Cool Britannia: Britain in the Blair Era

Blair’s Britain Class 1 

In this class I introduced the period that we will be looking at during the rest of the course, a period that has become known in Britain as ‘the Blair Era’.

The Blair Era began in the mid-nineties. The 1980s had been a troubling period for Britain as Thatcher’s policies proved divisive. By the beginning of the 1990s, many people had become much richer. On the other hand, whole areas of the country had been plunged into poverty as mines and steelworks had been shut, an outcome of the policy of privatisation and of the government’s battle with the trades unions

The early 1990s saw a serious economic recession. After introducing the unpopular poll tax, Thatcher was sacked by the Conservative Party. Her successor as party leader and prime minister, John Major, was seen as weak and boring, and his government was damaged by allegations of sleaze.

The mid-1990s saw a cultural renaissance in Britain in various different fields. The YBAs (Young British Artists) were taking the international art scene by storm with their shocking ‘Britart’. For the first time since the sixties and seventies, British pop music became internationally dominant. ‘Britpop’ bands such as the Spicegirls, Blur and Oasis had number-one hits in many countries. Meanwhile, British cinema, which had been in decline since the early seventies, was also enjoying a revival.

This phenomenon was labelled ‘Cool Britannia’ by an American magazine. Cool Britannia made it cool, for a while, to be patriotic, something that would have seemed strange in Britain during the previous decades. The Union Jack (the British flag) became a popular decoration on clothes and other items. 

Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party after the death of his predecessor, John Smith, in 1994. The socialist Labour Party had been out of power for a decade and a half by that time. Blair argued that the public image of the party is what stopped it from winning elections, and that there was no point in holding fine ideals if the party never had the opportunity to put them into practice. His solution was to ‘rebrand’ the party, and to fit its goals to the beliefs and aspirations of the majority of the electorate. In the face of great opposition from within the party, Blair abolished Clause 4 of the party’s constitution (on nationalisation of industry) and introduced a system of one-member-one vote (OMOV) to reduce the power of the unions. The result was the New Labour Party.

The Cool Britannia phenomenon was associated (some said falsely) with working-class culture, and many artists, actors and musicians expressed their opposition to the ruling Conservative Party, and their support for the Labour Party under Tony Blair. Blair and his associates took advantage of this by linking their party to Cool Britannia. Pop groups wrote and performed songs for party conferences and artists designed T-shirts.

 In May 1997, the Labour Party won the general election and Blair became prime minister. A party was held at 10 Downing Street, and many Cool Britannia celebrities attended. The mood in the country was optimistic, patriotic…and cool. Britain seemed to be returning to the daylight after a long period in the dark. Other events in 1997 reinforced the feeling of national unity, above all, the ongoing preparations for the celebration of the millennium, and the death of Princess Diana in September.

Soon after the election of the government however, criticisms began to emerge. Some early actions, such as the introduction of tuition fees for university students, and the delay in introducing a promised hunting ban, angered Labour Party supporters.

Many people criticised the continued use of spin and public relations. These were seen as useful strategies in an election campaign, but when the pracitces became permanent, commentators asked whether the New Labour project was all about appearances; whether it lacked substance.

The feeling of excitement and optimism that arose in 1997 was soon tinged with disappointment, doubt and division. However, the feeling that something had changed, for better or worse, remained. The British had entered the Blair Era.

You can download the presentation for this class here:

Britain in the Blair Era Class 1: Powerpoint Presentation

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