London Rules? Rebuilding Britain's Creative Brand

Andrew White argues we aren’t making the most of our creative industries and their potential to boost Britain’s soft power, argues.

Not so long ago, a British prime minister declared: “our theatres give the lead to Broadway, our pop culture rules the airwaves, our country has taken over the fashion catwalks of Paris”. Coming hard on the heels of a Stryker McGuire Newsweek article which proclaimed that “London Rules”, John Major’s words seemingly encapsulated the optimism of a post-industrial country in which Britain’s creative class punched well above its weight in the global ring.

The following year witnessed his ejection from office by a New Labour government, which moved quickly to institutionalise this celebration of British ingenuity by formalising a new area of economic activity: the creative industries. Thirteen such industries were identified in mapping documents in 1998 and 2001, and annual estimates for the economic activity within each were produced. The success of this Governmental strategy was seemingly evident in its subsequent recapitulation by many municipal and national policy-makers in various parts of the world. The UK’s pioneering role in policy-making was matched by the economic strength of those industries, with 2003 figures showing turnover in its cultural and creative sector as being the highest among 30 European nations, including France and Germany (UNESCO 2010: 29).

In not much more than a decade later, the picture looks less rosy. While the hosting of the London Olympics went some of the way in repairing some of the damage to Britain’s soft power wrought by its involvement in the invasion of Iraq, this year’s Brexit vote has seriously diminished its brand as an outward facing, tolerant and creative nation. This image problem has been compounded by Britain’s ongoing economic difficulties, especially when one considers the oft-repeated argument that its creative industries are parasitic on the now-ailing financial sector. In this sense, the auction of 223 of Damien Hirst’s works for £111 million just in the hours before surrounding the collapse of Lehman Brothers on 15 September 2008 could be viewed in retrospect as the denouement of the UK’s decade-long success in creative industries policy-making. But should we write-off the British creative industries that easily?

Intuitively, the answer to this question is: yes, probably so. In the years that followed the onset of the global financial crisis, public funding and private donations to these industries declined. Cultural institutions like the Arts Council and the British Film Institute (BFI) had their budgets slashed, as did the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the lead Government department for the creative industries. (Hewitt 2015). Added to that is the impact of online piracy on industries where the UK has traditionally had a disproportionate influence. This is particularly the case with music, where IFPI figures show that money from global sales (both analogue and digital) declined by over 30% from 1999 to 2010 (Rogers, 2013, p. 32). In other industries, like film, where high upfront costs are often borne by venture capitalists, it would seem logical that retrenchment in the financial sector would have a profoundly negative impact.

It is therefore all the more surprising then that a number of studies have found it difficult to determine direct causation between a supposedly ailing financial services sector and the performance of the creative industries. Indeed, the sector that is most closely associated with capitalist excess, the international art market, has continued its growth throughout the post-crash phase. And, despite the aforementioned problems with online piracy, employment in the audio-visual sector in the UK increased by almost 10% from 2011 to 2015, with a whopping 34% increase in employment over the same period in music, performing and visual arts (DCMS 2016).

Globally, the creative industries have been promoted with some success by UNESCO as a form of knowledge-based development that can compensate for the decline in global trade and depression in the financial markets. The collapse of its export markets in 2008 led even the most manufacturing-dependent economy on earth, China, to accelerate its development of its domestic creative industries. China has drawn on the ideas and advice of British experts even while forging its own distinctive path, and this is an area where the UK can contribute to these developments in other countries too.

There are, for sure, problems in the creative industries in the guise of precarious working conditions, workforces that are not as diverse as the positive, inclusive image of these industries would suggest, and the perils of electronic waste. But a country which, according to BPI figures, was responsible for one in seven of all global album sales in 2014 is well-placed to fully exploit opportunities in the recession-defying creative industries, as well as continue to project its soft power even in this precarious post-Brexit era.