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How Britain Lost Its Cool

In the past 20 years, the UK and Germany have switched positions, with the latter now representing openness while the former has come to embody backward-looking nationalism. But there is no reason to believe that the two countries won't swap places again.

BERLIN – The recent meeting between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May in the Estonian capital of Tallinn was a portrait in contrasts. Merkel has pursued openness and internationalism, and leads a country with a world-beating industrial base and strong trade ties. May talks more about the past than the future, and has disparaged “citizens of the world” while claiming to defend her country’s confused national identity.

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Among other things, the Merkel-May dynamic shows how cyclical history can be. Twenty years ago, Germany was the “sick man of Europe,” struggling to dispel its demons so that it could look out and to the future. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, had become “Cool Britannia.” In 1997, much of the world was tuning in to Brit-pop; and top British artists, fashion designers, and architects were the hottest names in their fields. Even British chefs were seen as global arbiters of taste, to the chagrin of their French counterparts.

I had a walk-on part in that moment of British national revival. In the report BritainTM: Renewing Our Identity, I proposed a strategy of national rebranding that was picked up by the new Labour government under Prime Minister Tony Blair. The idea was to rethink the idea of Britishness, and then reintroduce Britain to the world.

Rebranding was clearly necessary. By the mid-1990s, a fog of malaise had settled over British politics. Prime Minister John Major had lost control of the Conservative Party, and declining public trust in British institutions was fueling anxiety among voters. Britain, once known as the “workshop of the world,” had become a service economy. The British retail chain Dixons decided to name one of its consumer-electronics brands Matsui, because it sounded Japanese. The soap operas coming outof Buckingham Palace had turned adulation of the royal family into voyeurism. And according to opinion polls, around half of the country’s population wanted to emigrate, and a similar percentage (particularly Scots, Welsh, ethnic minorities, Londoners, and the young) no longer felt British.

Rather than mourning the ethnic-based, exclusionary Englishness that former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had done so much to promote in the 1980s, I argued that Britons should embrace a new civic identity, based on deeper stories about their country. Britain, after all, was a global hub, but also an island with a long history of creativity, quirkiness, and innovation. It was a hybrid country that gloried in its diversity. It had pioneered social and technological change not with revolutionary fanfare, but through sound governance. And it was a country that valued “fair play,” a value embodied in the National Health Service.

Of course, I should not overstate the influence of my pamphlet. BritainTM was just one part of a larger phenomenon. The British national story was moving toward openness, and that change would have a profound impact on both Labour and a Conservative Party that needed to detoxify its own brand. Conservative leaders such as former Prime Minister David Cameron and even Boris Johnson, when he was the mayor of London, came to represent a modern, multiracial, and multiethnic Britain. This is the Britain that the director Danny Boyle depicted in the opening ceremony to the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

How, then, did the country move from cosmopolitanism back to nationalism and nativism? The short answer is that Britain’s rebranding became a victim of its own success. By accommodating previously excluded citizens, the new national story made those at the center of the older, narrower version feel like a threatened minority. And when the Brexit referendum rolled around, they fought back.

May’s main goal since succeeding Cameron has been to appeal to the emotions of the old tribes at the heart of Thatcher’s version of Britishness – all who felt disenfranchised in Cool Britannia. Still, demography dictates that the new, open Britain will inevitably replace the old one. Most polls show that the country is becoming more liberal and tolerant every year. But one lesson from the Brexit vote is that identity politics – manifested in the fears of older, white, less-educated voters – can wreak havoc in the interregnum.

What remains to be seen is how far the nativist turn will go, and whether its leaders will overreach. Will the populist wave recede once a critical mass of voters starts to feel the economic effects of Brexit on the British economy? And could it have been prevented with a slower, more gradual change in the national story?

Similar questions have surely been on Merkel’s mind since Germany’s federal election last month. The fact that the far-right Alternative for Germany made unprecedented gains while Merkel’s own party lost support owes something to her bold open-door policy during the refugee crisis. She may now be wondering if the Willkommenskultur (welcoming culture) that she has promoted will share the same fate as Blair’s Cool Britannia.

Ensuring that it does not will be Merkel’s big challenge in her fourth term. Unfortunately, May, having ridden the wave of nativism, rather than trying to redirect it, will have little to teach her German counterpart.

If anything, May could fall victim to her own opportunism. If history does indeed move in cycles, it stands to reason that Britain will turn back toward openness sooner or later. And when that happens, May’s brand of backward-looking politics, like Thatcher’s, will be swept aside.

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