Buy British: Why isn't there a new campaign?

19th March 1968: A man holds up a plastic carrier bag declaring I'm Backing Britain The 1968 I'm Backing Britain campaign was enthusiastic but short-lived

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 plummeted.

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.

View from America

American woman dressed up for Independence Day

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 jobs.

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 crisis.

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 so.

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 products.

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 less parochial".

"It takes a great deal of effort to change consumer consciousness. The government needs to be behind a campaign to give it economic credibility."

John Lewis's Made in UK logo will start appearing on products next year John Lewis's Made in UK logo will start appearing on products next year

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.

Manufacturing in the UK

  • The sector is in relative decline. Over the past 30 years, manufacturing shrunk to about 12% of the economy. Banking and business services contribute 32% of what the UK produces
  • The number of people employed has dropped steadily from 5.2m in 1990 to 2.6m in 2009
  • Output reached an all time-high in 2007 though it has been struggling since 2008
  • It is the world's sixth largest manufacturer
  • Third largest sector in the UK, contributing £140bn to the economy in 2009

Source: BIS, ONS and PWC

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.

The production line at the BMW plant in Cowley, Oxford Quintessentially British: The Mini is owned by German firm BMW, which has three plants in the UK

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 high-tech goods.

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 in 2007.

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 equipment.

Design Britain

A Dyson vacuum cleaner

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 overseas.

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 designers."

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 UK."

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 British.

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."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 260.

    211. allthatswrong insport. Easy blaming unions, How about blaming the old colonial managers whose ideas were despised and ridiculed by Japanese managers? The problem with UK PLC is that in the majority, the select few get all the sweeties, regardless of talent. They then have a 'career' characterised by poor performance for huge reward. Its been very cosy for many years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 259.

    @ 220.

    You see Andrew , THAT is part of the UK`s problem , when those from foreign shores arrive here THEY receive far too much aid from OUR government , whilst home grown British ingenuity is often ignored , if not actually impeded by the same governments. People however , should not expect to be "GIVEN anything" , but should be prepared to work their butts off to get whatever they want

  • rate this

    Comment number 258.

    Forget British products for a moment consider pension funds. Everyone wants their pension and saving investments to produce maximum growth which is why many pension companies have invested OUR money in up and coming foreign investments which helped foreign competition destroy our home industries. Now who would have accepted much lower returns for an inward investment?

  • rate this

    Comment number 257.

    Considering the confusion over what is either made in Britain, designed in Britain, and whether or not that supports our British economy or not, surely there must be some smart fellow amongst us who could name a list of companies that we can buy there products in our high street and local shops which is predominantly british based? Maybe Caroline McClatchey or evan Davis might know?

  • rate this

    Comment number 256.

    ummm import tax perhaps?
    There's real progress here. Instead of expanding the global community, lets all withdraw and show national pride in as ridiculous way as possible. Lets all start buying Old Leyland cars and eating pie and chips again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 255.

    Pizmac 229 is quite correct. I saw a sticker on the back of a farmers 4x4 urging us to support the British Milk industry - the vehicle was a Suzuki!

  • rate this

    Comment number 254.

    I'm not buying British wine or British salami, they are awful! But when it comes to bisquits, nothing beats the British bisquit!

  • rate this

    Comment number 253.

    Do we really want to regress to the extent of becoming an 'import substitution' economy? The real goal is to get the rest of the world to buy British.

  • rate this

    Comment number 252.

    @218.Broadwood Widger - oh dear. Another poor misguided soul.

    Honda make the parts for the Accord elsewhere in the world. They then ship them to Swindon where they are assembled.

    If buy buying a Honda Accord you think you're buying British you are sadly mistaken...

  • rate this

    Comment number 251.

    I'd willingly buy Britsh goods - if I could find any. But the big stores e.g Marks and spencers think we want cheap badly made goods from China instead, so we are forced to buy that rubbish. We have actually forgotten what quality is, unless it has an expensive designer label to tell us so. I try to source goods locally using our own mill shops and local businesses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 250.

    Buying local products has 3 important environmental effects:
    (1) You're not shipping the products in from thousands of miles away
    (2) British firms have to comply with stricted environment norms
    (3) Despite the lower cost of shipping, british goods will be more expensive (even for the same quality), because of the higher labour cost. This will make people will consume less

  • rate this

    Comment number 249.

    168: You're right. I was concerned for the ladies at my local Sainsbury's when they brought in the self checkouts. However, when I spoke to them I found no one had been made redundant, voluntarily or otherwise. Only change was less or no overtime, and deep irritation on my part with the constant hectoring of the blasted machines.

  • rate this

    Comment number 248.

    is there anything still made in Britain, look at Terry's chocolate its now made in poland and cadbury's now is foreign.We should be buying british goods manufactured by british people if there is any left.

  • rate this

    Comment number 247.

    Perhaps before we ask citizens to buy British, could we start with asking manufacturers here to 'make british'. Quite a few companies have taken their manufacturing overseas (eg Dyson), Even Aardvark is making threats to go.

    The population is against tax cuts for industry but can't see that our tax policy makes other countrries advantageous; lower tax might in the end bring in more revenue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 246.

    208 John Airey The best thing that could happen for our competitveness is a house price crash. [sic]

    I agree that high housing costs do determine a relatively high living wage in this country however, please explain how negative equity, being stuck in a house you can not sell whilst still servicing the mortgage and the lack of social mobility that his will cause will increase competitiveness.

  • rate this

    Comment number 245.

    Perhaps if the public understood that every £1 spent on foreign goods or holidays means a £20 hole in the UK domestic economy they might just realise that buying British is serious self help!

  • rate this

    Comment number 244.

    "John Lewis' "Made in UK" logo"??? I have been using that exact logo myself (same raised style round button 3d style Union Flag) for more than three years on my company IT equipment. Almost all our IT equipment is built in house by my UK company, established in 1997. I certainly hope nobody at JL comes knocking on my door asking for me to change my logo.

  • rate this

    Comment number 243.

    @ 193.
    John Bell

    How many actual British car makers are there left , not including the foreign owned companies that produce cars in the UK ? It is the same old story with ALL of British Industry ,destroyed by unreal demands from British Unions , coupled with lack of backing and support from various British governments , The shipyards etc should NOT have been turned into housing ,but maintained.

  • rate this

    Comment number 242.

    The 'buy british' argument can never be taken seriously in a global marketplace. Our prospective workforce needs to earn what would represent a fortune in many other countries. I worked with Polish lads in 2009 whose money had risen from 50 pence/hr, in Poland to £10/ hr in England. They were rich and we were poor. Always made me laugh to hear all the old mantras, regurgitated by Brown and Co.

  • rate this

    Comment number 241.

    @ 124.lichmark & 184.Jay

    Incredibly unpatriotic attitude that highlights exactly why people who make these comments don't support British anymore! Great Britain is full of British people or were you refering to our great multi-culturism. Being British does NOT mean being white!!


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