January 5, 2021
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life, but are we feeling good?
After a pretty reprehensible 2020, who can say. If one thing is clear, it’s that there is a growing desire for a fresh start in more ways than is normally true at the beginning of a new year.
The last 12 months have been haunted by the coronavirus pandemic, which has taken away many of the things that bring us joy, while the endless Brexit discord has created anxiety for businesses, communities and the people who work and live in them.
What will the next 12 months be like? Will the yearning of many people across the UK for something to believe in be answered?
By way of an answer, we really have to ask, what’s next for Global Britain?
The Government’s mantra for what its post-Brexit foreign policy will be, Global Britain is also an opportunity to create a national brand, something to unify a divided country, something to be positive about after a year of pessimism.
The last time we had anything close to a national brand was in the all too brief period in the mid-90s when a renewed sense of national pride swept over Britain and found expression in the words ‘Cool Britannia’.
A convergence of creativity had made the UK something of a cultural superpower in the 1990s, from the Britpop movement that spawned great acts like Blur and Oasis, to young British artists such as Damien Hirst and fashion designers like Alexander McQueen. The patriotic mood was captured perfectly by the image of Spice Girls’ singer Geri Halliwell sporting the iconic Union Jack dress.
New Labour’s landslide victory under Tony Blair in 1997 also reflected the optimism and euphoria of the time.
Unfortunately, Cool Britannia went out of fashion just as soon as it had come in, used mostly ironically after the year 2000. But for a few short years, it helped unify a country that had been through a lot of turmoil in the 1970s and 1980s.
The parallels between that time and our own are obvious, but what’s missing is the existence of a unifying national brand the general public can get behind.
Global Britain is clearly an attempt to provide the platform, but are we too close to the tumult to make it work?
“I guess it depends if D:Ream and Kate Moss decide to back it!” says Lisa Eaton, managing director of Unwritten Group.
“For a national brand to work, we, the people, need to live and breathe its values. I’m not sure if I believe that’s possible right now.
“We haven’t got the energy we had back in 1997.
“We’re all exhausted and disillusioned for so many reasons – COVID-19, Brexit, snap elections, US elections – it makes me wonder if now really is the right time to try and push for it.”
Phil Lowery, managing director of Projector, adds: “I think Global Britain is a big opportunity for us as a country – the attitude of it at least.
“But as with any other brand in this day and age, it has to be authentic and be more than just a superficial message.”
Herein lies the challenge.
After four years of isolationist rhetoric from a Government more determined than ever to take back control, how can Global Britain be anything more than superficial?
“I imagine the phrase has come out of a desire to overcome the impression that exiting the EU is a backward step,” says Phil, “perhaps to show other countries and the UK public that the Government is thinking on a bigger scale.
“Unless it goes hand-in-hand with policy change, though, it’s probably in danger of being another superficial message.”
Putting the tension between Global Britain and Take Back Control to one
side for a second, there’s an important point to be made about the Government’s communications strategy more broadly.
The coronavirus pandemic has forcibly strengthened the need for clear and consistent communications and the Government has made serious efforts in this regard, but with mixed results.
On the one hand, the ‘Stay at Home’ message was a soaring success. Never before has the British public followed an instruction from its Government in such a way.
Part of that is due to the fact that failure to follow the rules carried with it the risk of catching a deadly virus. But it was also powerful in its own right.
Easy to understand, consistent and direct, the words ‘Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’ sent a clear message and were met with a level of compliance beyond public officials’ best expectations.
But it seems the Government peaked too early as ‘Stay at Home’ gave way to ‘Stay Alert’, a message which I still haven’t been able to wrap my head around.
The biggest mistake though, was letting one of its key advisors off the hook after he had clearly broken the rules, driving with coronavirus from London to Durham and then to Barnard Castle for what is surely the most infamous ‘eye test’ in recent history.
“Mixed messaging, confusion around guidance and those responsible for setting the rules breaking them in such a public and unapologetic way, certainly did them no favours,” confirms Lisa.
Now that Dominic Cummings has left Number 10, one has to wonder whether it was worth expending so much political capital and public support standing by him.
Moreover, if the last 12 months have taught us anything, it’s the importance of trust in the relationship between those who make the rules and the rest of us.
Lisa says: “When that trust is broken, even the Government’s most avid fans will start to question what they’re saying.”
Trust is also one of the key ingredients in creating a strong national brand.
Lisa adds: “A brand has to be built on trust, and at the moment, it feels as though there is very little trust.”
Really, the issue is not whether it’s called Global Britain or Cool Britain or Independent Britain, but whether that title reflects what is happening in the country and whether people feel it represents them.
As it stands, the key challenges here will be bridging the gaps between Leave and Remain, between North and South and between rich and poor that have widened so discernibly in recent years.
“It’s no secret that politically, socially and economically, both Brexit and the pandemic have divided opinion, with Brexit causing a near 50/50 split and the Government’s tiered system adding weight to the notion of a North/South divide,” says Phil.
“But look at something like Clap for our Carers. On doorsteps all over the country, people came together to applaud those working hard to look after the nation.”
There have been flashes during the pandemic of the kind of unity and cohesion we need to make a success of Global Britain. But for the most part they have been fleeting.
Lisa says: “I think the pandemic has demonstrated that a strong brand proposition nationally is paramount.
“But we’ve got to start at the epicentre of who we are and what we stand for.”
In the successive periods of isolation we have all had to endure over the last year, there’s been a lot of time for soul searching and introspection.
Perhaps it’s time for us to do that as a country.
I’m reminded of the eternal questions that have defined Britain since the unofficial end of its Empire in the 1956-7 Suez Crisis – what is Britain and what does it mean to be British?
These are truly huge questions, far too complicated to elucidate here.
But the principle of a national brand, whether it be Global Britain or something else entirely, could be just what we need to raise aspirations for what the post-pandemic, post-Brexit future might look like here on this island of ours in the North West corner of Europe.
Will we drift further across the Atlantic towards our American friends? Will the United Kingdom itself fragment into four constituent parts? Will we circumvent our European neighbours and make for Asia and the emerging opportunities there? Or will we continue as we are, struggling to break away from the existing arrangements we’ve had such difficulty trying to unravel?
“I think this country could really do with some deep thinking around how we become part of the global economy again,” Lisa posits.
So, what’s next for Global Britain is anyone’s guess. It’s hard to imagine how recent hostilities will be soothed enough to galvanise a national brand.
But a lot can change when a new year rolls around – just ask our Prime Minister.
On January 2, 2020, Boris Johnson tweeted: “This is going to be a fantastic year for Britain”.
Events made that forecast look rather foolish, but could 2021 be a fantastic year for Global Britain?
The answer is on the horizon.