Britain seen as land of tea and skinheads

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair's marketing of cool Britannia hasn't worked. Educated young people overseas still see the British as stuffy traditionalists who are racially intolerant and refuse to embrace the modern world.

Tony Blair's marketing of cool Britannia hasn't worked. Educated young people overseas still see the British as stuffy traditionalists who are racially intolerant and refuse to embrace the modern world.

They think we drink afternoon tea, never laugh in public and habitually wear formal hats and suits "even at a soccer match". One young Argentine told a survey by the British Council: "I [would] rather live in a more chaotic place, some place more emotional, more like Belgium."

The two-year study in 28 foreign countries found that well-educated people aged 24 to 35 respected Britain for its stability as a country but were not keen on the people who live here. The report said: "Despite young people's access to information through newspapers, the television news and the internet, many dated, eccentric and in some cases downright erroneous impressions of the UK persist."

The report has important implications for the way Britain projects its image overseas. Tourist-driven traditional imagery of royalty and castles has left the internet generation distinctly unimpressed.

Young foreigners ranked the monarchy alongside tradition and conservatism as Britain's greatest weakness.

One Singaporean respondent said the British conjured up the idea of "old and boring". A Japanese respondent said: "My everyday image is Britain equates to tea - chinaware and tradition." We were also seen by some as "racist, xenophobic, cold and arrogant".

David Green, the British Council director general, launched the document yesterday. He said it revealed "negative perceptions about our inability to move with the times. It extends into perceptions of areas like the arts where the UK has a perceived weakness in creativity and innovation and indeed in science and technology where few are aware of recent British breakthroughs."

Only 5 per cent of respondents knew that a Briton (Tim Berners-Lee) invented the World Wide Web, while 81 per cent credited the innovation to the Americans.

Although 47 per cent knew that Dolly the cloned sheep was British, only 7 per cent knew that Viagra was also developed here (by scientists in Kent) while 73 per cent believed it American.

The Japanese were particularly disparaging of British science. One said: "British scientists are enthusiastic, almost manic, in particular categories. But they are doing something that really doesn't matter.

"The United States and Japan are doing something that leads to money."

Depressingly, Britpop and Britart had made little impact on the overriding belief that "the UK's reputation in the arts is seen to lie more in past than present achievements".

Most respondents recognised that Britain was a multi-cultural society but few felt that we were happy as one. A Singaporean commented: "They have a group of white trash, you know, skinheads. That group is very, very racist."

In Hong Kong, Korea, Japan and Thailand, young people strongly disagreed with the idea that the British were racially tolerant.

By contrast, people in Nigeria, Bangladesh and Pakistan - which have all experienced large-scale emigration to the UK - took the view that Britain was racially harmonious.

The idea that Britain was now a classless society was almost universally rejected but acknowledgment was given to progress in tackling sex discrimination. One Spanish woman said Britain was "light years further on than Spain".

Britain's universities and businesses were also well regarded. Young people overseas gleaned most of their knowledge from local media but said they felt more familiar with the UK and its culture and traditions than with France or Germany.

The most well-known contemporary Briton was Mr Blair, closely followed by the Spice Girls. Naomi Campbell was third, although only a minority knew she was British.

Stephen Hawking was known by 97 per cent of people in South Korea, though few see him as British. Rowan Atkinson's character Mr Bean was recognised by astonishingly high levels of people (83 per cent in the Czech Republic). The report found: "It seems that Mr Bean projects a strong image of Britishness in several parts of the world."

But young people visiting London gave very different views on Britain yesterday.

Elke Jongbloct, 24, from Belgium, said: "In Belgium we don't like the English because all we know is the football violence. They go round destroying our country and have no shame. Being here I find it traditional and stiff."

But Sham Shad, 26, from Pakistan was more positive. He said: " I brought my son here to be educated. When I came I felt freedom, politically and religiously. The society is tolerant and the schools are progressive."

Roberto Carlos, 35, from Brazil, said: "The people are very gentle and helpful. There is more culture here than where I come from. People seem so intelligent and wealthy and organised."

Twenty-five-year-old Pablo Gonzales from Spain said: "I think the British are too effected by their weather. They don't learn from other cultures and have no sensitivity."