By Dr Oliver Daddow, Reader in International Politics, University of Leicester.
In March 2012 the UK government cashed in on the national euphoria surrounding the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee year, London Festival 2012 and the Olympic Games by backing a £5million campaign to encourage Britons to take more domestic holidays and short breaks. VisitEngland’s lavish advertisement pictured celebrities from small and big screen alike spreading the ‘Britain-first’ message.
Superficially a corporate exercise in boosting British tourism, this advert in fact teaches us some vital lessons about changing patterns in the British media coverage of Europe from accession in 1973 to the present day.
First, the celebration of UK attractions was accompanied by the subtle and not so subtle denigration of European destinations. Not for these stars a Channel crossing to Corfu, Crete or the Algarve but the ‘green and pleasant land’ of Wordsworth’s Lake District, the splendour of the Giant’s Causeway and the rolling dunes of Anglesey; Julie Walters is screened telling a mystery telephone caller: ‘there is no Tate Algarve I’m afraid’. Second, the advert overtly played on nostalgic imagery and nationalist symbolism associated with the bygone era of an introspective ‘island race’ cut adrift from the tawdry hustle and bustle of global politics. In its coverage of the campaign the Mail Online approvingly branded Stephen Fry ‘patriotic’ for his part in encouraging people to stay in the UK.
Nothing wrong with that, one might say. Yet more insightful was what the celebrities had to say in the build up to the tagline: ‘No passports. No jabs. No visas. No euros. No wonder holidays at home are so great’. Taking advantage of the Eurozone crisis, the strap line mixed endorsement of the UK with obvious disdain for ‘Europe’ as a legitimate outlet for British money and travel aspirations. Over the past few years the US has consistently been amongst the most popular destinations for Britons holidaying abroad. However, it was presumably judged too controversial – if it was considered at all – to have ‘No dollars’ entering the roll call of all things negative about foreign travel in the final scene of the advert. In fact, one might say it would be inconceivable for the US to have featured in this way. As David Cameron’s gushing oratory during his March 2012 visit to the US illustrated, the rhetoric surrounding Anglo-US relations is qualitatively different from the cautious, suspicious and often vituperative language used to frame Britain’s European relations. It is now commonplace for politicians and media commentators to scorn the idea of the EU, its institutions, as well as other bodies ‘European’, including non-EU but Strasbourg-based bodies such as the European Court of Human Rights. It is in this context that the VisitEngland advert stands as a short yet powerful symbol of the collapse in political and public support for the European project in Britain over the past four decades. Lacking much in the way of a positive sense of ‘Britishness’, this advert illustrates how Europe continues to play the part of malign ‘other’ in the search for a post-imperial identity for a Britain lacking confidence in its place on the global stage.