Cool Britannia was a period of increased pride in the culture of the United Kingdom throughout most of the 1990s, inspired by 1960s pop culture. The success of Britpop and musical acts such as 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, and contained the lyric, “Cool Britannia, Britannia you are cool/Take a trip!/Britons ever, ever, ever shall be hip.” 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”, and as used by the media and in advertising, it seemed to capture the cultural renaissance of London at the time (as celebrated in a 1996 Newsweek magazine cover headlined "London Rules"). The election of Tony Blair's Labour government in 1997, seen by some as young, cool and very appealing, was a main driving force in giving Britain a feeling of euphoria and optimism.
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. Such a parallel was apt as, like Blair, Wilson was considered a relatively young Prime Minister, his administration ended an extended period of Conservative governments (tarnished in the latter period by scandal), and his early tenure coincided with a period of economic prosperity. Many of the creative industries labelled as Cool Britannia were avowedly inspired by the music, fashion and art of the 1960s.
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 groups such as Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Suede, Supergrass and Elastica, as well as Spice Girls. 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 Flag 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.” 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 eras 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.
- 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.
- "London Rules".
- "Cool Britannia". BBC News. Retrieved 3 February 2015
- "Coalition recreates Cool Britannia 15 years on".
- "An Important Lesson in British History From the Spice Girls". Time. 31 October 2016.
- "London rules clubs".
- "It's 20 years on from Cool Britannia, so how has the fashion landscape changed?". telegraph.co.uk. 19 February 2017. 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.
- Independent '96
- "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. 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