Rebuilding Cool Britannia: a case for a UK Cultural Industrial Strategy

Alex Tiley, Senior Consultant

The phrase “Cool Britannia” is synonymous with more than you might expect. First coined in 1967 as the title to a song, Cool Britannia later became associated with a chain of tourist shops, an era of 90s pop culture, optimism, and pride in British cultural exports, and perhaps less well known, a New Labour cultural strategy. 

The UK continues to laud itself as a cultural powerhouse today, but “Cool Britannia” back in the 90s was an example of when central government directly identified British culture as an export and defining component of the UK economy. Unfortunately, in a 2020s political culture that is often too quick to relegate the arts and creative sectors as “nice to have”, political stakeholders now often lose sight of the inherent economic and international opportunities they present.  

As an illustration, when considering the “hot topics” of today, tech, cyber, and Net Zero, often soar to the top of any list for key future industries. UK industrial strategy in 2024 sees us Brits as a future nation of inventors working in STEM more than it sees us as the Spice Girls. Indeed, who could forget during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the Government released the disastrous advert that claimed that Fatima, a ballet dancer, could perhaps enjoy a lucrative career in cyber, if only she knew it. 

Central Government Supply Estimates 2023-2024 allocate a relatively small amount, in terms of government spending, to the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), who are responsible UK culture and tourism. This could well indicate how the sector plays second fiddle in the minds of political stakeholders. However, the solution to bringing back “Cool Britannia” is not as obtuse and simple as merely throwing more cash into a Departmental budget. 

Instead, the UK could benefit from changing how it views the arts and creative sectors: and recognise them as a key export to support the delivery of economic growth and job creation. UK creative industries contributed £49 billion gross value added in 2022 to the UK economy and cultural investments are key to growing UK service industries. To do this, the Department for Business and Trade (DBT), alongside DCMS, will need a UK industrial strategy for culture and tourism. Siloing these sectors at present is unhelpful when building a vision for UK cultural exports.  

For the UK domestically, the argument for supporting culture, travel, leisure, and tourism is compelling. The hospitality industry contributed £54 billion in tax revenue to the Treasury in 2023, and in 2022, £20 billion worth of exports. As a sector, the industry is also the third largest employer in the UK, supporting 3.5 million jobs, trailing only retail and health and social care in scale and size. Regionally, hospitality is also an equal opportunities employer, sitting within the top five employers across every UK region. Within this industry section, travel and tourism contributes 4.6% to the nations GDP.  

The production of UK culture is not only an enrichment for UK citizens but also serves as a tool for leveraging UK soft power internationally through cultural diplomacy, and as a mechanism to drive GDP for the UK through tourism and other supporting industries. Internationally, travel and tourism is a growth area, contributing 7.6% to global GDP in 2022 – a 22% increase from 2021.  

On the world stage, the UK currently ranks in the top 10 globally for international tourism, with 30.7 million international tourist arrivals in 2022 coming to the UK to enjoy red telephone boxes, double-decker busses, and Big Ben. However, UK international tourist flows have decreased considerably from 2020, while many other European countries in the top 10, such as France, Spain, and Italy have grown. The factors that cause this are numerous: from the legacy impacts of the pandemic, to Brexit making EU-UK tourism logistically more complicated, and the end of tax-free shopping. For many, overcoming these obstacles requires a strategy and public-private partnership. 

To date, actions from the Government have been focused around a series of funds to deliver grant funding to support the creative industries. However grant funding, while highly effective at delivering specific projects and partnerships, does not replace a coherent sector vision for industry, which could be driven by increasing tourism as a route to create jobs in the industries that support the sector. This would need to be more than just cultural funding however, as many of the industries directly linked to the sector depend on much more structural factors, such as just in time supply chains for the labour force and inventory management, overheads on resources, and energy costs. 

The case for a cultural industrial strategy was recognised by the House of Lords report on Arts and Creative Industries, which noted that the Government had recognised that arts had a key role to play in levelling up and driving local productivity. For the Government, a strategy that addresses the direct business pressures faced by the hospitality and tourism sectors, alongside the requisite cultural export of British pop-culture, could do great things for the UK economy and make Britannia truly cool again.

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