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?
Tony Blair arrives at 10 Downing Street after the Labour election victory, London, May 1997 Photograph: Tim Rooke/Nils Jorgensen/Rex Features 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 Labourfaithful and partyissue 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...