Economic nationalism, the political and consumer support for domestic industries, might be a bête noire of economists, but has never gone away. It might be a long time since people in the UK were encouraged to show their patriotism by buying British cars, but the government is still an official sponsor of the Great British Food campaign, politicians earn plaudits by holidaying in Cornwall rather than Tuscany and, as debates over Europe have shown, arguments about national and economic identity remain deeply entwined.
But, despite its high profile in the UK, the idea of economic nationalism for the creative industries is still largely an alien one. While tortuous market failure arguments are deployed to justify government support for the production and distribution of British films, the rationale (and funding criteria) is essentially a cultural rather than an economic one. Otherwise, as has been pointed out, it would make more sense for National Lottery funds to be spent on producing video games. As for audiences, there would seem to be little sentiment that British films warrant particular attention. Despite the efforts of the BFI and the media hurrahs that surround success at the Oscars, encouraging people to watch British films in the same way that they should eat British beef are unlikely to succeed.
Similarly, literature is regarded as one of the cornerstones of British identity, but young people are encouraged to read Shakespeare and Dickens on the basis of understanding and enjoying our cultural heritage rather than to maintain the country’s publishing industry. While policy arguments around the licence fee rarely dwell on the fact that the BBC underpins an internationally competitive television production industry.
For many, the idea of ‘buying British culture’ would be an anathema. These are, after all, markets that prize originality, the latest trends and a ceaseless quest for the new. Whether it is Scandinavian television dramas, Japanese animation or Brazilian samba, many consumers actively seek out the unfamiliar. In so far as the British consciously focus on culture from the UK, it tends to be at the local rather than national level – the music scene in Manchester, the ‘Bristol Sound’, visual art in Cornwall or theatre in central London.
Where national sentiments have their strongest impulse is in design, fashion and crafts – industries in which authenticity and providence have always been important. A successful instance of this is the New Craftsmen, with its store in Mayfair exclusively selling crafts, furniture and jewellery from artisans working cross the British isles. As a curatorial device, the New Craftsmen shows how British identity and traditions can be skilfully used to
showcase contemporary design.
But ultimately, however, economic nationalism is a reflection of weakness rather than strength and there are sound reasons for eschewing it. People should consume and explore culture freely, without prejudice as to where it was made. Attempts by French radio stations to restrict English language pop music, or US bumper slogans cajoling people to buy American cars are scorned not just because of their xenophobic overtones, but because they are symptomatic of nations struggling with economic and cultural decline.
The UK’s creative industries don’t need economic nationalism – what they need is an economic strategy, a distinction not always fully made. This means a coherent and properly resourced plan that goes beyond celebrating the sector and instead commits substantial investment into education and skills, start-up support , affordable workspace, infrastructure, innovation and R+D, stimulating private finance and promoting exports. If all of those were in place, then there would be no need to urge customers to ‘buy British’ – for, without having to be told, they would be anyway.
- Tom Campbell