Rebranding brand Britain

Crisis-racked economic basket case or the world's first truly post-modern nation? We examine what being British stands for in 2010.

by MT Staff
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

The last time the UK had a serious try at rebranding was 1997's Cool Britannia episode. They were the days when Things Could Only Get Better. We'd come out of a nasty recession, the coffers were refilling, Liam Gallagher got an invite to Number 10 with Blair's Ford Galaxy parked outside, the dotcom revolution was all systems go and the only way was up.

Now, as Brand Britain faces another round of reinvention, the mood is somewhat different: more sombre and altogether less confident.

Times may be tougher, but MT doesn't believe Britain is irretrievably broken: on the contrary, we still have an awful lot going for us. But if we're going to emerge as the leaner, stronger, fitter nation we all hope for, it's time for a proper look at what Britain really is in 2010, what Brand Britain means and what it should stand for. Before you can play to your strengths, you have to understand them.

There are those who say that as a nation we have lost our way, forgetting the roots that made Britain great in the first place: industrial prowess, for example. Not only, say the Jeremiahs, do we not have much of it left, but what there is is often in foreign hands. We live in a country where everything seems to be up for sale, from Jaguar Land Rover and Cadbury to our utilities, our top football teams, even airports and bridges. By some estimates, 75% of the UK's largest firms are now in foreign ownership. We are the world's sixth largest manufacturer, but where will it end?

Of course, we Brits do like to have a moan, but hang on a minute. The free market strategy may not be perfect, but it has delivered 25 years of economic prosperity, years that might otherwise have been spent in the mire of industrial decline. It is all very well to curse the City and the role it has played in the downturn. A degree of hubris and reining in of the bonus culture is long overdue - especially as public spending cuts bite into the rest of us mere mortals - but financial services are something we're very good at and the sector still pays an awful lot of tax. Chasing out the bankers to Zurich and New York is not in our long-term interest.

There's another way of looking at this. Although less often expressed, it should not be neglected in our quest for the new meaning of Britishness: could the UK be the first truly post-modern nation? As Howard Davies has written, the UK is 'a country which embraces the imperatives of globalisation more warmly than any other, certainly more than the US, France or Germany, not to mention Japan'. And it's a country confident enough in its own sense of self to realise that, so far as commerce is concerned at least, national borders do not mean all that much any more. (Try telling the supremely nationalistic Chinese that, though.)

Another thing that has changed since 1997 is the composition of the population. Since the heady days of Cool Britannia, 1.6 million people from abroad have been granted permanent right of residence, the large majority from developing countries. As a result, 24% of all births in England and Wales in 2008 were to foreign-born mothers, rising to almost 50% in London.

Assimilating this huge wave of migration is no easy task. Anxiety among the existing population about jobs and access to services such as social housing is marked and cannot simply be dismissed as Daily Mail-initiated xenophobia. But neither should we be blind to the huge economic and cultural benefits of the process. Fresh blood - in the form of migrants with the drive and ambition to build a better life - is a good thing for all of us. That's what built the US, although its flag-waving patriotism remains decidedly un-British.

Our openness to foreign talent and skills reaps perhaps its greatest dividends in the arena of scientific research. Dr Andre Geim and Dr Konstantin Novoselov, the two Manchester University professors who won the Nobel prize for physics last month, were both originally from Russia. Novoselov, who is only 36, holds joint British and Russian citizenship. The UK has won 118 Nobel prizes, a total surpassed only by the US. China has six and India four, although we can expect them to catch up fast.

This is a reminder of the huge continuing power of our higher education system in the UK. Exporting education is bigger business for UK plc than ever. At the world-class London School of Economics, 70%of the students and 50%of the faculty are foreign, drawn here by the quality of the product and the reputation of the institution. Yet the LSE remains quintessentially British. Whatever changes are made to the funding of our universities as a result of the Browne review they must not be allowed to imperil their quality.

Another trait which defines the British is independence of spirit. We're diehard non-conformists, who join wider political and economic bodies only reluctantly, instinctively preferring to make our own rules and be masters of our own fate. Hence our deep unease about involvement in the EU.

Despite having been on the inside since 1973, we remain semi-detached Europeans, highly suspicious of Eurocrats and their desire for political union. (The French appear to believe the EU is there to subsidise the enviable lifestyle they've lived for the past 50 years - les grandes vacances and all. This is of great interest to the Chinese factory worker completing an 80-hour week and staring at the suicide nets of the Foxconn factory in Guangdong province.) It's a position in which we get the best of both worlds - free trade with our continental neighbours, but no euro, that scourge of the Greek, Spanish and Irish economies.

Free trade is one thing, free-for-all punch-ups are another. One aspect of the good old days which may have to go is our military adventurism abroad. We have become used to being a player on the world scene, but the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have painfully exposed our inability to cope with such commitments. We are simply going to have to grow used to being weaker and less ambitious in our international dealings. The UK cannot afford to pretend it is a global policeman any more.

Time to concentrate on our soft skills: winning influence abroad without the follow-up fist of the Chinook, the Typhoon and the aircraft carrier. If this means a shrinking of our defence industry - defence exports surpass £7bn, take a 20%share of the global market and make us the world's second biggest player after the US - then so be it. If the true cost of replacing Trident really is £76bn, as has recently been suggested, then the answer is simple: we cannot afford it.

The history of British economic success is intrinsically mercantile. The Romans taught us about the benefits of international trade and we've been hawking our wares ever since. All that commerce has made us opportunistic, flexible and pragmatic. We keep our options open and remain suspicious of dogma of all kinds - religious, political, economic. If it comes to a fight between ideology and prosperity, prosperity wins here, every time. It's only after we've sold off the family silver and pocketed the cash that we allow ourselves a moment of sentimentality about the good old days - which usually never were.

But if in future our political and diplomatic ambitions have to be cut to fit a more modest budget, we shouldn't let our commercial horizons shrink with them. Compared to many, we're open, liberal and have got a 20-year head-start in the globalisation race. Surely the great British talent for improvisation can create a worthwhile future out of that?

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Economy Misc

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