Friday, 13 August 2010

Cool Britannia is dead; or is it?

Cool Britannia is the latest legacy of the New Labour years to bite the dust with David Cameron reading its eulogy at a meeting of tourism industry experts this week, at which he told them to concentrate on celebrating Britain’s heritage rather than trying to make the country look ‘cool.’

The British tourist industry was, he said, ‘not doing enough’ to break into the top five visitor destinations. As speeches go it was fairly bland but he does have a point, the contribution made to the economy by tourism could grow by as much as 60% by 2020.

Among the plans announced to get the tourists flocking to our shores announced by the prime minister was speeding up the process by which visitors from China can get visas to come to the UK. Currently Britain is the twenty second most popular destination for visitors from the world’s fastest growing economy, Germany is the fifth most popular and that, Mr Cameron said, just wasn’t good enough.

‘If we can’t always beat the Germans at football, then we can beat them at tourism.’ We shall fight them on the beaches, probably for the last sunbed.

The prime minister also turned his fire, predictably, on the legacy of the last government criticizing them for appointing eight tourism ministers in thirteen years and said: ‘They just didn’t get our heritage. They raided the lottery, taking money from heritage because it didn’t fit with their image of cool Britannia.’

Up to a point I agree with him, by the end of their tenure Labour didn’t get anything about British life past or present and much of the cool Britannia project was silliness incarnate. That said beneath all the foolishness there was a kernel of truth, you can’t have a reasoned debate about where the country is heading if you spend all your time looking back at an imperial past that will have slipped out of the reach of living memory within a generation.

The thing is though I’m not at all sure Sir David has slain the dragon of cool Britannia, or even much wants to.

By talking about ‘heritage’ David Cameron is playing to the Tory crowd, the more traditional of whom like thinking about ‘heritage Britain’ with its thatched cottages and country churches because it distracts them from the mess the coarser elements of their own party made of the country in the eighties. It’s another way of tipping a wink to the turnip Taliban that says ‘I’m really like you, all that modernisation guff is just put on for the press.’

Look a little closer and you will see that the spirit of cool Britannia is very much alive and well. Take that dig about beating the Germans at tourism even if we can’t beat them at football, Alistair Campbell could have written that for Tony Blair in his salad days.

Look closer still and you will see a trick involving smoke and mirrors being worked on the public that would leave even Peter Mandelson gasping at its cynical audacity.

When David Cameron says ‘We should be proud of our potential because we are proud of our country’ and that he ‘loves going on holiday in Britain’ he has in mind the report being compiled by John Penrose into the possibility of encouraging more Britons to holiday at home. In the process raising the amount they spend doing so from £16billion to £36billion.

Where is the problem with that you might ask? After all Britain is a country to be proud of and a great place to visit; so long as you have a choice. As the budget cuts bite over the next two years more and more people aren’t going to have a choice, they’re going to be luck if they’ve got enough money to afford a holiday at all.

At least way back in the long ago when Tony Blair invited the Gallagher brothers, Damian Hurst et al round to Downing Street to proclaim the new cool Britain had been born he had the grace to suspend his cynicism while they were taking the photographs.

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