As Robert Allen explains in Dictionary of English Phrases (Penguin Books, 2008), the phrase cool Britannia, also Cool Britannia, embodied in the 1990s the revival of British pop culture, and was later associated with the new and revitalised political landscape that people identified – for a time – with the election of a New-Labour government in 1997 (Prime Minister Tony Blair – born 1953), especially as contrasted with the staleness of the outgoing Conservative government (Prime Minister John Major – born 1943).
This phrase punningly alludes to Rule Britannia (1740), the title of a popular patriotic song, originally celebrating a new British identity following the Act of Union between England and Scotland of 1707. This song was written by the Scottish poet James Thompson (1700-48), and set to music by the English composer Thomas Augustine Arne (1710-78) for his opera Alfred: A Masque (London, 1740); the song appeared in the opera under the title of An Ode, and contains the following lines:
Rule, Britannia, rule the waves;
Britons never will be slaves.
However, various persons had previously, and independently from each other, coined cool Britannia on several occasions and for different purposes—and this post is about those early coinages.
I have discovered a very early occurrence in The Hampshire Advertiser (Southampton, Hampshire) of Saturday 28th February 1903, which published “a new patriotic hymn respectfully dedicated to Mr. Walter Long1, and others”, an obscure poem by one Denis Duval:
When first Great Britain took her stand
Amongst the Powers, she came to stop.
She muddled through a war or two
And took the front place on the top.
That heritage shall she possess
When rivals would her flag depose,
In spite of incidental “mess”
And little passing nascoes [=?].
So muddle on, Britannia!
Britannia’s come to stay:
She’ll muddle out right at the end of the fight
And blunder through the day.
Though “blazing indiscretions” lead
To cringing to a foreign flag;
Though she deplores her paper corps
And weeps o’er her regimental “rag,”
Though little things that we regret
About her coasts may cause a breeze,
Great Britain’s Empire never yet
Turned turtle in Britannia’s seas.
So muddle on, Britannia!
When ere she’s had “on toast,”
She’ll extricate her ship of State
With the right side uppermost.
She fixed her standard in the East,
Whilst yet she owned a Cabinet,
For southern climes in later times
She ultimately caught De Wet2.
And, though a Ministry she runs,
Right under she shall never go,
For though she suffers t’other ones,
At least Great Britain’s got her Joe.
So muddle on, Britannia!
Britannia holds the cup,
She’ll face her foe with the past and Joe
And come out right side up.
1 This probably refers to the British Conservative politician Walter Hume Long (1854-1924), who, at that time, advocated protectionism and imperial preference.
2 Christiaan Rudolf de Wet (1854-1922) was a Boer general, rebel leader and politician.
The second-earliest instance of cool Britannia that I have found is from His hour of triumph, by ‘Cassandra’3, published in the Daily Mirror (London) of Monday 4th February 1957:
There was a corker this week in an advertisement in “The Aeroplane,” by a manufacturer of ventilating equipment for aircraft.
The copywriter of the ad. must have been lying in wait for years.
He is probably a very old man by now and, as men younger than himself in the business have been producing their witty sparklers, he has been crouching nursing his secret IDEA and muttering to himself: “I’ll wipe the smile off their faces!”
About seven years ago he saw his chance when they started work on the Britannia. Millions of pounds were spent on it. Governments brooded on it. Astronomical man-hours were lavished on it. Lives were risked in it.
The old copywriter with The Idea sweated it out and suffered the tortures of the damned when the whole project was delayed by engine icing troubles. But he held his fire. He gritted his teeth and he endured.
This week his hour of triumph arrived and as the Britannia roared off to Johannesburg (the only passenger-liner with the exclusive built-in pun) his headline advertising the ventilation equipment burst like a star-shell in “The Aeroplane.”
It said: “COOL Britannia!”
I can see the old man now.
There is a toothy grin about his face, a flash of fire in his cunning old eyes as he turns crowing over his younger colleagues and he says: “Got it, you whipper-snappers? COOL Britannia! Play on the word RULE. See? Got it?”
3 Cassandra was the pseudonym used by the English journalist William Neil Connor (1909-67) for his column in the Daily Mirror.
Cool Britannia was the title of the following satirical text by Art Evans about Radio Caroline, a British offshore radio station founded in 1964, published in The Edmonton Journal (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada) of Friday 3rd April 1964:
What has been described as a “pirate” radio station is now operating from a ship anchored in international waters nine miles off England’s east coast.
At least the station went on the air earlier this week and presumably, unless it has been sunk, it is still operating.
A news item reported: Radio Caroline, aboard the former passenger ferry Caroline, broadcast pop music and commercials. Britain’s radio monopoly, the BBC, doesn’t carry commercials.
Perhaps we shall soon read another news item: Radio Caroline was sunk today by submarines and heavy cruisers of the Home Fleet. The beatle-beat fought bravely to the end but proved no match for the heavier salvoes of the Royal Navy.
It could happen. No monopolist is more jealous of monopoly than a government.
It would take no more than a telephone call from the Director-General of the BBC to the First Sea Lord of the Admiralty to dispose of Radio Caroline.
Director-General — “We seem to be getting some static from a pirate radio station off the coast. Would you have your chaps take care of it?”
First Sea Lord — “Will the Home Fleet do? It’s in the vicinity now and the admiral never did like pop music and commercials.”
Director-General — “Jolly good show. Teach the blighters a lesson. Bung-ho.”
First Sea Lord — “Ta-ta for now.”
Silently the great battle wagons probe the swirling mists of the cruel North Sea. Every man, tense and alert, is at his post. On the bridge of his flag-ship the grizzled admiral, a lover of classical music, stops humming Beethoven’s Fifth, and strains to catch the first ear-grating sounds of the enemy.
In his many-dialled cabin the ship’s radio operator monitors the frequency of the pirate radio station.
“I’ve got them, sir,” he reports to the bridge. “I’ve just picked up a singing commercial for corn-plasters.”
“Stout lad, stay with it!” roars the admiral. “We need at least two commercials and a pop song for confirmation.”
The deadly search goes on. Finally, when nerves are stretched to the breaking point, the radio op gets his confirmation — a commercial for a fish-and-chip shop and a rock ’n’ roll record.
“I think they’re swinging Rule Britannia,” he informs the bridge. “Range, five thousand yards.”
That does it. The admiral gives the order and the mighty fire power of the Home Fleet is released with an ear-shattering blast. Radio Caroline is blown out of the water, then sinks to Davey Jones’ locker.
At dawn a longboat rescues the lone disc jockey who had been on duty aboard the pirate radio ship. Seeweed [sic] clinging to his beard and rope sandals, the DJ is hoisted to the flagship deck where he greets the admiral warmly:
“Did you catch the show, Daddy-O? That was a real crazy finale. Like boom!”
“Cool it man,” says the admiral. “Britannia still rules the airwaves.”
On Friday 26th August 1966, The Sun (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) published Unions Hot Over Freeze, by Pat Carney, Sun Business Columnist, about the negative reaction of the British trades unions to “Prime Minister Harold Wilson4’s July measures designed to cool off prosperity and reduce internal demand by the crude but simple method of creating unemployment in an “overemployed” economy”. This article was illustrated by a photograph of Harold Wilson, with the following caption:
. . . “Cool, Britannia!”
4 Harold Wilson (1916-95) was a British Labour statesman.
One of the songs of Gorilla (1967), the debut album of the British group The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, was titled Cool Britannia. The tune is that of Rule Britannia, and the lyrics by Vivian Stanshall5 and Neil Innes6 parody those written by James Thompson:
Cool Britannia, Britannia you are cool
(Take a trip!)
Britons ever ever ever shall be hip
(Hit me, hit me!)
5 Vivian Stanshall (Victor Anthony Stanshall – 1943-95) was an English singer-songwriter, musician and author.
6 Neil James Innes (born 1944) is an English writer, comedian and musician.
The following paragraph was published in the Daily Mirror (London) of Wednesday 22nd May 1974:
A streaker singing “Rule Britannia” made a dash down the Thames last night on water skis. He scrambled out at Kingston Bridge.
In the following, published in the Daily News (New York City, N.Y.) of Sunday 13th December 1981, cool Britannia alludes to Elspeth Flynn’s calmness, seen as a British trait:
Elspeth Flynn, an imposing woman who works for the British Information Services on Third Avenue, has been the regular target of verbal venom from pro-IRA pickets who demonstrate almost daily outside the building. Recently, as she made her way through the chanting crowd, she seemed the model of unflappable British civility. “Well,” she uttered archly, “I shan’t ever have them over to tea.”