So the UK Government is at it again. Sunak has announced a “world-leading £1.57 billion rescue package to help cultural, arts and heritage institutions

This follows hot on the heels of a Johnson’s “world-beating” Coronavirus track and trace system, and a world-leading” free trade agreement between the UK and Australia and New Zealand.

These phrases are cropping up in UK Government communication with such regularity that there must be a plan behind it. We know that Number 10 pays a lot of attention to polling, and to the outcome of focus groups – so I assume that this must all have been tested.

But how do you communicate against this?

Factually point out it is not world beating – no

There is a factual response to Sunak – that France has committed more money to culture and arts recovery than the UK has. And track and trace does not work, so that is clearly not world beating. I don’t actually know what a world leading trade agreement is, so rebutting that one is a bit complex. But I am very sceptical as to whether going against these messages that way is worthwhile or workable – “it’s better than what others are doing” “no it’s not” “yes it is!” is not the sort of fight anyone really wants to have, and you end up with something akin to “You’re not going to spend £350m on the NHS!” “Yes we are” “No you’re not, the net contribution is actually £170m!

Connect this with the UK Government’s wider Coronavirus failings – no

This is hard as well – the UK might have among the highest deaths per capita in Europe, and the government might have been slow and incompetent in its response – also in terms of the economic recovery. But “too little too late” or words to that effect are not going to work in response to this line from Sunak – it’s the law of big numbers, where most voters see a billion and think it is a lot. And actually answering – with numbers – how much is enough is a hell of a hard task. So this approach is, I think, off as well.

Try to out-patriot the Tories – no

We’re no less patriotic than them [the Tories]!” I heard one of Starmer’s shadow cabinet say recently. But a battle for flag and country is not one that Labour or other opposition parties (in England anyway) are possibly going to win – at least not with the media landscape as it is in the UK currently. “Our plan would be even more world-beating than their plan!” is hence not a good response. Also these phrases are examples of what George Lakoff calls the country as person metaphor – where a strong country wins out over a weaker one, or beats a weaker one. This competitive aspect is part of Lakoff’s wider Christian Father model, versus the nurturant parent model – so do not use the frames of the opponent (the Tories here).

Adequate would be enough – no

We’d be happy if it just worked” is a line I hear quite often in response to the deficiencies of Track & Trace. But if you believe the UK is exceptional, even if its current government is not and you see that, then a just-about-good-enough message is not going to resonate either. Anything that looks like it is talking the UK down will definitely not resonate among the people who need to be convinced – the message has to be for the people who need to be swayed, not those who already think there is nothing the UK Government does that could be world beating.

Britain is a laughing stock in the world – no

It indeed might be. And even The Times has woken up to that. But the voters that the Tory Party needs to retain, and the members of the Tory Party who support Johnson, are never going to admit that to themselves. Britain has already burnt through a mass of goodwill internationally due to Brexit, and its government is not about to let that international reputation point matter just now. So intellectuals might happily point out the international reputation point, but for the UK Government that doesn’t give a damn about that – to them that does not matter.

Ignore the “world-beating” phrases and hammer on and on about the specifics – yes

This is the only option that makes any sense here. Instead of fighting over whether the support for culture and arts is world beating or not, make the fight about what the support does or does not do. “This will mean that only 1 in X theatres can survive!” “This will mean no more TV series XYZ” etc. in response to Sunak. Support local campaigns for the defence of liked local institutions. In the other cases “There is still no working track and trace app” is a much better line than “Track and trace is not world beating“, and hammer on about the lack of benefit a trade deal with Australia and New Zealand will bring, especially in the absence of one with the EU.

So – in short – do not have a fight about “world-leading” or not. Have an argument about what works or not, and relentlessly hammer on about what does not work. Any other response falls right into the UK Government’s framing trap.

2 Comments

  1. If only all countries were as self-critical as the UK. Mentioning no namen.

    Also, when we are analysing the Covid19 episode in 5y time, how many countries will be found to have had such accurate figures as the UK?

    All that glitters is not gold.

    And vice versa.

  2. John Speed

    This “world-beating” mantra is typical of the narrow nationalistic “Any Answers” type of British exceptionalism which rejects as inferior whatever is done in any other country, especially one in Europe. Desperately sad, and deplorable.

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