Strong? Modern? Fair?

Stephen Castle is fascinated by the makeover, but wonders about the reality underneath
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The Independent Online
For cognoscenti of New Labour, a pamphlet is the Christmas publishing hit, the political equivalent of the Teletubbies. At the London office of Demos, a left-of-centre think-tank, the print run of an obscure 70- page pamphlet has almost sold out. Last week five copies went to a single customer who was apparently looking for stocking fillers.

The reason is that Britain, Renewing our Identity, written by one of the think-tank's researchers, Mark Leonard, is the textbook for "rebranding" Britain. Its application was put on show last Friday when Tony Blair launched Britain's European presidency, not beneath the chandeliers of Lancaster House or some other grand government building, but on the Eurostar concourse at London's Waterloo station.

There, as a Eurostar express pulled in, Mr Blair talked of 1998 as a year to create a "people's Europe". His chosen symbol for the presidency is the colourful design of the 15 stars of Europe by schoolchildren from each member nation. The event was state-of-the-art public relations - slick, with modernising imagery and language. Waterloo, whose name is a historical reminder of Britain's pugilistic relationship with the Continent, is transformed into a symbol of new links under a fresh government. How the spin-doctors must have chuckled when they dreamt that one up.

But the occasion, and others like it, are more than publicity stunts. In seven months in government Labour has turned every trick in the ad- man's books to project itself as new, modern, vibrant and different. In doing so, the Prime Minister risks turning his modernising programme into a parody. The glitzy Commonwealth Conference launch in Edinburgh was accompanied by a jazzed-up national anthem and an audio-visual display narrated by the actor John Thaw. The event was designed to suggest that Britain is dumping its old, backward-looking colonial associations to make way for a dynamic, positive new national identity.

On to the Anglo-French summit. Whitehall's grandest buildings were spurned once more, in favour of Canary Wharf, London's tallest building. The leaders met on the 50th floor in a temporary office space designed by Sir Terence Conran, a guru of modern interior design. Even the monarchy's performance at state occasions has undergone some delicate rebranding, courtesy of New Labour. The more personal tone adopted by the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh during their golden wedding speeches was a case in point.

Like several strands of Mr Blair's thinking, the inspiration for rebranding comes from Australia and its former prime minister Paul Keating. The Australians had begun to rethink their international image in the 1970s, prompted partly by Britain's decision to turn its back on the white Commonwealth and join the Common Market. Under Mr Keating rebranding Australia gained momentum. A republican, who projected his country as an Asian-Pacific tiger rather than a relic of Empire, he put the promotion of a national image high on his political agenda. Mr Blair was impressed and imported some of Mr Keating's rhetoric in its original form. We owe his unconvincing description of Britain as a "young country" to the Australian influence.

The Demos pamphlet on British identity analyses the UK's international image in detail, setting out an alternative rebranded vision. It envisages a number of interlocking themes to exploit: Britain as an international hub, a creative nation in arts and sciences, an ethnically mixed country, a nation predisposed to business and commerce, an innovator in government and organisation, and committed to fairness.

Applying archetypical New Labour business-speak, it urges: "Be distinctive. Seventeen out of twenty new brands fail - usually because the brand doesn't offer the consumer anything new. In a world where countries have very little 'brand recognition', it is vital to isolate a unique selling proposition." Thus, from Canary Wharf to Edinburgh, the Government has used everything from furnishings and food to music and movement to project Mr Blair's "young country".

Language is vital to branding and Labour's leader has unleashed a ruthless assault on political vocabulary to rebrand himself and his party as well as his country. In opposition Mr Blair's first target was to regain for Labour the positive words associated with the Conservatives, such as "choice", "freedom" and "opportunity". For the first time in recent memory these words crept into Labour speeches.

Then the linguistic imperialism took a different direction. As he shifted his party to the right Mr Blair appropriated neo-Marxist language. His general election speeches demanded a government that is "for the many not the few"; his agenda for modernisation became his "project". His initiatives and ambitions are now routinely prefixed with the "people's", as in the "people's panel", a "people's forum" or - last Friday's little act of colonialism - a "people's Europe".

Language that would have carried the overtones of eastern bloc Communism and stagnation before the Wall came down has been rehabilitated in the post-cold-war world order. The beauty of it is that, like motherhood and apple pie, it is more difficult to oppose an initiative undertaken for "the people" who are "the many" as opposed to "the few".

This is principally the work of Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's press secretary, and Peter Mandelson, Minister without Portfolio, who takes a particular interest in rebranding. After all, he is putting it into practice with his Dome. It was Mr Mandelson who insisted on the chosen logo for the British presidency, rejecting Foreign Office ideas as staid and opting instead for the schoolchildren's which appears to underline the Government's commitment to the theme of the "people's Europe".

One senior opposition politician was willing to concede that this may be sensible positioning from a new government. Many of the themes Labour is promoting are positive, obvious and sensible. But Mr Leonard's pamphlet does contain a warning, which suggests that neither Mr Campell nor Mr Mandelson may have read it carefully: "Hype is unsustainable. No image which is at variance with reality can be convincing". The danger is that rebranding our international relations, especially with Europe, has raised expectations too high. Increasingly, the Government's presentation - upbeat, positive and progressive - appears at variance with the more cautious policy it pursures in practice.

Cracks started to show at the Commonwealth Conference in Edinburgh. While the event was heavy on symbols, the Government lost control of the agenda largely because it has little new to say about the Commonwealth. Rather than being dominated by the conference's declaration on economics (that was the plan), the media concentrated on Nelson Mandela's more newsworthy call for the trial of two Libyans accused of the Lockerbie bombing to be held on neutral territory - a move fiercely resisted by the British government.

On Europe, the problems are far greater. Mr Blair's warm welcome at the Amsterdam summit this summer, and the accompanying goodwill from European capitals, has begun to dissipate as the detail of Britain's position - particularly on the single currency - becomes clearer. On the issue that will dominate the next year, EMU, Britain will have little say, despite holding the EU presidency. Indeed it is still battling to gain observer status on the new Euro-X committee that will govern monetary policy. And the key meeting to determine the membership of the EMU club early next summer has already been moved from Britain to Brussels.

Mr Blair's early claim to a leadership role in Europe, which irritated nations such as Italy and Spain, looks particularly hollow. The themes that he highlighted as his priority for the next six months are important but not at the heart of European debate. Many of his chosen issues - employability, education and skills, flexibility and an end to red tape, entre- preneurship and job creation - could have been extracted from drafts drawn up for John Major.

Intriguingly, the first sign of a backlash came ten days ago from none other than the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Interviewed by the Daily Telegraph, Gordon Brown revealed that he "can't bear all this touchy-feely stuff" and that "all this talk of whether we're about the Spice Girls or Dame Vera Lynn is ridiculous". The Chancellor added: "I dislike that word, 'rebranding'. It immediately makes people think we are only interested in style - carpets and furniture - not substance."

A few days later the same paper reported a new prime ministerial initiative - a revamp of the old-fashioned decor of the dining-room at No 10.