The UK’s image has taken a knock recently. KPMG’s Head of Brexit Karen Briggs says Britain’s champions need to deliver a message of reassurance and renewal to the outside world.
Is perception more important than reality? It certainly becomes more important the further away you get. I was thinking about this in New York last week and the need to pitch a simple message externally. Standing outside our Brexit bubble in the UK, it’s easier to appreciate how other countries are dealing with their own issues and people have limited bandwidth to digest every nuance of the Brexit debate. So general impressions matter.
Five years ago, I would guess that impression was pretty positive as the world tuned in to the London Olympics. How many dollars, yen and euros flowed into the UK as its soft power peaked? Today, the UK’s brand is muddied by a slower growth; political turmoil; security worries and confusion abroad about Britain’s position in Europe.
Investors in New York were telling me they hadn’t seen the UK out there selling itself. Its obvious merits – the tax regime, flexible workforce, creative skills base and legal and regulatory environment – are well known but, for most investors, market access is the key. Other European cities have not held back in promoting their particular advantages, and pointing out the UK’s current predicament.
In short, ‘Brand Britain’ needs a boost: a reminder to the world that the UK still has plenty on offer to keep those FDI dollars rolling in. And if I were pitching to run PR for UK Plc, my message to investors in New York and elsewhere would be the three Rs: Reassurance; Reinvention; Renewal.
First, reassurance. No one should downplay the challenges Brexit brings, but the fundamental underpinnings of our economy remain sound. The UK’s natural advantages in language, law and labour have not evaporated. What we saw in the UK’s proposal on EU citizens’ rights in June, was proof the government understands the centrality of foreign workers to our economy. It was also a broader signal that the UK may pursue a practical, more open form of Brexit.
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The UK is acting in it rational, economic self-interest and we continue to believe that, faced with the consequences of not having a successor agreement to EU membership, common sense will prevail on all sides. In practical terms that would mean continued access to European talent and markets in some workable form. Of course, cliff edge Brexit remains a real possibility, but at least there appears to be genuine goodwill on both sides to avoid this scenario.
My second R would be reinvention. The vote to leave the European Union is forcing the UK out of its comfort zone in many ways. Up to now, membership of the Single Market has given our companies easy access to 500 million consumers and a plentiful supply of high and low-skilled labour, with less need to invest in training and automation. Take robots. According to the International Federation of Robotics, Britain has the lowest density of industrial robots of almost any major economy in the world – just 71 for every 10,000 employees, versus 301 in Germany and a staggering 531 in South Korea. Perhaps Wednesday’s news that UK productivity fell to pre-crisis levels at the end of 2016 wasn’t such a surprise. So whatever your view of the government’s nascent industrial strategy, the very fact we will have one has to be a step in the right direction.
The third R is renewal: that is renewal of Britain’s trading heritage and in particular its trans-Atlantic partnership. Brexit might feel disorientating now, but if investors can ride out the short term upheaval, there may be greater opportunities in the longer term. The most obvious being a free trade agreement between the UK and US. This seems a likelier outcome than one between Washington and Brussels.
So a three point message: Reassurance about the UK’s inherent strengths; Reinvention for a new era; and Renewal of partnerships beyond Europe. It’s not PR gold-dust but it is a simple message we can all take abroad. Right now Brand Britain needs a bit of help.
This article represents the views of the author only, and does not necessarily represent the views or professional advice of KPMG in the UK. You can register for the email subscription list of this column and expert views from our Brexit leaders.