Open up the question of Britain’s identity

Finding the right identity for Britain has become as much a hobbyhorse in the late Nineties as Green issues were a decade ago. What should we call a nation undergoing a process of devolution for its component parts? “United Kingdom” seems a bit at odds with reality. We know about traditional pageantry and William Blake’s image of “England’s green and pleasant land”, his “dark satanic mills” long since having been converted to desirable residential or business properties. But what values does Britain have now – or, more likely, what would we like it to represent beyond the millennium? So the questions go.

It’s healthy to reflect on our position as the world goes through a whirlwind of change. But we run the risk of talking too much without much action, giving the political spin doctors their soundbites on design and creativity to divert the nation’s attention, and too much secrecy.

Tony Blair’s Downing Street soirée for designers last July, for example, led to a series of Creative Britain workshops, drawing together the great and the good from design to brainstorm tangible means of boosting Britain’s image to visitors. Everyone was keen to be involved, believing they could help to make a difference. Now we hear that the Design Council’s report on the initiative might not be published outside Government circles, though participants were not required to sign the Official Secrets Act. Where’s the spirit of openness in that – and the chance to inspire a broader public with ideas relating to design?

There is growing fear among the few designers involved in the Design Council’s latest showbiz venture, the debate entitled Does Britain Need a New Identity? (see Private View opposite), that nothing will happen. They are worried that the interest generated in the subject last autumn by Wolff Olins and The Money Programme has merely created a new bandwagon. More frightening though, is the concern voiced by some that something might indeed happen, that the outcome of all the talking shops is being collated and that somewhere along the line we’ll find ourselves with yet another new identity for Britain without knowing how or when the decision was made.

We are conducting our own trawl, to find out what the design community thinks about Britain and broadcast the findings. Next week we’ll publish the results of an international straw poll to raise some of the issues, but we’d like to hear from you too. What symbolises Britain now? What would you like it to represent in future? Do we need an identity, other than the Union flag? If so, what should it incorporate? Please give us your views.

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