Opinion

Will Brand Britain survive?

The meaning of Brand Britain is in the spotlight with a month to go until the Scottish independence vote. Viki Cooke, co-founder of insight consultancy BritainThinks, analyses the issues - from a London-centric image problem to the need to reignite a sense of pride and celebration.

Scottish independence vote is on 18 September
Scottish independence vote is on 18 September

If Brand Britain is to have any real value then it needs to represent a set of distinctive, shared values that give us something over and above the identities we all hold as members of families, professions, friendship groups, generations and residents of our home city or region of the UK.

One in five of people in our study would prefer that London became independent from the rest of the UK, rather than Scotland

We don’t all need to subscribe to every aspect of what makes up Brand Britain, but there needs to be enough overlap that we can almost always find common-ground with a fellow Brit.

But the very idea of Brand Britain is under pressure on a number of fronts at the moment: The Scottish Referendum on 18 September; London’s pull on the economy; and a myopic political and media class that is almost exclusively fixated on the Westminster Village. 

All of these pressures are, potentially, having a toxic effect on Brand Britain.

In last week’s Scottish debate, Alex Salmond inadvertently highlighted a key plank of Brand Britain, even as he sought to make the case for Scotland’s departure. His adamancy that Scotland would keep the pound sparked a strong backlash among the Scots, who seem unsettled by the merest hint that the currency question might not be a done deal.

Regardless of the likely "No" vote (post debate polls give the No camp a 20-point lead), the campaigns around independence, and the tone of the political debate have certainly elevated regional differences above discussion of our common Brand Britain values. 

Perhaps the polls wouldn’t have remained so close for so long if the Better Together campaign had actually promoted the positive advantages of staying together, rather than being threatening and negative. 

Contrast that with the Let’s Stay Together campaign organised by TV historians Tom Holland and Dan Snow that has sent an open letter from more than 200 celebrities, dubbed a love letter by the media, and shared the view: "What unites us is much greater than what divides us. Let's stay together."

London is a separate universe

London is also becoming increasingly divisive in terms of its impact on Brand Britain.

In spite of the BBC relocating thousands of people to Salford, the media and politics continue to focus on issues and concerns that are shared only by a narrow, metropolitan elite, primarily living in the capital

Our work at BritainThinks shows Britain feels a growing antipathy towards London. In our recent study "Capital Gains", 35% of people outside London feel negative about London and one in five would prefer that London became independent from the rest of the UK, rather than Scotland. 

In the words of a young graduate in York: "It’s almost like a separate universe, London … even though we are only two hours on the train from London." 

In spite of the BBC relocating thousands of people to Salford, the media and politics continue to focus on issues and concerns that are shared only by a narrow, metropolitan elite, primarily living in the capital.  

Obsessive coverage of the ins and outs of political personalities, and political bun fights that seem miles away from the concerns of "normal people" just serve to undermine the idea that our shared institutions have value for the whole of society.

When George Osborne’s father-in-law described the North West as "desolate" and "derelict", he confirmed what many people already believe, that politicial elites (and southern ones at that) neither like nor understand the rest of the country. 

In recent research conducted for Centre for Cities, only 17% of UK adults outside London think that Whitehall and Parliament are responsive to the issues of their town or city.

What should Brand Britain be - and do?

Against these very real pressures, if we believe that there is value in Brand Britain then surely we need to understand what its essential qualities are and how to keep it relevant and engaging. Is now the time to think about what we want Brand Britain to be and do? 

In today’s multi-cultural society should we embark upon a programme to define what our core shared values are? What does it mean to be British and Scottish/ Welsh/ Cornish?  What does Britain add to our other sense of identity?

How ironic that we are debating the potential demise of Brand Britain 100 years after many young British soldiers went into battle for our shared values and beliefs

When the Department for Education is trying to force independent schools to actively promote clear British values, then surely we should invest in developing those values to be meaningful, inspiring and distinctive, something that unites us collectively, even when we choose to celebrate other forms of identity, including local identity. 

And what are the iconic symbols of Britain today? Seemingly, at least in Scotland, the pound. What else?  How can we reignite the sense of pride and celebration that we saw in 2012 when the Queen’s Jubilee and the Olympics did so much to create a strong sense of unity and we all came together to celebrate Team GB’s successes. 

And how ironic that we are debating the potential demise of Brand Britain 100 years after many young British soldiers went into battle for our shared values and beliefs. Don’t we owe it to their memory to renew and refresh Brand Britain and make it an inspiration again?

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