As citizens and residents return from their holidays and make the slow trudge to the baggage hall they might notice that the country’s image-makers have been busy with the paint brush. Big bold signs have been posted in the immigration area of airports letting all arrivals know that they’re about to cross the UK border.
Looming high above the immigration officers’ desks at Heathrow’s Terminal One, it’s hard to tell whether the “UK BORDER” sign is a warning, threat or misleading branding. Most people shuffling along with passports in hand might think they’re entering a place called the United Kingdom – the reality is that sometime over the summer it became the Unravelled Kingdom. There was no announcement about this rebranding in the press – just a rapid, sustained set of stories that suggested the transformation was complete.
First there was a call by Prime Minister Gordon Brown for more people to quite literally rally around the Union Jack and raise it from every rooftop – a glaring sign that a nation is coming undone if ever there was one. At the same time, one part of the consortium maintaining and upgrading the London Underground caved in on itself. Next, came a declaration that all departments responsible for border controls would come under one, unified banner – complete with uniforms. This was followed by some of the worst flooding the country had seen in recent history and a very public display of incompetence when the government was unable to get enough fresh water to the displaced and stranded.
Off the front pages, ambassadors to London were suggesting deadlines for the 2012 Olympics were under threat due to severe labour shortages in the construction sector. Over in Lausanne more than a few eyebrows were being raised at IOC headquarters as the UK’s crumbling transport infrastructure became a lead story in the closing days of July.
Indeed, just as most of Britain and southern Europe was heading off on holiday, Heathrow had become the ugly poster child for all that was wrong with the country – under-funded, poorly managed, not really British, arrogant, badly designed, outdated, greedy, “not my fault, mate”. What might have been a domestic story elsewhere was top of the line-up on CNN bulletins and dominated the front pages of the FT and IHT. In the absence of an official release from Number 10 that the country was now the Unravelled Kingdom – this was it. The government response? “Not my fault, mate.”
Public and private sector Britain approaches the last quarter of 2007 with a massive assignment that demands they restore public opinion at home and embark on a global campaign to bolster the confidence of everyone from countries that could potentially invest to connecting passengers who’ve been put off by brand UK. A decade ago a bit of slick sloganism in the form of “Cool Britannia” could gloss over all kinds of shortcomings and capture the imagination of editors and investors alike. This time around, PR won’t win the day.
The Unravelled Kingdom needs to pick up its needles and start stitching together disenfranchised communities, battered transport hubs, worn-down rail links and forgotten corners of the country. At the same time it needs to breed a culture of excellence that will create benchmark businesses and public institutions and move a marker that’s currently stuck on mediocre.
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