Crisis-racked economic basket case or the world's first truly post-modern nation? We examine what being British stands for in 2010.
The last time the UK had a serious try at rebranding was 1997's Cool Britannia episode. They were the days when Things Could Only Get Better We'd come out of a nasty recession, the coffers were refilling, Liam Gallagher got an invite to Number 10 with Blair's Ford Galaxy parked outside, the dotcom revolution was all systems go and the only way was up.
Now, as Brand Britain faces another round of reinvention, the mood is somewhat different: more sombre and altogether less confident.
Times may be tougher, but MT doesn't believe Britain is irretrievably broken: on the contrary, we still have an awful lot going for us. But if we're going to emerge as the leaner, stronger, fitter nation we all hope for, it's time for a proper look at what Britain really is in 2010, what Brand Britain means and what it should stand for. Before you can play to your strengths, you have to understand them.
There are those who say that as a nation we have lost our way, forgetting the roots that made Britain great in the first place: industrial prowess, for example. Not only, say the Jeremiahs, do we not have much of it left, but what there is is often in foreign hands. We live in a country where everything seems to be up for sale, from Jaguar Land Rover and Cadbury to our utilities, our top football teams, even airports and bridges. By some estimates, 75% of the UK's largest firms are now in foreign ownership. We are the world's sixth largest manufacturer, but where will it end?
Of course, we Brits do like to have a moan, but hang on a minute. The free market strategy may not be perfect, but it has delivered 25 years of economic prosperity, years that might otherwise have been spent in the mire of industrial decline. It is all very well to curse the City and the role it has played in the downturn. A degree of hubris and reining in of the bonus culture is long overdue - especially as public spending cuts bite into the rest of us mere mortals - but financial services are something we're very good at and the sector still pays an awful lot of tax. Chasing out the bankers to Zurich and New York is not in our long-term interest.
There's another way of looking at this. Although less often expressed, it should not be neglected in our quest for the new meaning of Britishness: could the UK be the first truly post-modern nation? As Howard Davies has written, the UK is 'a country which embraces the imperatives of globalisation more warmly than any other, certainly more than the US, France or Germany, not to mention Japan'. And it's a country confident enough in its own sense of self to realise that, so far as commerce is concerned at least, national borders do not mean all that much any more. (Try telling the supremely nationalistic Chinese that, though.)
Another thing that has changed since 1997 is the composition of the population. Since the heady days of Cool Britannia, 1.6 million people from abroad have been granted permanent right of residence, the large majority from developing countries. As a result, 24% of all births in England and Wales in 2008 were to foreign-born mothers, rising to almost 50% in London.
Assimilating this huge wave of migration is no easy task. Anxiety among the existing population about jobs and access to services such as social housing is marked and cannot simply be dismissed as Daily Mail-initiated xenophobia. But neither should we be blind to the huge economic and cultural benefits of the process. Fresh blood - in the form of migrants with the drive and ambition to build a better life - is a good thing for all of us. That's what built the US, although its flag-waving patriotism remains decidedly un-British.
Our openness to foreign talent and skills reaps perhaps its greatest dividends in the arena of scientific research. …