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Brand New Britain?

The question of Britain's national identity has taxed politicians, historians, industrialists and generals for years, but this is the first time that advertising agencies have been called in to design a new one. James Heartfield investigates the repackaging of Britain's image

Changing the company name from British Airways to BA was bad enough for old-fashioned patriots. But BA's redesign this summer added insult to injury by dropping the Union Flag logo from its planes, on the advice of designers Newell and Sorrell. Instead of the already clipped triangle of the Union Jack, created by Landor for BA's privatisation in 1984, BA announced that it would feature abstract designs by artists with a multicultural theme on the tail fins that were previously dedicated to the Red, White and Blue. 'The new mission is to be the undisputed leader in world travel', said BA management head Chris Holt, leaving the implication that the Union Jack was bad for business unsaid. But Margaret Thatcher, who tried to block the image out with her hankie at a BA stand at the Tory conference, knew a snub when she saw one.

BA's doubts about the commercial attractions of Britain's identity were the signal that things were changing in the marketing of Great Britain. It seems that, for companies that want to trade on the world market, the association with a declining power like Britain is often judged as more of a millstone than an advantage. Richard Branson's announcement that he would pick up the fallen standard and fly the flag on Virgin Atlantic was an indication that the new business elite is not so keen to abandon Britain altogether. Instead designers and advertisers have launched a debate about repackaging the British image for the next century.

First the Design Council launched its 'New Brand for a New Britain' discussion paper in May. Then image makers Wolff Olins used the BBC's Money Programme to announce their concept of Britain plc. In July the English Tourist Board unveiled a new identity designed by Team Saatchi. The following month British Council offices around the world got a refurbishment to give them a more modern image. In September the think-tank Demos published its report BritainTM: Renewing Our Identity by Mark Leonard. In October the BBC launched its new understated logo.

The terminology is all advertising and design, concepts and images, but make no mistake, this is a public and a political discussion about Britain's future. Forcing the pace of events is Prime Minister Tony Blair. Early into his office, Blair invited 60 of the design world's great and good to Downing Street for a feelgood gathering. 'These people are ambassadors for New Britain', said the new PM, 'they embody strong British characteristics as valuable to us today as they ever have been: know-how, creativity, risk-taking, and, most of all, originality'.

The Design Council's discussion group that met this spring (which is to say before the general election) had an invitation list that reads like Tony Blair's Christmas card list: Robert Ayling, BA's Chief Executive, Martin Bell, journalist and now MP, Richard Greenbury, Marks and Spencer chairman, the New Statesman's Ian Hargreaves, John Hegarty of Bartle, Bogle and Hegarty, Jonathan Porrit, Sir David Puttnam, the BBC's Alan Yentob, and Tim Melville-Ross, director general of the Institute of Directors.

The findings of the Design Council, like those of the Demos report, chime with many New Labour themes. And with former Demos Director Geoff Mulgan's accession to the prime minister's new image group the circle is completed. The country is going to be redesigned. It was the Tories under Margaret Thatcher who first brought in the image consultants of the Saatchi brothers, but it is New Labour that turned over policy making to the advertising agencies. Indeed one of the best places to find out what the government is thinking these days is the magazine Design Week.

Like Blair, all the ad agencies agree that the image of 'Great Britain' is out of date. The Tower of London, red telephone boxes, Beefeaters and Shakespeare's Globe theatre convey an impression of Britain as backward-looking and mired in its history. They have a point. Britain's boom industry of the 1980s was heritage. Working mines were replaced by mining museums, industry by industrial theme parks, and above all Britain's wartime victories were celebrated in the awkwardly self-conscious D-Day celebrations, the re-opened 'war rooms' and other wartime museums.

Mark Leonard's report for Demos, BritainTM does not stint on the problems raised by Britain's national identity (indeed he relishes them, as part of his case for 'renewing our identity'). Scouring different business surveys of foreigners' views of Britain, Leonard reports that they have a low opinion of the country's industrial products, thinking us best at making jam, while they do favour partnership with British retail. In other words, they don't want to buy our old crap, but they would happily sell us some of their electrical goods. Also, Leonard reports, Britain has an unfortunate reputation for racism and imperial arrogance, especially in the Far East.

The drawback with Leonard's diagnosis, though, is that he thinks that Britain's image problem is just an image problem. The trouble is that Britain has the image it deserves. The perception that Britain suffers from imperial arrogance arises from its imperial arrogance. The perception that British goods are shoddy and uncompetitive arises from the shoddiness and uncompetitiveness of British goods. No amount of logo redesign will overcome that reputation.

In fact, the current preoccupation with British identity has less to do with what foreigners think about Britain than it might at first appear. The sudden spasm of redesigns and renovations does not reflect an astute business move, so much as a boom in self-doubt. It is rather like those companies that issue mission statements when they are not quite sure where they are going. It might be news to the advertising industry, but Britain's reputation for industrial decline and imperial arrogance is not new. The difference is that under the Conservatives, imperial power was something to be re-emphasised, and industrial decline was to be reversed. The elevation of the question of image only expresses the anxieties of the new British establishment over its failure to address those underlying weaknesses.

Even within the more modest world of business, no amount of corporate image-making can make people buy something that is sub-standard. The best that any advertiser can do is make a virtue out of the product's modest claims, like the current Vimto or Pot Noodle campaigns. The idea that national identity is susceptible to redesign is a mistake.

Leonard cites a book written by Eric Hobsbawm called the Invention of Tradition (he means a collection of historical essays of that title edited by Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, Penguin, 1993) to justify the claim that national identity can be manipulated. The contributors to that collection showed how apparently long-standing traditions such as the Coronation, Christmas cards, Scottish Tartan and even the monarchy itself, at least in its current form, were in fact invented relatively recently. Leonard's point is that if these apparently primordial traditions were actually manufactured by politicians, writers and entrepreneurs, why not invent some less stuffy, more up-to-date ones?

But traditions are not so easily invented. While it is true that somebody had to decide that the Coronation would make a good public pageant - as Disraeli did when he crowned Victoria Empress of India - such innovations have to be in the grain of public expectations in order to take hold. The enduring transformations of Britain's national identity generally took hold in the midst of a real transformation of Britain's self-esteem and standing abroad. The rise of the British Empire and the post-war creation of the welfare state were the occasions of substantial innovations in British national identity, because they seized upon popular aspirations, in the midst of self-evident national successes. By contrast, former prime minister John Major's attempt to galvanise the country around the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day showed that it takes more than spam fritters and Vera Lynn to make a national street party.

So what resources does Tony Blair have at his disposal in the modernisation of Britain's image? On the plus side, Blair's approval rating of 93 per cent represents a remarkable achievement of good will. At the root of that support is the way that Blair has become the personal focus of the hopes of the British elite. So many different quarters are banking on Blair to succeed, that his own standing rises and rises, far outstripping the popularity of his party. In particular Blair's New Britain satisfies the aspirations of a newer generation within the elite to take over from the old guard. On top of those domestic hopes invested in Blair, his renovation of New Labour is seen as a model for the political classes across Europe and in the USA. All of that political good will gives him considerable room to manoeuvre, allowing him to stand above the party political allegiances and loyalties that tie down more traditional politicos.

Evidence of Blair's authority came with the events surrounding the death of Princess Diana. Blair put himself at the forefront of a people's commemoration. The stuffy rituals of the House of Windsor were subordinated in a detraditionalised public grieving. The humiliation of Tory leader William Hague, accused of trying to score political points at a time of national grief, marked the new leader's monopoly over public pageantry. But grief is a poor tool with which to motivate the country.

The limitations of Blair's New Britain could be seen in his keynote address to the Labour Party conference in Brighton. The feelgood rhetoric of New Britain was designed to appeal to the leader's growing band of fellow travellers. Blair made all the right noises about where the country's economic future lay: with information technology, financial services and design, a message meant to appeal to Blair's new found friends in the design world, the city and Microsoft. But his message to the country was decidedly downbeat.

Blair's formulation that Britain would never again be the most powerful or the biggest, but it could be the best, was a message designed to moderate expectations. In content the speech warned of austerity to come before recovery - recalling the one-time French President de Gaulle's proposition that belts would have to be tightened if the standard of living was to rise, or as they used to say bread today, jam tomorrow. In place of solutions for Britain's economic decline, Blair hoped that we could all feel good about becoming a 'giving' society, though who was doing the giving and who the taking was left unclear. In practical policy proposals the speech only offered to take 500 000 people out of the labour market by means of expanding further education - which is a bit like cutting your coat to fit your cloth. As a newly elected prime minister's first address to his victorious party it was far from valedictory.

Blair's problem is that for all the good will he has from the new cognoscenti of the design world, he is selling Vimto and Pot Noodles. Between all the New this and New that, the underlying anxiety about Britain, TM or plc, glints through darkly. At the heart of this New Britain is not a positive message for the world, but a modesty in ambition and a fear of the future. The main arenas of New Labour policy making - education, health and law and order - are not places where ambition is writ large. Instead they appeal to people's fears of unemployment, of illness and of crime.

The message of innovation and modernisation is shallow compared with the appeals for respectable society to pull together. Blair's appeal is to the strait-laced more than the risk-takers. Young people feature as hooligans - or more favourably as clean-cut summer school attendees - in New Labour's message, but rarely as rebels overturning the apple-cart.

The various attempts to renew Britain's identity all suffer from the same tentative, self-effacing and fearful attitudes expressed by Blair. Indeed, that is bound to be the case. However much will there is to dump the old icons and symbols, no designer can summon up a lively national image out of thin air. Inevitably all of the caution and anxiety of the age floods in to fill the gaps left by the excised heraldry and pageantry of old.

The British Tourist Authority's (BTA) new brand image for Britain is a case in point. The Union Jack was a powerful image to deal with. A standard that has variously stood for the original common man John Bull, the Butcher's Apron of perfidious Albion, swinging London and the thugs of the National Front is saturated with meaning. The best of designers would have a job creating an image with as much force, even in the most optimistic of times - and those are conditions that do not obtain here.

Instead the BTA has done a bog-standard job of subduing the old image, by scrunching it up a bit, and pushing the flag off-centre (militating against its target-site directness). Red, White and Blue are subdued by the arbitrary addition of some green and yellow that gives the impression of having been left in the wash with an Irish tricolour. And all of that over the word Britain (no longer the triumphalist Great Britain) on a pastel blue background in a thirties lettering last seen on an already retro British Rail poster advertising day trips to Skegness. The Guardian's design critic Jonathan Glancey was generous, but accurate, when he wrote 'the new logo is, in fact, harmless, old-fashioned, apolitical and jolly good fun'. Fun, perhaps, but not the stuff of a new national image.

The Demos/Design Council report makes a more serious attempt to enumerate modern British virtues, but in doing so it only illuminates the cautious and self-effacing identity of a country ill at ease with itself. In the various 'stories' that Demos suggests have shaped the heritage of Britishness the same spirit of qualified and modest ambition resonates.

Britain we are told is a 'silent revolutionary', quietly innovating in technology and governance. In every phrase the qualifying terms 'silent' and 'quiet' stick out like Tony Banks' crossed fingers. It is like being told that Britain is a little bit revolutionary, or not very innovative. Or again, Britain is a country of 'fair play'. Not something that her former colonies might agree with, but even if they did it is a peculiarly modest claim, carrying echoes of John Major's vision of England, where the crack of leather on willow rang around old maids on bicycles.

Also, we are told, Britain is multicultural, summed up in the Demos slogan 'united colours of Britain'. This is a claim that, even if it wasn't pinched from an Italian company whose relatively innovative adverts were lambasted by the British press and Advertising Standards Authority, ought to raise a few eyebrows. First, Britain's record of vicious anti-immigration legislation and racist policing must put a question mark against such a claim. But just as importantly, the very attempt to sell Britain as a multicultural society represents a self-conscious attempt to distance Britain from its imperial past.

Demos' view that Britain ought to apologise for its past triumphalism might strike many as long overdue. But in its own way this apologetic approach is as destructive as the old imperial arrogance. One of Leonard's more bizarre - though sadly not unlikely - proposals is that the Monarch should make a tour of Britain's former colonial atrocities and apologise for the nation's misdemeanours. Clearly he has in mind such events as Tony Blair's recent apology for not having introduced welfare relief for the victims of the Irish famine.

These mawkish exercises in phoney compassion sum up the image of New Britain. They are not intended to address the all-too-real imposition of British military intervention in the here and now. On the contrary. The kiss and make up approach says we have done wrong, we are none of us perfect, the best we can do is recognise our mistakes (and no doubt try to make some amends by sending in the new humanitarians of the SAS to execute a few more alleged foreign war criminals). It is a self-image that sums up the lowered expectations of the age: self-effacing and apologetic.

Reacting to the Demos report the Guardian newspaper deplored the commercialisation of the national identity implied in handing it over to advertisers and designers. They need not have worried: there is no danger of any hard sell here.

The British Tourist Authority's new brand for Britain

The BA tail fin that had Thatcher reaching for her hankie and Real Time Studio's sketches for the BTA logo

Reproduced from LM issue 105, November 1997

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