The RSA



More civic pride please, we’re British!

During Lord Digby Jones’s recent talk on Civic Pride at the RSA, he made the point that although we are still world leaders in many fields of industry, we don’t crow about it enough. This prompted Dr Cailean MacKirdy FRSA to recall an event, the likes of which seldom, if ever, takes place today.

While shopping with my mother in Glasgow back in the late 1940s, I would see a regular event of jubilation that united the local industries with the public. One such event was typical. Slowly making its way down the street, I would see a very long lorry not just carrying a new steam engine to the docks, but displaying it with pride. It would be strung with flags and bunting, a piper would be on the footplate piping and hanging on to every part of the steam engine were some of the chaps who had built it. However, of much significance was that boards announcing ‘One More Export!’ were mounted on each side of the vehicle.

The employees and the crowds waved to each other, collectively sharing a grand achievement. All other traffic had been stopped to allow what amounted to be a display of what we call today, civic pride.For example, Glasgow has recently saw the delivery of Locomotive 3007 to its Riverside Museum. Built in 1945 in Glasgow, the train was an example of the high tech of its day. Back then it was undoubtedly paraded through the streets to the docks accompanied with much civic pride. Unquestionably, its return home after spending its entire working life in South Africa, and installed for all to see is an important event, for there may be a few still alive who built it and sent it on its way with pride as One More Export!

Copyright Glasgow City Council (Glasgow Museums) 2012

Copyright Glasgow City Council (Glasgow Museums) 2012

Such displays were common and not unexpected as a climate of pride had been cultivated due to the previous two decades of excellent films made by the Empire Marketing Board and the GPO Film Unit. Several of these were highly artistic including Drifters (1929), Coal Face (1935) and Night Mail (1936). These had a social purpose by extolling the virtues of the common man as a contributor to the nation’s wealth. All of the top British industrial companies in those times also made their own films for showing to the public. They could do so today, but they do not.

Recently, there has been a series of TV documentaries about our world leading high tech industries. Programmes showed the designing and building of F1 racing cars, nuclear submarines, satellites and wings for the most advanced passenger plane ever. We witnessed the most amazing attention given to planning their assembly, testing and final delivery to the new owners. Yet, it was during the last stage that something was missing. Most certainly, the employees expressed considerable pride in their achievements, but where were the public on these important occasions?

When it comes to civic pride, things are quite different in America. I remember being there at the time of the first space shuttle, and noticing that celebrating achievement in grand style was not something special that had to be drummed up, but was natural and taken for granted. It was, and still is part of their ‘can do’ culture. Schools proudly displayed photographs of the event, and if any of the crew happened to be local, then they were regarded as brave pioneers venturing into new frontiers of exploration. We British certainly celebrate our past achievements with endless commemorations of royalty, artists, scientists, explorers, conquerors, heroes, leaders and virtuous allies, but when it comes to our present manufacturing greatness, we seem to be too reserved and even complacent.

The journey from the factories to the docks with our latest technical triumphs could be given a bit more publicity. Flags and bunting could be displayed on the vehicles carrying the produce, and instead of traveling at night to prevent motorway holdups, they should be seen in all their glory during daytime. More exposure of each delivery and installment should be shown on TV, and members of the public and particularly school children should, as is common in the US, be taken to the factories to see how clever we are. Finally, during televised Parliament such achievements should be announced as a matter of procedure, instead of waiting for such good news from a backbencher representing his/her own constituency. It would not go amiss to have similar announcements during the House of Lords sittings, and on TV news and in the press.

Failing all of this, we will unfortunately retain a culture of modesty that is not the least proactive. We do need industry museums and the return of our great works to display our proud and past accomplishments, but we should also instill a culture of contemporary civic pride that advances much needed optimism and a future consciousness. We are good at celebrating the past, but not so good at celebrating the present.

The exception to this was the recent Olympics’ Opening Ceremony that rightly celebrated our fine tradition of innovation from the Industrial Revolution, the NHS, our public radio and TV, and our pop music industry, the latter being our greatest export.

Although these features represented how innovative we were, it was the actual event that showed how innovative we still are. Do we have to wait for the next British Olympics, or 50 years or more for the return of today’s great achievements to our museums before they are celebrated? We need to look more at our present, as our future depends upon it. Many nations around the world have museums of the present and even the future, perhaps it is time we had them as well? Lord Digby Jones is right, we should learn to show off a bit.

Share