2018-07-10 21:44:34 UTC
seeing prewar Pathé newsreels urging people to "buy British". What happened?
Buy British: Why isn't there a new campaign?
By Caroline McClatchey
BBC News Magazine
The British economy is in the doldrums, with the manufacturing sector
flagging, so why aren't there more campaigns encouraging people to be
patriotic and buy products made in the UK?
When buying a jumper, a piece of furniture or a bag of apples, do you check
to see where it has come from?
Do people care whether it was designed, manufactured or grown by British
firms or farms?
These are troubling times for Britain's manufacturing sector, once a
relative bright spot in the country's lacklustre recovery, which contracted
at its fastest pace in more than two years in October, as new orders
But there is unlikely to be a clamour for consumers to start buying British.
In the US, people are used to hearing the phrase "buy American". It is seen
as one of the ways of putting Americans back to work.
Adverts proudly proclaim how the product was born and bred in America, and
closer to home, many French people would not dream of drinking anything
other than French wine or driving anything other than a French car.
There was a surge in patriotic "buy American" rhetoric in the wake of 9/11,
and it has returned to the fore in recent months as the country struggles to
cope with rising unemployment.
But economic nationalism stretches back to the American Revolution. The
Boston Tea Party was all about rejecting foreign-made products and there was
another upsurge of it in the 1930s during the Depression.
According to a recent poll, 80% of Americans think it their patriotic duty
to choose US-made products over foreign ones and there are many websites
devoted to helping consumers find them.
But it is not clear how successful such campaigns have been in protecting US
America's biggest retailer Wal-Mart came under fire in the early 1990s for
its "Bring It Home to the USA" marketing campaign after footage of children
working in factories in Bangladesh emerged.
There has been a xenophobic undercurrent to some of the rhetoric in the
past, such as the late 1970s campaign by auto workers to save their jobs,
which flirted with Japan-bashing.
But in a sign of how times have changed, Japanese car giant Toyota is the
latest big company to wrap itself in the stars and stripes, in TV ads
showing off its American workforce, as it seeks to recover from a recall
There have been many Buy British initiatives over the years. Perhaps the
most famous was the I'm Backing Britain campaign in the late 1960s.
It began in December 1967 when five secretaries at a ventilation and heating
company volunteered to work an extra half hour each day without pay to do
their bit for the flagging economy. It took on a life of its own and within
the week, other companies were following suit.
Union jacks started to appear everywhere, the government endorsed the
campaign and popular newspapers threw their weight behind it. But it fizzled
out within months.
The then Labour MP Robert Maxwell launched a rival motto Buy British, a
record sung by Bruce Forsyth sold just 7,319 copies, and campaign T-shirts
were found to have been made in Portugal.
The song's chorus had the line: "The feeling is growing, so let's keep it
going, the good times are blowing our way."
Surely British shoppers and workers could do with a similar injection of
national pride in these economic dire straits? John Lewis certainly thinks
Last week, the retailer launched a new campaign to champion British
manufacturing. From early next year, a Made in UK logo will start appearing
on ticketing and online product information to highlight British-made
Other business leaders have also recently floated the idea, including the
managing director of organic food brand Yeo Valley. Earlier this year,
Merseyside cooker company Stoves launched a Made in Britain campaign and
says some 250 manufacturers are now using the logo.
But it will take more than a handful of firms to change the British consumer
mentality, says Vincent-Wayne Mitchell, professor of consumer marketing at
the Cass Business School, City University London.
He says the default setting is unpatriotic because shoppers believe "German
salami is better than British salami and French wine is better than British
wine". Empire and immigration has led to the British consumer becoming "much
"It takes a great deal of effort to change consumer consciousness. The
government needs to be behind a campaign to give it economic credibility."
But despite daily doomsday reports about high unemployment and low growth,
the politicians have not been ordering us to go and buy British. Why?
Political pundit Kevin Maguire says it would be a bit like shooting yourself
in the foot.
"It would be very hard for Cameron to stand up and say Buy British, when
half of our exports go to the EU. If they did the same half our exports
would no longer go there."
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills says the UK relies on
open markets and a Buy British campaign would be counter-productive.
"UK companies need to be able to access global markets so restricting access
to the UK or the EU market could all too easily encourage retaliation, which
would leave everyone worse off."
Food is one sector where the Buy British idea is having an impact. The
farming industry has been trying to reverse a decline in the amount of
British produce consumed - it has fallen from 75% in the early 1990s to
60% - through various campaigns.
The Red Tractor logo marks British food regarded as having high standards of
safety and hygiene, animal welfare and environmental protection.
"Some food manufacturers have stepped forward and said they are only going
to use British ingredients. Country Life is a very good example of that,"
says Sarah Whitelock, from the National Farmers Union.
Although consumers may be thinking more about where their food comes from
and how many miles it travelled to reach their plate, the same cannot be
said for their trainers, tables or television sets.
Prof Mitchell says the impulse to buy British tends to be associated with
more expensive goods.
This means it can often be a choice between buying a luxury shirt made in
the UK from London's Jermyn Street and buying a mass-produced shirt made in
China from any High Street retailer.
In addition to price, another problem for any Buy British campaign could be
that many people assume that nothing is manufactured in the UK.
While the days of millions of people employed in industries producing large
volumes of low-value goods may be a distant memory, the UK is the sixth
largest manufacturer in the world by output and a leading exporter of
And there are plenty of other statistics to blow away the rumours of the
sector's demise - manufacturing is the third largest sector in the UK, after
business services and wholesale/retail, and output reached an all-time high
The UK is producing more with fewer people, and like most modern economies,
the focus has turned to higher-value items such as aerospace and defence
There tends to be a hue and cry when British brands are taken over by
foreign-owned firms or when British companies take their production
But there has been a trend for design teams to remain behind. One of the
best examples was when Dyson shifted production to Malaysia from Malmesbury
in Wiltshire in 2002. Manufacturing jobs were lost, while research and
design jobs remained.
The latest figures, from the Design Council, show the UK design industry is
expanding despite the difficult economic climate.
The design sector has grown over the last five years, with numbers of
designers increasing by 29% to 232,000.
And the combined fee incomes of freelances and design consultancies, and
budgets of in-house design teams, have increased by £3.4bn to £15bn.
Mat Hunter, chief design officer for the Design Council, says Britain is
internationally renowned for its design skills.
"The UK has a great reputation abroad, whether for its architects such as
Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, fashion designers or industrial
Mat Hunter, chief design officer for the Design Council, says many people
imagine that the UK is devoid of manufacturing since production started to
move to the Far East, but there is in its place a rich mix of high-tech
manufacturing, such as race-car makers McLaren, and artisanal producers such
as furniture makers Ercol.
Terry Scuoler, chief executive of EEF, the manufacturers' association,
admits the sector does have an image problem.
"There's an image out there that Britain is not a manufacturing giant. While
we have lost a number of iconic brands, we are still a major manufacturer.
We might not be making jets but we make very large parts of them.
"Britain is a big car manufacturer. Nissan, Honda, BMW have plants in the
Therein lies another problem - what counts as a British product? Scuoler
says this is irrelevant and any campaign should be Made in Britain, not Buy
He says foreign-owned firms are a massive part of our economy and are big
investors and employers.
"Made in Britain would be a healthy banner and a healthy battle cry. The
issue is not British ownership. It's about investing in Britain."
Hunter thinks a Buy British campaign sounds like a throwback to the post-war
years and it actually has a different meaning in today's globalised world.
"I don't think it's about spending your money at home in a xenophobic way.
It's about dispelling the myth that we no longer make anything and don't
develop anything wonderful."