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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.

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.