Selling your Country


Cool Britannia – you may not buy Britain, but her coolness is up for sale

Cool Britannia – you may not buy Britain, but her coolness is up for sale

UK ™ by Mark Leonard

Published in 1997, Mark Leonard’s report made itself available to the public just in time to be swept away as last-century. UK ™ should be read as a satire – that at least eases your frustration a bit. The author, Mark Leonard, is apparently some sort of a trickster in Blair’s think tank, specialising in European relations and selling, packaging, branding and then to the final ‘offering’ of the nation to ‘potential’ customers.

In a most entrepreneurial spirit, Leonard advocates the re-branding of Britain through a series of campaigns that target at creating a new national identity. Like any businesses established in the old world order, Britain may benefit from a facelift, some jabs of botox, and with a nod to the present trend, some fake tan as well. It is more apposite, in fact, to subject Britain to the latest marketing treatments, for it was the first country to export consumerism through its colonising activities.

But Leonard displays all the symptoms of an anxiety to shake off the imperial past – or rather the image of it – that is seen as an impediment to the country’s smooth transition to the 21st century. Ironically though, this it is precisely this imperial image that is most marketable about Britain, especially to Americans.

By selectively essentialising the history of Britain into manageable, biteable chunks, the ‘identity’ of Britain is delivered and fed into the mouths of foreigners. While the book stresses a renewal of a national identity throughout, what it suggests does nothing better than recycling old, banal imperial ideas that reek of nostalgia and narcissism. Sprinkled generously with hip words, edgy designs, and of course, smiling black, brown faces with white teeth, the report does nothing more than putting old (stale) wine into new bottles.

As with any marketing campaigns, its expenses has to be justified by the potential revenue it brings. Feeling that Britain has lagged behind other European countries in re-inventing themselves and thus suffering from bad international trade, Leonard argues that identity can generate an economic ‘premium’ effect, just like a corporate image is vital to any business. According to Leonard, less than 50% of the Fortune 500 companies see British products as good value for money, and that international buyers are confused as for what Britain is good at making. Inventing a brand image, therefore, will be economically beneficial to the UK economy.

It is all very well to project a more defined image in economic terms, positioning a product clearly is vital to any business endeavours. We are now in the position to examine the economic benefits of the Cool Britannia campaign, examining its cost-benefit. In the 2008 Nation Brand Index developed by Simon Anholt, UK was ranked in the top 5 in terms of culture/heritage, export, tourism, as well as immigration and investment – categories that have traditionally been associated with the country. The Futurebrand survey consistently ranks UK in the top ten of all nation brands, finding her associated with culture, business, and political freedom. In terms of economic growth, the ten years of New Labour’s office have seen steady though unspectacular growth of GDP, although still lagging behind international rivals such as Germany, France, and USA. It is a somewhat mixed report card, therefore, especially highlighting the limited benefits resulted from the massive public funding spent on image projects.

But what makes Leonard’s suggestion really unpalatable to many people is that it presupposes that cultural identity of a country can be measured in financial terms, and hence manageable. In other words, it can be manipulated, shaped, and honed through ideological campaigns. Even if the Queen does not oppose to being sold as an imaginative symbol, turning that country into a cultural product of certain idealised value is hugely reductive of the people who make up the country and their lives. It is to project culture as a holographic representation, but never actually referring to any concrete values, leaving only an empty vessel that serves its own right as the symbol, the identity (with the suspicious etymological relation with identical). It denies, or even abrogates the individual agency in expressing and representing their identities by a sweeping marketing gesture. What truly comes under the masquerade of happy faces about a national identity is the unforgettable past, because wilfully or otherwise, every time it negates its past images, it is in fact also referring back to it.

The idea of a ‘meta-story’ of a community, long recognised as a myth, is recruited to support the book. But in the land of capitalism, anything can be produced and sold at a price, even if it is something as intangible as a myth, cultural experience, ideal, or just a symbol. This practice is certainly viable in the business world where corporate image and identity helps one to distinguish oneself from the otherwise homogenous lot. But taken to a sovereign level, it is less practicable. Running a country is not running a business, whose aim is to maximise profit. As Obama has recently remarked:

‘And when you are president as opposed to the head of a private-equity firm, then your job is not simply to maximize profits. Your job is to figure out how everybody in the country has a fair shot.’

And therefore,

‘… if your main argument [as a presidential candidate] for how to grow the economy is, “I knew how to make a lot of money for investors,” then you are missing what this job is about.’


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