Tuesday, 3 August 2010

I'm Backing Britain

I did this piece about the “I’m Backing Britain” campaign for last Saturday’s FT:

In the early weeks of January 1968, a post-devaluation Britain was enlivened by the advent of a campaign to haul the country out of the economic doldrums. The movement spread like wildfire and no event seemed complete without the Union flag and its companion slogan in sight. The campaign had started after five young women typists at Colt Ventilation and Heating Ltd, a small company in Surbiton, made a New Year’s resolution to work an extra half an hour a day without extra pay.

The story was swiftly picked up and the typists received thousands of congratulatory letters and calls. Other companies announced that their employees would also be working an extra half-hour. Even Harold Wilson, the prime minister, offered his support. “There is too much knocking of Britain,” he said. “What we want is ‘back Britain’ not back-biting.”
Within a week the typists were at the centre of a perfect media storm. Britain was flooded with hastily made “I’m Backing Britain” badges, mugs, car stickers and T-shirts – most of which turned out to have been made in Portugal.

Along with concerns about the economy, this outbreak of patriotic enthusiasm also fed into anxieties about the nation’s decline and the “British disease” of badly trained, poorly motivated employees and mediocre management. The Surbiton typists seemed like a refreshing response to the stereotypical image of the British worker. But dissenting voices came from the trades unions, who were, understandably, not keen on a campaign that involved unpaid overtime.

By the end of March, the campaign had dissipated into general patriotic exhortations to “buy British” and was clearly past its peak. The Bruce Forsyth song “I’m Backing Britain” sold only a few thousand copies. And by August, even the five typists were only occasionally coming into work early.

However, “I’m Backing Britain” had more traction than Silvio Berlusconi’s recent campaign to get Italians to holiday at home to help alleviate the country’s economic problems. His television advert, urging his compatriots to get to know their “magical Italy”, has been widely mocked and parodied, with spoof versions appearing on YouTube.


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