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Hip, Cool Britannia Receives G-8

May 16, 1998

BIRMINGHAM, England (AP) _ The last time Britain played host, Queen Elizabeth II treated leaders of the world’s top industrialized countries to military bands, magnificent fireworks and Scottish pipers playing at Buckingham Palace.

But that was back in 1991, another era entirely. That was before Prime Minister Tony Blair launched ``Cool Britannia″ or Diana, in death, became the ``People’s Princess.″

Blair, host of the Group of Eight meeting of world leaders, laid on a rock concert with Mick Hucknall of Simply Red, and a ``People’s Party″ complete with street entertainers juggling, walking on stilts and strumming instruments in Britain’s second city.

And for ceremony? Well, there’s the burial of a glass-and-aluminum time capsule at a technology center _ with not a Scottish piper or a royal handshake in sight.

After Blair’s Labor Party swept to power a year ago, ``Cool Britannia″ became the catchphrase for swapping a national image of castles, royal pageantry, bewigged judges and thatched cottages for high-tech, futuristic buildings and generally being multicultural and modern.

Britain’s Tourist Authority adopted it as its slogan. And Blair forged a new, modern image for Britain, entertaining French leaders in a London skyscraper instead of his Downing Street office, and welcoming heads of the 54-nation Commonwealth in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh with xylophones and, pointedly, no bagpipes.

Critics scoffed, however, and opinion polls reflect little public enthusiasm for the modern approach.

``We can be incredibly cynical about ourselves,″ Blair said in an interview Friday with The Guardian newspaper.

Britons, he grumbled, still think it intelligent to debate the remnants of the national coal industry. ``Have a debate about design and people think there’s something funny about it,″ he said.

The Birmingham City Council has spent some $1.3 million on its welcome, which tries to incorporate both old and new ways.

On billboards, an unvarnished selection of the citizenry of this industrial city of 1 million people greeted President Clinton and the leaders of Japan, Russia, Canada, Germany, France and Italy. They include a 67-year-old woman and a smiling Sikh from a city that has one of the highest concentrations _ 25 percent _ of ethnic minorities in Britain.

Both billboard stars were among the 300 people invited to a Friday reception hosted by Birmingham Lord Mayor, Jamaican-born Sybil Spence.

Birmingham’s International Convention Center, the summit venue, is a chrome-and-glass affair overlooking an ultra-modern square. But the Council House, site of Friday’s reception, was built in the 1870s.

``There are contrasts,″ council spokeswoman Audrey Geber said. ``The very modern setting for the meeting, reception in a grand Victorian building and informal fun for the crowds.″

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