A year of living hopefully

One year on, Design Week looks at what a Labour Government has meant for design and profiles the key players. On this page Hugh Pearman admires the rhetoric, but would like to see a bit more action. Additional research by Peter McCready

I’ve never seen the Design Council look so perky. This is perhaps the single most astonishing aspect of the Labour Government’s much-vaunted commitment to “creative Britain”.

A quango that had been slowly fading from view for years has suddenly been placed at the centre of things. Report after report, seminar after seminar – where will it all end? A cynic would say nowhere, unless the pound weakens significantly against other European currencies, so allowing our exporters to export. An optimist would say that better design will allow Britain to export more goods despite the strong pound. And a revitalised Design Council is quite probably better than no Design Council at all, so hurrah.

The suspicion is, of course, that all the fine words are merely that: words. Enough has been said about the chimera of Cool Britannia to confirm that this is a widely held view. It’s not just the media saying this, it’s also my mum, who last week contemptuously declined the chance to go to Powerhouse:uk, opting instead to go to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Power of the Poster exhibition.

The whole point about propaganda is that it is not enough merely to issue it. For it to work, the public has to believe it. And everyone knows that Tony Blair looked as much of a prat snuggling up to Oasis as Prince Charles did pretending he liked the Spice Girls – in both cases fatally latching on to acts already well past their peak. We are a much more worldly-wise public than we were in the days when pipe-puffing Harold Wilson liked to be photographed with the

Beatles, and even then the “I’m Backing Britain” campaign was dismissed by most as a pathetic stunt, despite its private-sector origins. This is not to say that I’m against good propaganda in a good cause, since half the battle is won if people can be persuaded to think along the right lines. But so far, the Government gets about four out of ten for believability.

My limited experience of meeting cultural ministers in the past year has confirmed my own suspicion: that Labour had been so long in opposition, had got so used to rhetoric rather than action, that the habit has continued. Those responsible for the arts, architecture and design are still inclined to indulge in lazy salon talk with their coterie of advisers, rather than the hard work of serious policy initiatives and decision-making. This did not matter too much in the growing economy of a year ago, but it matters like hell in today’s economy, which is balanced precariously on the brink of the next recession.

Thus the Government’s seal of approval is given to the Architecture Foundation’s directory of good youngish practices: but ministers are only just starting to talk about the Government leading the way with its own commissioning policy.

Meanwhile, the Millennium Products are just a warmed-up version of the old Design Council selection, with a bit of architecture thrown in as well.

But at any rate, the talk is along the right lines. The best bit of propaganda so far was last September’s Demos/Design Council report BritainTM: Renewing our Identity. Mark Leonard’s text was strewn with cliches and buzzwords, and in places contradicted itself, but what was remarkable was that a surprising number of commentators believed in its undeniable vigour.

And so to the Dome. I began to think it stood a chance the moment that Stephen Bayley left the enterprise. Forget its chief executive, Jennie Page. Admire if you must the dogged commitment of Peter Mandelson.

The person to watch – assuming they don’t blow everything and frighten him off – is Michael Grade, who is genetically programmed to know how to stage a show.

Backing the Dome is the one genuine act of risk-taking, seat-of-the-pants courage that this Government has so far given the cause of design. But I cannot help thinking that restoring student grants and devaluing the pound would probably do so much more.

1997

May Design Council launches New Brand for New Britain discussion paper. Sent to Downing Street on the day the General Election results were announced. Also, the council commissions the think-tank Demos to prepare a report on Britain’s identity

June Tony Blair endorses the Millennium Experience at Greenwich

July Blair hosts a reception at Downing Street for almost 100 UK designers

July Creative Britain workshops set up by the Design Council

August Design minister John Battle pledges to ‘take up the conversation’ across Government depts about instituting a design management strategy, after prompting by Design Week

August Government set to siphon off 200m from Millennium Commission for health and education

Sept Demos calls for a Promoting Britain Unit to be set up in the Cabinet Office. This comes out of the Design Council-funded report, Britain, Renewing Our Identity. The report’s author Mark Leonard accuses the institutions projecting Britain overseas as being inconsistent, and calls for a central co-ordinating committee

Sept Blair launches the Millennium Products Initiative, organised by the Design Council

Oct British Tourist Authority’s logo by Real Time Studio unveiled by Culture Secretary Chris Smith

Nov WPP chairman Martin Sorrell and fashion designer Paul Smith are signed by Foreign Secretary Robin Cook as roving ambassadors for Britain, with 33 other captains of industry

Dec Department of Culture, Media and Sport Commissions CDT Design to create its new identity

1998

Jan Government’s Creative Industries task force calls on designers to help it compile an analysis of the design industry. The task force was set up in October to examine the contribution by the creative industries to the economy. It is chaired by Culture Secretary Chris Smith

March Design Council releases Creative Britain report. Outlines work between the council and the DCMS to create a Government blueprint for best design use and procurement procedure. Downing Street reception for young designers creating gifts for overseas dignitaries

April Powerhouse:uk exhibition promotes the creative industries. It is put together for political leaders attending ASEM II

April Panel 2000 is launched. Robin Cook announces a panel of 33 luminaries to transform Britain’s image around the world. The team has been charged with selling Britain as a nation of flair and innovation

April Blair takes time out of Middle East tour to attack critics of his attempt to promote ‘Cool

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