Britain's Summer of 1997
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This was when England became a cultural beacon — again.
Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
In retrospect, it’s clear we hit Peak Oasis that summer. The Britpop band was everywhere, shaking hands with Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street, their post-adolescent crooning saturating every graduation party and rave on this side of the Atlantic, too. Champagne Supernovas for all. The United States was supposed to be the net culture exporter, but not during the summer of 1997. Cool Britannia was peaking, too.
Cool Britannia? Prescient even at 35, the writer John Lanchester described it in March 1997 as “the reinvention of London as the hippest, most happening, furthest-molecule-forward-on-the-cutting-edge city since Periclean Athens.” Newsweek had put London on the cover, and Vanity Fair followed (“London Swings! Again!”). Tina Brown was editing The New Yorker. The Spice Girls still made more people dance than wince.
I couldn’t resist saying it, though as soon as I did I regretted it: ‘A new dawn has broken, has it not?’
— Tony Blair, reflecting on his victory speech
The Royal Academy was preparing “Sensation,” the coming-out of the Young British Artists; with Damien Hirst’s rotting cow’s head in a glass box, it would live up to its title. Construction on the London Eye, the giant, now-iconic Ferris-wheel-on-the-Thames, would begin the next year. The food was getting better — good, even— and so were the Brits’ teeth, so much so that the first Austin Powers movie, released in May, could be laughed at safely.
For Britain that summer began on May 2, when Tony Blair’s party swept the elections, giving Labour — sorry, New Labour — its first victory in 18 years. Tony, Tony, Tony: the dubious haircut and gleaming smile and socialist wife who made him put the kiddies to bed. He was only 43, and like his saxophone-playing, boxer-wearing Third Way counterpart in the White House, he made government seem cool, able to change the world for better.
Blair pulled an all-nighter on voting day, and by the time he took the podium for a victory speech, morning’s first light came through the windows. “I couldn’t resist saying it, though as soon as I did I regretted it: ‘A new dawn has broken, has it not?’ That gave those already stratospheric expectations another and higher orbit,” he wrote in his 2010 memoir, A Journey: My Political Life.
The Newsweek London bureau chief who wrote the ‘London Rules’ cover story said it all got blown out of proportion.
But he was right about the figurative new dawn. His government invited a bevy of cultural figures — Oasis’ Noel Gallagher, designer Vivienne Westwood, actress Helen Mirren — over for a party themed “Cool Britannia.” Rule Britannia was over. June 30 marked the handover of Britain’s last major colonial possession, Hong Kong, to China. Prince Charles barely held in a grimace as he watched “the Chinese soldiers goose-step on to the stage and haul down the Union Jack and raise the ultimate flag.” And August 14 and 15 marked the 50th anniversary of the Empire’s first major disinvestment, in Pakistan and India.
Two weeks later saw the death of Princess Diana, no longer an HRH but still Princess of Wales, in Paris. The Royals scarce knew what do to, but Blair, media-savvy and focus-grouped, did. In a eulogy he called her the “People’s Princess,” and it became one of his best-remembered speeches. Many years later, Blair would claim he cringed to remember the soundbite. (The People’s Princess “now seems like something from another age. And corny. And over the top. And all the rest of it,” he wrote.)
The Newsweek London bureau chief who wrote the “London Rules” cover story said it all got blown out of proportion. The public lost faith in New Labour and Blair, especially after the Iraq War. David Cameron swept in, and this year tried to hold a Cool Britannia reprise, but none of the A-Listers showed up to the party. Westwood would claim she thought she was going to a party for Tony Banks, an old-style leftist, and that she’d never go to a party with Blair. Today, Britain faces criticism for not supporting civil liberties strongly enough in Chinese Hong Kong.
On August 21, 1997, Oasis dropped its third album, Be Here Now, and it became the fastest-selling one in Britain to date. But sales fell fast, and by year’s end, music reviewers had decided that the album, and most of Oasis’ oeuvre, was likely better on MDMA. Ten years on, The Guardian called it ”one of rock’s all-time folies de grandeur.”
Cruel, Britannia, cruel.