The Times headline on Tuesday was rather cruel: ‘Stars turn down No. 10 invitation.’ This was a reference to the party the press dubbed ‘Cool Britannia II’, David Cameron’s attempt to recreate the glamour of Tony Blair’s star-studded Downing Street reception in 1997. ‘They wanted Daniel Craig and Benedict Cumberbatch,’ said the Times. ‘They got Ronnie Corbett and Bruce Forsyth.’
To be fair, the guests also included Helena Bonham-Carter, Claudia Winkleman, Harvey Weinstein, Richard Curtis, Roger Daltrey, Eliza Doolittle and Kirstie Allsopp. But according to Fleet Street’s finest, who were milling about outside with their noses pressed up against the windows, it still compared unfavourably with Blair’s bash. ‘Seen bigger stars on ITV2 at 1.30 a.m.,’ tweeted one embittered journalist. There are several things to be said about this.
First of all, the original event really wasn’t all that good. No A-list movie stars turned up then, either. Reading the press reports this week, you’d be forgiven for thinking Blair’s Cool Britannia party was a resounding success, but it was written off as a cheap publicity stunt at the time. The press is wildly exaggerating how glamorous it was in order to draw an unfavourable comparison. The only people I remember being there were Noel Gallagher and Meg Matthews.
It’s also not a level playing field. Tony Blair had just won a landslide election in 1997 and was still basking in off-the-charts approval ratings. He hadn’t had a chance to do anything to alienate the luvvies, such as invade Iraq. Cameron, by contrast, never won a majority and, in his wisdom, decided to hold his Cool Britannia party at the end of his first term in office rather than at the beginning. His government has done plenty of things to antagonise the metropolitan elite, from cutting Arts Council funding to appointing Sajid Javid as Culture Secretary. Quite frankly, I’m amazed Ronnie Corbett turned up.
Then there’s the fact that Cameron is a Tory. Most ‘creative’ types would prefer to be seen with Rolf Harris than the leader of the Conservative party. I always thought the reason Cameron and his cronies wanted to ‘modernise’ the party is because, at bottom, they can’t cope with the social stigma. They don’t accept that if you join the Conservatives you are basically a bit of a weirdo — the kind of student who wears a suit to the freshers’ bop. The reason they wanted to ‘detoxify the brand’ back in the mid-Noughties wasn’t to attract floating voters, but to protect their social lives. They wanted to be invited to good parties, go out to trendy nightclubs and restaurants and be Conservatives at the same time. That was their version of ‘the project’: how to be a Tory and still be invited to Matthew Freud’s Christmas party.
Well, it’s clear now that they were on a hiding to nothing. Conservatives will always be unfashionable, and the more they try to ingratiate themselves with the in crowd, the more pathetic they’ll seem. If anything, they should go the other way and advertise their complete indifference to the good opinion of the intelligentsia. One of the quirks of modern life is that the distribution of ‘hotness’ isn’t linear, with George Clooney at one end and Nick Griffiths at the other. Rather, it’s a kind of circle in which people who are galactically uncool can pass through the fashion equivalent of a black hole and become cool — a bit like Hush Puppies. That was a trick that Margaret Thatcher pulled off. She never tried to have a Cool Britannia party or anything like it. But she was the guest of honour at a literary dinner organised by Hugh Thomas in 1982 and among those who turned up to break bread with her were Tom Stoppard, Stephen Spender, Isaiah Berlin, Al Alvarez, Anthony Powell, V.S. Pritchett and Philip Larkin. (‘I kiss the ground she treads,’ wrote Larkin to Julian Barnes.) I’ll take that lot over Noel Gallagher any day.
The other alternative is to stop worrying about being cool and just embrace your inner spod. That’s my strategy. Rather than be horrified by the besuited weirdoes I find myself standing next to at fringe events at the Conservative party conference, I recognise them as kindred spirits — independent-minded types who’ve embraced the Tory cause in spite of the fact that it’s so desperately unhip. To hell with the A-list. Cameron should have a party for the people who don’t get invited to parties.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.