Cracks appear in ‘Cool Britannia’
The love-in with New Labour has turned sour - and angry
Tony Blair has conducted a ruthless crusade in his determination to forge a New Britain. This ‘revolution’ from above has been planned, conducted and engineered by a veritable army of spin doctors, PR consultants, advertising and media contacts, etc. Inspired by Bill Clinton and the vapid razzmatazz that is official politics, no gimmick or PR opportunity is missed - nothing is too shameful or embarrassing.
It is fair to say that New Labour is obsessed by the power of image and by the capitalist art of marketing. Tony Blair and his team have sought to wrap themselves with an aura of youthful vibrancy - a cosmetic distancing from the old fogey-ist culture of ‘the establishment’. For the Blairites it was essential for New Labour to tap into and appropriate youth culture - and popular culture in general. One fertile territory, naturally, was music. The rising stars and heroes of Britpop had to be courted. (Many of the young Blairites instinctively feel, no doubt including The Great Leader himself, more at home with popular culture than the bourgeois-dominated high culture of opera, classical music, ballet, etc).
This does not make Blair unique. The Harold Wilson government similarly attempted to associate itself with the mop-topped optimism of the Beatles and their devoted followers. High-profile publicity shots of Wilson joking with members of the fab four sent out the message that we were witnessing a rebirth of Labour - the ‘white heat’ of technology aligned with the semi-hysteria of Beatlemania. Britain was back on the map - and it was hip this time.
The rise of Oasis, Pulp, Blur, Radiohead, The Verve, Prodigy, etc, has also been seen as the dawn of a new Britain, a Cool Britannia - under a Britpop-New Labour consensus. Noel Gallagher of Oasis, an unashamed and open ‘druggie’, visited No10. The catholic-church attending Tony Blair warmly embraced Gallagher. Gallagher, like virtually all the Britpop-ers, treated Blair as a conquering hero, a righteous paladin who had slayed the dread Tory beast. Blair seemed on the buzz. It was no accident that he did not invite members of Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull or Black Sabbath to his post-victory jamborees.
Everything seemed to be going Blair’s way. Stories appeared in the music press about Blair’s guitar-playing proclivities. Mat Snow, editor of the ‘fourtysomething’ music magazine Mojo, recounted his days with Blair in their university rock band, Ugly Rumours. Blair as sub-Mick Jagger. Thanks to the Britpop-ers, New Labour was linked with success “by simply coopting the most superficial elements of a notional Cool Britannia”, as Sean O’Hagan wrote in The Guardian (March 13).
But things have started to go horribly wrong. Cracks are appearing in the synthethic Cool Britannia monolith.
First it was John Prescott, a living symbol of uncool Britannia. At a Britpop award ceremony in February he had a bucket of water thrown over him by Danbert Nobacon of the anarchist band, Chumbawamba.
Nobacon’s act of liquid terrorism was on behalf of “single mothers, pensioners, sacked dockworkers, people being forced into workfare, people who will be denied legal aid, students who will be denied the free university education that the entire front bench benefited from, the homeless and all the underclasses who are now suffering at the hands of the Labour government”.
Then at the end of last week we had the vicious - and articulate - attack on Blair by New Musical Express. For good or bad, NME remains a key arbiter of pop-cultural taste. Its core readership is young(ish), predominantly white, male and urban. To alienate this constituency could spell trouble for New Labour. This NME assault must have dealt a stinging blow to the Tony Blair image department - and to the whole Cool Britannia project. For once Martin Jacques, former editor of Marxism Today, got it right when he described the NME editorial as “the most important political event this week” (The Observer March 15).
The NME front page was pasted with the headline, “Ever had the feeling you’ve been cheated?” - alongside a large picture of a distinctly mean looking Tony Blair. The contents reflected the cover. The editorial, entitled ‘The Labour government’s war on you’, damned the whole gamut of New Labour’s initiatives: welfare to work, tuition fees, curfews and the war on drugs. The approach of New Labour to drugs, for instance, is denounced as the living negation of ‘coolness’.
As NME says: “Our music, our culture, our collective sweat of our groovy brows has been bundled up and neatly repackaged and given a cute little brand name and is being used by New Labour spin doctors to give this hideously reactionary New Labour government a cachet of radical credibility. A credibility of which is utterly undeserving”.
In the light of Prescott’s watery ordeal, the magazine concludes with a warning: “But New Labour might be better advised to treat the soaking as a warning from us all. As a warning that New Labour’s honeymoon is over. That rock music’s decades-old, instinctive and deep-seated pro-Labour sympathies have, in the past nine months, been chipped away to almost nothing. Good morning, Mr Blair, this is your wake up call” (original emphasis, March 14).
Blair’s former supporters are now turning into opponents - which is more than can be said for the SWP. In NME we read about Alan McGee of Creation Records and general New Labour consultant. He headed the Music Industry Task Force and donated £50,000 to New Labour’s election campaign. McGee is appalled by New Labour’s welfare-to-work schemes, whereby musicians - he singles them out - have to take any employment offered. “Labour is making it worse for musicians”. McGee points out: “I was on an Enterprise Allowance Scheme for a year after I worked on British Rail and that’s how I got Creation together in 1983. If I had been forced to take a job then I would probably still be at British Rail now”.
According NME New Labour’s general attack on benefits threatens to obliterate the next generation of artists. The dole was a primitive form of arts subsidy. Without it, it would have been impossible for artists to emerge and nurture their talent - which takes time. It is no accident that the new wave of Britpop emerged when it did. After years of mass unemployment under the Tories. In a statement to the NME, The Verve echoed the point: “Of course we were on the sole when we left college. We needed just enough money to live on whilst we got it together. We wrote a lot of the first album during that time. You need time and space to grow as a band or, come to think of it, in any art form”.
Gordon Brown’s budget speech on Tuesday intensified the objectively philistine, anti-working class measures inaugurated by the Tories - and now being perfected by New Labour. Brown intends to drive working class youth into jobs by bribing the bosses to take on the long-term unemployed. From June they will receive a subsidy from the state of £75 a week for each new worker employed. As The Guardian semi-approvingly put it: “Work has acquired ideological status … New Labour is all about encouraging aspiration, however lowly, rather than cushioning under-privilege, however chronic”. It concluded that Blair and Brown have “the faith that people can be made to want to work” (March 18). Farewell to art and culture from below - if they get their way.
We have argued in this paper that over this coming period, splits from above should be expected - the Countryside Alliance march and Diana’s funeral demonstrated that. But splits emerging in Cool Britannia could be particularly dangerous for New Labour. Whilst Britpop musicians may not be humble now, most of them are from humble origins. These bands, through their music and the very fact of success, exert influence - the songs have resonance amongst working class youth. If records of Blur, Oasis, The Verve, etc, become informed by a spirit of strident anti-Blairism ... who knows?