Creative industries need another Great British Rebrand

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The writer, a former secretary of state for culture, media and sport, is vice-chancellor of University of the Arts London

In the late nineties, Britain banished gloom and pessimism to rebrand as “cool Britannia”. Now, a quarter of a century on, brand Britain needs a refresh.

The “cool” epithet didn’t — as some might think — originate in New Labour spin but rather in a 1997 edition of Vanity Fair. The article captured the national mood. England had hosted the Euro ’96 football tournament and at Wembley thousands sang “football’s coming home”. Homegrown “britpop” bands like Pulp, Blur and Oasis dominated the charts, while the likes of Damien Hirst and Vivienne Westwood shook up the worlds of art and fashion.

Even the country’s politicians, in Vanity Fair’s estimation, were “cool-ish”. And while they didn’t themselves make Britain cool, they did at least understand why it mattered. Six months after Labour’s 1997 landslide, Tony Blair hosted British artists, musicians and entertainers for a Downing Street soirée. It was mocked by some, but it conveyed a sense of a changed country — sophisticated and outward-looking.

For people like me, then a Number 10 adviser, “cool Britannia” wasn’t just champagne and blinis. The serious side of it was policymaking — not quite so glamorous, but important nevertheless. Inside government, we began to measure the economic impact of the “creative industries”: a newly-coined term to describe a sector that included music, books, television, architecture and advertising. A new “creative industries task force” began to devise policies to help the sector flourish. It was made up of ministers, but also leaders who knew the sector inside out.

It wasn’t always easy getting civil servants or indeed fellow politicians to realise why these industries were so important. But our persistence paid off. Twenty-five years on, the creative industries are accepted as essential to the national economy by every Westminster party. The current government published its vision for them in June last year, which included policy ideas, along with statistics that trumpet the sector’s success.

Over the past decade, the creative industries have grown at 1.5 times the rate of the wider economy. They have contributed billions of pounds of business activity and exports — and now generate more wealth than aerospace, the life sciences and automotive sectors combined. The world delights in our cultural exports, from screen blockbusters to games design, music and fashion.

Now out of government, I have the privilege to witness that culture in the making every day: University of the Arts London is the biggest art and design university in the world. It’s second in the QS World Rankings in these subjects only to the Royal College of Art, also based, of course, in London. Yet despite all this energy, I’m concerned.

Early results from a survey by Erskine Analysis in partnership with UAL indicate a majority of leaders of creative industries companies in the UK believe their sectors have lost competitiveness over the past 10 years. That should worry us all. In 2021, the creative industries accounted for over 5 per cent of the national economy. Fashion houses and design studios are of no less importance to economic growth than labs and factories.

There are many causes, Brexit among them. But the biggest problem, I think, is our attitude. We need to stop being so apologetic. Don’t take it from me. In a recent interview, Graydon Carter, who was editor of Vanity Fair during “cool Britannia”, says the British should be “more upbeat” about their culture as he considers making his move from New York to London permanent. But you wouldn’t hear this bullishness from many Brits.

Pessimism breeds inertia. The creative industries can’t get the research funding they need. As a recent report by the President of the British Academy outlines, “public investment in R&D in the creative industries should reflect the size, economic contribution and future growth potential of the sector”. Quite right. Overly strict immigration rules, meanwhile, prevent creative businesses from filling vacancies.

We need homegrown talent, too. But since the introduction of the EBacc in 2010 — a way of measuring school results that focuses on so-called “core subjects” — the number of students taking arts GCSEs has fallen more than 40 per cent. That’s at a time when companies consistently highlight creativity as the skill they desire most.

The creative sector has work to do. If any creative business out there has an idea for how we can change the mood music, they should get in touch. Because while the dynamism that made “cool Britannia” has not gone anywhere, our self-confidence is fading away. We cannot let that happen. It’s time for a brand refresh.


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