The late great project of British nation building: Pathe News presents from the ESRC...

The ESRC's 'Britain in...' series - dry, humourless, safety-first academics spend pages saying nothing
Gerry Hassan
17 December 2009

A few years ago the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) decided to initiate an annual series called ‘Britain in ….’ each year. This was on one level some wheeze about academics thinking they were advancing public information/engagement, hitting some KPI target on Knowledge Transfer, while branding and positioning itself on newsagent shelves in the slipstream of The Economist’s ‘The World in …’ annual series.

For all its faults as a magazine, The Economist’s series is a superb publication. It analyses global trends in politics, business, science and lots more and has individual country and regional profiles. There is even a bit of character and lightness in some of the pieces with named contributors.

The ESRC ‘Britain in ….’ has equally managed to find a niche. Dry, humourless, safety-first academics spend pages saying nothing and certainly nothing original.

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The whole exercise seems pointless and a bit of a metaphor for much of what passes for institutional life in modern Britain. Who is this supposedly aimed at? The general public? Which public? And what kind of information are they meant to get from it? Or is it an ego-boosting exercise for the editors and writers?

This matters because the ESRC in its wisdom pre-election has decided to launch a UK-wide advertising campaign punting the merits of ‘Britain in 2010’. Staring out at you from thousands of billboards across the country are posters declaring in no uncertain terms:

It’s Your Nation. Be Involved.

The front cover of ‘Britain in 2010’ is reproduced with two union jacks, various monies and what looks like an ID card of some kind, along with the words ‘Making Tough Choices’.

These posters hark back to those World War Two information campaigns which would sternly tell us that ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’. At least those ‘in charge’ then had the excuse of a ‘real’ national emergency, and were also in an age shaped by patrician values and deference, while having a bit of style and humour (all up against it in our darkest hour, etc.).

‘Britain in 2010’ is bereft of any humour, and seems totally oblivious to the realities of crisis-ridden Britain. Beyond the cliché from ‘the powers that be’ that a lot of ‘tough choices’ are going to have to be made, and whatever way it pans out it is going to cost us dear!

Not for ‘Britain in 2010’ the multiple over-lapping crises of the economic, political and international, which amount to a systematic challenge to the state, government, how we have been repeatedly told ‘There is no Alternative’ to Thatcherism/Blairism, and Britain’s geo-political position in the global scheme of things.

This lot, and by that I mean some of Britain’s most senior, respected and tenured academics don’t even understand the basic fact that the UK is not a ‘nation’, but a state and thus one of those strange ‘nationless states’ sociologists never examine (whereas lots of them like going on and on about ‘stateless nations’).

There does seem to be a link between the mounting crises and increasing fragility of HMS Great Britannia and the extent to which political leaders and other elites are starting to go on about the wonders of ‘Britishness’ and the UK as a ‘nation’.

It is almost as if they recognise on some levels the weakening ties and stories, and are attempting at the last minute to engage in a frantic exercise of nation-building for the good people of Ukania. It is much much too late, but their hyper-activity tells us something about how they see things. 

‘Britain in 2010’ is published by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and available at all good newsagents for £4.95.

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