The cultural difference

The report into the branding of Britain cites and then overlooks this country’s greatest strength. Janice Kirkpatrick says we should capitalise on our diversity.

The Demos Report commissioned by the Design Council is phenomenal. Buy a copy and read it as a salutary warning against allowing “consultants” to determine how the UK should represent itself. It took some time to digest. I thought the binding had come loose and some pages were missing. I now conclude that there is a hole in the middle of Britain.

It’s like the consultants consulted and then drew an outline of the British mainland, including everyone, but naming no country, region or place. While preaching that cultural difference is a valuable national asset, the report ignores that fact from cover to cover.

It’s a useful report, but its purpose has been misconstrued, viewed as a “manifesto for change” or a “branding exercise” – a report it is, a manifesto it most definitely is not.

Like the Myerscough report in the late Eighties, linking the arts with economic gain, the report makes the crucial link: culture = money. This is vital for the future prosperity of this place, which was “first in and first out of the industrial revolution”, the “workshop of the world” and the inventor of art schools.

Demos cleverly underpins the argument for “being what we are” because our national personality is attractive and potentially lucrative. Indeed, the Japanese reckon that over 70 per cent of significant inventions and 20 per cent of all post-war inventions originate from the UK. We don’t need to invent marketing myths when we’re already intelligent, eccentric, multicultural, tolerant and relaxed about change. The UK is already the brilliant idiot savant of the global marketplace.

The UK needs to communicate that we are a complex mix of nationalities and regions which love each other, even through devolution and constitutional change. This sets a tough brief for the self-appointed branders, but no solution is preferable to a simple but inappropriate one. Britain is a consultants’ invention which contradicts the findings of their own report. In trying to simplify the complexity that is our greatest strength, Demos has created a dangerous myth which sells us short, further confuses consumers and sends branders down a barren path.

Don’t get me wrong. I am delighted that the Design Council has commissioned this work. It is indeed persuading the Government to prospect in an area which will ensure economic success.

Cultural difference is our most valuable national asset, because it differentiates us from our competitors. “Different” products are distinguishable and attractive to consumers. In our complex world that quality of difference commands premium prices. The more differences we can find in the British Isles the better our resource for encoding our goods and services and the better chance we have to trade. Demos speaks in sweeping generalities, saying: “Countries as varied as Australia, Spain and Chile have organised concerted campaigns to refashion their identities.” Try telling someone from Barcelona that they’re Spanish and you’ll get a slap.

Even the Sex Pistols sang about Anarchy in the UK, not Anarchy in Britain. If anyone asks me. I come from Scotland which is part of the UK, I do not come from Britain. London, Britain? Whatever happened to good old England?

Designers create through manipulating the raw material of culture. Designers know they can’t change culture even if consultants believe they can. It’s not possible to make the UK into something it isn’t, and I’d therefore like to know who gave the British Tourist Authority permission to make four interdependent nations into a brand. We don’t live in a goddam supermarket and we haven’t fought world wars over own-brand orange juice.

Branding is voguish consultant-speak for one specialised area of design, which is in turn only one recently specialised area of creativity. Branding may be an interesting paradigm to use when discussing how we might productively communicate the personalities of the UK, but to see no further depths or use no more complex comparison is puerile, dangerous and downright unprofessional.

In his book Aesthetics in Scotland, Hugh McDiarmid spoke for more than his homeland when he wrote: “People will react all right if they get a chance. It is the stupid conservatism of their self-styled ‘betters’ that is the danger… Amateurism has always been the curse of the arts… and, along with it the inveterate predilection to ‘domesticate the issue’…”

Please, Design Council, it’s time to get designers even more deeply involved in report-writing. And while we’re on the subject, maybe we should stick with the Union Jack, an appropriate flag for a nation of consultants who are jacks of all trades and masters of none.

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