualified lawyers because of pressure from the New York competition; City boys began wearing chinos and shirts open at the neck. It was not uncommon for those who could afford it to own homes in both cities. Then, as now, more money was churning through London and New York than through all the rest of the world's financial centres combined. Out of all this grew NY-LON, a single city separated by an ocean.

The phenomenal changes reshaping London didn't stop at the world of finance. By the mid-1990s London had become a hotspot for art and design. Some London art dealers and collectors, such as Jay Jopling and Charles Saatchi, were more famous than their artists - and some artists were more famous than their art. For years the London architect Richard Rogers was known mainly for having designed the Pompidou Centre in Paris in the 1970s; now, finally, he had more work than he could handle in his home town, including the proposed new Terminal 5 at Heathrow. The week before my story came out, plans were announced for a glorious Ferris wheel on the Thames - what would become the London Eye, one of the UK's most popular paid-entry tourist attractions.

In the fashion world, Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design was the place to learn the trade. The Paris fashion houses Givenchy and Dior installed two of its graduates, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, as their top couturiers. Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Tommy Hilfiger were all putting stores in Bond Street.

Eurostar had brought the continent right into the heart of London. Arriving in droves, young advertising creative types were coming to London to hone their skills and soak up its by then famous nightlife. Clubs such as the Ministry of Sound, then edgy and fresh, were pulling in young people from Europe and beyond. Immigrants from around the world pumped new skills, innovation, enthusiasm and just plain hard work into a labour-hungry, creatively starved economy.

My "London Rules" story was a media sensation. One day not long after it hit the newsstands I got a call from the research department at Conservative Central Office, asking for copies. Within days there stood John Major at the Lord Mayor of London's banquet, embracing "Cool Britannia" and boasting that "our theatres give the lead to Broadway, our pop culture rules the airwaves, our country has taken over the fashion catwalks of Paris".

Not that it did Major much good. It was Tony Blair who benefited from the changes that were sweeping through London and Britain a dozen years ago. For a while at least, somewhat like Obama today in America, Blair was for many Britons that breath of political fresh air that comes along once in a great while and defines an era. Though his life story and political career are no match for the drama and historical significance of America's first black president, the man who marched up Downing Street with his family on 2 May 1997 inspired hope and optimism in a nation yearning to push off from the past and sail around the coming millennium into a new century.

Like the country that was coming into its own in those years, Blair was unstuffy, unembarrassed by wealth, newly confident. He was also relatively young - just 43 when he took office. His wife not only worked; she earned much more than he did. There would be children again at 10 Downing Street. The language of class warfare would fade, replaced by talk of "community", which sounded good even if not everybody could figure out what it meant. New Labour, New Britain, as the Labour party slogan said. Onward and upward.

The Blair era is long gone, and so too is the national spirit, the hope and the optimism, that reigned in those days. Gordon Brown, though he seems invigorated by economic catastrophe, suffers from the grey, been-there-too-long aura that wreathed Major in the aftermath of Thatcher. As if that weren't bad enough, Brown suffers by comparison to Obama. Obama - with a Baedeker background that took him from Jakarta to Honolulu, to Africa in search of his roots and self, with his unmistakable self-assurance, with his curiosity and intellect, not to mention his inability to live without his BlackBerry - is very 21st century. However unfairly, Brown, who turned 58 in February and is not that much older than the 47-year-old president, seems trapped in the 20th.

Psychologically and physically, Brown resembles the new presidential limo built for Obama: fitted with military-grade armour eight inches thick, wheels equipped with run-flat tires, and bullet-proof windows with glass so thick they block out much natural light. He does himself no favours by seeking to ingratiate himself with the American leader - an exercise in what the historian Timothy Garton Ash calls "the Jeeves school of diplomacy" that will surely be on display at the London Summit on Thursday.

Although the US and the UK are both racked by economic chaos, America feels like a country on the move and Britain a country at a standstill. The thriving, dynamic Britain of the 1990s has not quite turned into the "Iceland-on-Thames" of the Observer columnist Will Hutton's fears, and London is not Reykjavik. But as we sink deeper into recession and the number of unemployed multiplies around us, what many of us saw as strengths a decade ago now loom as weaknesses.

At times of economic stress, immigration typically falls into disfavour and becomes a hot-button issue; so it is no surprise that the government has decided to impose a £50 "migrant tax" on would-be workers and students coming into the UK from outside of the EU. Glitzy restaurants and cutting-edge fashion that used to be signs of welcome creativity reek of excess in a time of belt-tightening. Heavily mortgaged homes that looked like brilliant retirement nest eggs when property prices were soaring year after year now just look like basket cases. Construction sites and street works that once raised expectations of things to come now seem like major inconveniences. Damien Hirst's diamond-encrusted skull from two years ago now looks like the perfect artefact to draw the line between the excess of the recent past and the frightful times coming our way.

As for the City of London, the cut and thrust of entrepreneurship that looked smart just a few years ago now looks reckless. The great engine room of British prosperity now feels like an anchor - a drag on Britain's recovery and one among several explanations behind the International Monetary Fund's assessment that the UK's economic slump will be worse than that of any other advanced economy. This past week, Britain slipped into deflation - a decline in general price levels - for the first time in 50 years.

Meanwhile unemployment has passed the 2 million mark, possibly headed for a devastating 3 million. With gloom spreading, bankers are fearful of revealing their occupation in pubs, politicians are under fire for padding their expense accounts, the gigantic new Westfield London mall on the edge of Shepherd's Bush Green - one of the largest shopping centres in Europe - is eerily quiet, and neither VAT tax cuts nor stimulus programmes can coax consumers into spending more.

In this climate an undercurrent of defeatism threatens to revive what Blair once called "post-Empire malaise". He used the phrase more than 10 years ago, at a time when he felt Britain was emerging from that syndrome, but the disease's symptoms are appearing now - a lack of confidence, an unsettled sense of identity. Blair saw Britain's so-called special relationship with America as a way forward. Britain, he reckoned, could use US economic ties to strengthen the British economy and maintain London's status as a world-class financial centre. By joining forces with Washington on the global stage, Britain could punch above its weight. Through the war in Kosovo and 9/11, Blair's strategy seemed to work. But his alliance with George Bush in Iraq backfired, and Britons soured on what they saw as a grossly unequal relationship.

Brown had his own prescription for dealing with post-Empire malaise. Two years ago he launched a now all-but-forgotten "Britishness" campaign. Cynics saw it as a crass political ploy to counter his Scottishness. But it was more than that. If he didn't see the financial meltdown coming, he did see the social pressures that were building that would threaten the country's cohesion. At the time Britain was struggling to absorb the greatest wave of immigration in its history: in 2004 and 2005 alone more than 600,000 immigrants poured in, mostly from eastern Europe. In 2005, the 7/7 London bombings, carried out as they were by home-grown radicals, delivered a grim message to an anxious society: terrorism is being nurtured on British soil.

Brown's Britishness campaign looks to be all but shelved but a darkening economic mood threatens to revive British insecurities. Staving off a collective sinking feeling will not be easy. Some of the pillars that British identity once rested upon are long gone or substantially weakened: empire, the country's great industrial base, the monarchy and the Church of England. Even the English language suffers in its birthplace: it may dominate the globe but, according to a recent Home Office study, only 26% of the 1.3 million British residents of Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent are fluent in it. By choice as much as by accident of geography and history, Britain has become an outlier among world powers, an island in more ways than one. Unlike France or Germany, Britain's place in Europe does not help give it a settled identity; Britons are even less pro-European today than they were in the mid-1990s.

If the Europhile Blair saw Britain as a bridge between America and the continent, Brown seems disinclined to pursue a pro-European agenda (could electoral politics have anything to do with that?) and quite happy to push the British Isles even closer to the United States, especially if, with a general election due before the summer of 2010, he can somehow bask in Obama's glow. That would perhaps help Brown politically (or it could backfire) but retreating into the special relationship will do nothing to strengthen Britain's identity.

Surely looking inward, not outward and across the Atlantic, would provide a better path to national identity. For one thing, America is increasingly looking in other directions, to the east (China and Japan are the largest holders of US debt) and to the south (Mexico is the greatest single source of US immigration). More importantly, there's no reason for Britons to define themselves in American terms. The great strength of London a decade ago was its uniqueness, and if Britannia was cool, it was because it was different.

This country - which is my country, too, as a dual US-UK citizen - will do hope again some day. In search of optimism, it's worth revisiting that erstwhile emblem of New Britain, the Millennium Dome. After its grand (and widely panned) opening as the Millennium Experience on 31 December, 1999, the £789m project was all but abandoned, much like the disused east London gas works upon which it was built. Not a few people considered its mishandled opening on that chilly, rainy New Year's Eve to be the beginning of the end of Cool Britannia. Sure enough, the Dome went through any number of disappointing incarnations, from homeless shelter to funfair to the scene of a failed diamond heist. But now, improbably, it's back - as the successful O2 arena. It's a comeback worth recalling as we trudge through the coming months of recession and recrimination.

• Stryker McGuire was Newsweek's London Bureau Chief from 1996 to 2008. He is now the magazine's London-based contributing editor, the editor of International Quarterly and an associate at Lombard Street Research.

Britannia then and now


Man in charge John Major was ousted by Tony Blair in May 1997.

Motto Things can only get better.

Art Young British Artists (YBAs): Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Sam Taylor-Wood. Saatchi and Jopling.

Music Britpop - Blur, Oasis, Pulp. Spice Girls.

Restaurants River Cafe, Terence Conran's Gastrodome.

Nightlife Superstar DJs and club culture, the Ministry of Sound, Groucho Club, Soho House.

People's princess Diana.

Drugs Ecstasy and weed; beginning of the slide in price of cocaine.

Exchange rates £1 = $1.69

Fashion McQueen and Galliano.

Regeneration hotspots London Docklands, Shoreditch, Edinburgh's Leith.

Public Enemy Estate agents.


Man in charge Gordon Brown

Motto Keep calm and carry on.

Art MBAs (middle-aged British artists), Charles Avery, Darren Almond, Tomma Abts

Music Solo girls - Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse, Little Boots and Adele. Supergroup revivals, boutique commercial festivals (eg Bestival, Latitude), The X Factor

Restaurants Moro, Bistrotheque, Les Trois Garçons, The Fat Duck.

Nightlife Bungalow 8, burlesque nights, Cordy House, Shoreditch House.

People's princess Jade Goody.

Drugs Ketamine and MDMA; cocaine, heroin and crack widely, cheaply available; politicians, doctors and journalists talk of the dangers to mental health of super-strength marijuana (skunk).

Exchange rates £1 = $1.43/€1.08

Fashion Celebrity-endorsed high street collections.

Hotspots Manchester, Newcastle and Gateshead, Hackney.

Public Enemy Bankers.

21st-century cool: Abroad is better

Joanna Coles, British-born editor-in-chief of US Marie Claire

In 1997 Tony Blair had celebrity status because he was good at bringing different worlds together - music, drama, film, literature, politics. But Gordon Brown does not have Blair's celebrity cachet. Now it is all about Barack Obama, and New York and Los Angeles are both on bended knee to Washington. To be in New York after the collapse of Wall Street does not feel cool at all. All the newness - and newness is the essence of cool - is in DC.

It doesn't help that Barack is just not that interested in Britain. He has none of that lingering WASP snobbery about it that Reagan and George Bush Sr had. He has no desire to meet the Queen. His priorities are the American domestic economy and China, China, China.

Another cool place now is Mumbai thanks to Slumdog Millionaire and the emergence of India both culturally and economically as a world force.
The place to be Washington DC and Mumbai

Julian Gough, British-born author living in Berlin

Britain got culturally less interesting the richer it got over the last decade. Oasis, Blur and the YBAs came out of the dole culture of the Thatcher years; they did all their learning in poverty and then New Labour got into office and essentially took the credit for Thatcher's cultural revolution. For the past few years Berlin has been the underground cultural capital of Europe; economically it has been on it's knees for most of the century but apparently it has more artists per capita than any other city in the world. Because it's so cheap here the cost of failure seems much lower and that's important for creativity.
The place to be Berlin, especially around Warschauer Strasse.

Aravind Adiga, 208 Booker Prize winning novelist

Mumbai is a lot less cool than it was when I was a kid: now, young well-off Indians would prefer to live in Bangalore, or even Calcutta, which is going through a real renaissance. But internationally the places that are most alluring to young Indians are Shanghai and Dubai. In the midst of the recession they still seem to be growing. I used to live in New York but when I go back I have absolutely no desire to live there. I think India's such a fascinating place that once you've lived here it's difficult to leave.
The place to be Shanghai or Dubai

Detmar Blow, art dealer

The 90s were like the 60s. Everyone felt it was an important cultural decade, and I definitely felt a sense of history. But periods like that come around irregularly, they don't come every decade. When Issy's [his late wife Isabella Blow] career took off in the 90s she discovered Philip [Treacy] and then Alexander [McQueen] coming up in '92. So that was happening in fashion, and you had the YBAs in art, and then you had the music coming through with Britpop. It all came together.

One of my friends said: "The music's going to stop Detmar, but no one knows when." And now London's collapsed, like every other city.

In the art world, New York is definitely worse. I think Germany's doing quite well, and Portugal's doing well because it's a small country.
The place to be Lisbon

21st-century cool: London still rules

Sophia Kokosalaki, fashion designer

Britain is still incredibly cool, a world leader in every cultural field. I came here from Greece in 1996 at the height of "Cool Britannia" and I remember the Downing Street party and all the fuss. Just because we are not throwing the same parties does not mean exciting stuff is not happening. And one of the coolest things is that it is a truly multicultural society. People can come here from anywhere in the world and feel they belong.
The place to be Hackney

Vesna Maric, author

Growing up in Bosnia I dreamt about going to London; for me it's always been the place for music, fashion, youth culture. Because of the credit crunch there's a lot of talk about British society being too individualistic, but that's partly why there's so much innovation and creativity here - you can be who you want to be.
The place to be Dalston, especially Cafe Oto, or Hackney Wick, particularly the Schwartz Gallery

Gavin Turk, artist

When Sarah Lucas, Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin started to appear on the front of magazines and newspapers in the 90s it felt like something was really happening; the idea that artists could actually help sell a magazine was incredible. And, culturally, London is still vital. It's producing great new bands, advertising, media, films, TV comedy and there's an avant garde of sorts that is still working. London's biggest problem is that it's become impossible to travel around unless you cycle everywhere.
The place to be Vyner Street and Broadway Market, Hackney; Dalston

Toby Young, author of How To Lose Friends and Alienate People

Is Britannia still cool? I think these kinds of designations are meaningless. Vanity Fair's "Cool Britannia" issue was my idea and I effectively edited that issue of the magazine. Persuading the editors - and the reading public - that Britain was cool was simply a question of asserting this to be the case as emphatically as possible until they believed it. It does not surprise me one bit that Stryker has changed his mind.
The place to be Shepherd's Bush Green

Miquita Oliver, television presenter

My walk to school went past Damon Albarn's house: it was such a big deal. That "Cool Britannia" thing was around for about five years whereas now things happen for two weeks; stuff that's meant to be under-the-radar is quickly brought into the mainstream. I read [Blur's] Alex James's book recently and I was thinking, "God, we're not doing anything half as interesting as all that lot were doing." London's still got it though - you've just got to look in the right places. But I'm the one living in naff Shoreditch surrounded by people in suits, so what would I know?
The place to be Clapton

James Miller, British-born author now living in Buenos Aires

Brick Lane has become a bit of a cliché but having a rooted Bangladeshi community, and also a lot of artists and new media companies, gives it an edge. I don't think there's anywhere in Europe like it. Berlin is cool but London has more in terms of its diversity as well as the fact that it really is a global centre. It's still one of those connected places where it all happens.
The place to be Brick Lane

Interviews by Imogen Carter, Hermione Hoby and Lisa O'Kelly

• Read Stryker McGuire's original 1996 article on swinging London, at:

What's your view? Has Britain lost its cool? Or is there still much to celebrate? Write to us at:

Stryker McGuire

The GuardianTramp

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