Lunchtime at the latest Design Council, Demos-inspired event persuades me that time would be well spent reflecting on what has not yet come to pass.
The event entitled Does Britain Need a New Identity? was chaired by Andrew Marr, editor of The Independent. There were presentations by John Sorrell, Geoff Mulgan, director of Demos, Sir Colin Marshall, president of the Confederation of British Industry, David Potter, group chief executive at Guinness and Peter Mandelson, who doesn’t have a portfolio. Thankfully, he doesn’t need one because he’s got nothing to put in it… yet.
The first working day after Halloween was a good day for an event which had shades of the X-Files. I’d go further and suggest that the self-congratulatory event had a dark side to it; playing dangerous political games with people’s heads at a time when the country is going through an identity crisis. For goodness sake, Wales and Scotland are struggling to understand the meaning of “parliament”. Business is trying to understand the meaning of “euro” and we’re all trying to understand the ideologies of a new government and transformed royal family. Britain, bruised by years of Thatcherism, now yearns for deliverance in the new millennium, but can hardly bear the trauma of further painful introspection.
While it’s reassuring to hear that politicians have faith in design, it’s reckless for them to suggest that monolithic anti-wrinkle graphics, or design, something or anything, will transform global perceptions of our country overnight. I really believe that any further mention of “branding” should be met with free copies of Gitta Sereny’s biography of Albert Speer.
Unusually, for such an event, the press contingent was comprehensive and uncharacteristically silent. The cream of British business likewise. It’s so easy for the public sector and politicians to wax lyrical about “design-led economies” and “cultural entrepreneurs”, but who will help the private sector facilitate change? How do you change something not yet fully understood, like the culture of a country? To whom do you turn for help if the design professions won’t or can’t explain the methodology and means by which to deliver a vast and brave aspiration? Do you turn to marketeers? Engineers? The arts and social sciences?
So, Mandelson, where do we begin? I don’t believe you know or really care. You want a job done and see the Design Council as your chosen champion. It makes me angry that the designers sit quietly while the show passes by. We, of all groups, have sold ourselves short and been sold short through lack of understanding, communication and control. Remember the Eighties when we were rightly accused of being all style and no content? Are we incapable of anything more complex than a tart-up job? Do we really not care whether a good job is done on our own country as long as we line our pockets?
At Does Britain Need a New Identity? Not one panel member could say what form the “debate” would take or how it might translate into new products, services and a “new UK”. When pressed, Peter Mandelson passed the question on to an audience member from the BBC who seemed as confused as everyone else. The panel couldn’t even agree on what the UK should be called: The United Kingdom; Britain; Great Britain; Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales? The party line is Britain, yet no one knew how to ensure everyone called the UK by the same name, let alone ensure our pals abroad knew what to call us – talk about a piss-up in a brewery…
We alone should know that it’s process, not product, that’s important when devising a successful brief, which in turn, helps to ensure an appropriate design solution. To give Mandelson his due, he did say that business was more than making money, it was about being brave and doing the right thing. The Design Council must be commended on its energy in pursuing such a worthy ideal at so high a level on so many occasions and we have a duty to get our finger out and help develop the debate.
I really do fear that if we and other “cultural entrepreneurs” do not risk becoming involved in creating and delivering a new picture of Britain we will have lost the biggest opportunity of our generation. If we do not act forcefully and become involved in the process of re-inventing ourselves, in debating the key issues of a new British identity, we will find ourselves unhappily constricted in a Halloween outfit that’s a damn sight more trick than treat.