Where are the powerful images of British industry in the Nineties? Let’s try to be positive about the Thatcher era for a moment. Forget the woman’s monumental disembowelling of her country’s manufacturing sector and think instead of the service sector’s historic advance. What are the landmarks of this phenomenon? The Canary Wharf tower on the Isle of Dogs? The Lakeside Shopping Centre at Thurrock? Two buildings of which the best thing anyone can reasonably say is that they are both large.
A better symbol of recent British industrial success might be the endless pitched roofs of out-of-town supermarkets. But how could anyone take them seriously? “Hmmm, as you can see, an essential and delightful element of Tesco vernacular is the multi-acre car park. And, of course, the adjoining fast-food barn, petrol station and traffic management system complete the picture of modest, rustic charm…”
I’d love to be able to cite Richard Rogers’ Lloyds Building and Nicholas Grimshaw’s Financial Times printing works as landmarks to British boom industries. But Lloyds – the institution – has become a national embarrassment, and the FT wants to vacate Grimshaw’s Docklands edifice. Besides, how many people beyond the M25 or readers of magazines like this could say what either building looked like?
The UK is in desperately short supply of effective symbols to define it as a modern, forward-looking nation. Do any British products come to mind? Of course not. Industrial design at 99 per cent of British companies means some nameless root of form-follows-function, but it is hardly as if British designers are incapable of creating compelling images of progress. Mike Rodber of Jones Garrard in Leicester was responsible for the front section of the Eurostar train – as potent a symbol of engineering excellence as it is possible to find.
Cars are an incredibly powerful medium for symbol-making by major industrialised countries. The reason Rover has been so lauded in design and business magazines is because it represents perhaps the only highly visible channel through which the UK is expressing an embrace of modern manufacturing techniques, organisational philosophy, marketing and design. Contrast that company’s leap forward with the fumblings of its former parent, British Aerospace, spotted at an international air show recently attempting to attract customers to their budget-sized stand with women in funny Union Jack hats.
BAe is a world-class company. The UK has others, in food manufacturing, electronics, heavy engineering and pharmaceuticals, but seems unable to communicate these successes vividly, with imagination, to a global audience.
We think of Japan, we think of Sony or Nissan. We think of the US and it’s Apple or Nasa. And if you think these are unfair comparisons to draw with the UK, look at Germany, where companies such as Braun, AEG and BASF are far from faceless. In all their manifestations, they epitomise our notions of that country’s uncompromising stance on innovation and modernity.
There are no engaging symbols of British industry to replace the sad old Union Jack woven into a logo or label. So guess what? Into the void are flooding old and crusty images of when UK plc was in control of its destiny.
In emerging Asian economies, British fmcg manufacturers are reviving brands that became clapped-out here years ago. Household names recalling the heyday of UK trade in Asia are staking their claim to huge new markets. According to the August edition of Business Age magazine, Ronson, Johnny Walker, Vimto, Lux Flakes and Dunhill are a few of the brands that have struck paydirt. Japan’s car-buyers are hungry for marques such as MG and Austin-Healey – it’s as if Britain died somewhere around 1970.
The media and entertainment industries fuel this nostalgia cult and influence overseas perceptions of British culture. Whatever you may think of the artistic, moral or political dimensions of a film like Disclosure, it offers a more convincing portrait of a people at ease with the modern era than Four Weddings And A Funeral does. As the millennium looms, we are more in love with our past than ever. Ours is a repeat culture. In music, in sport, in politics, the past is being recycled. Warm beer, long shorts, Britpop moptops… Yes, the past is great. But could we please think about the future now?