A satirical design proposal to restructure the UK like a 1970s holiday camp, based on the collective nostalgia that fuelled the Brexit vote, perfectly summarises the tone of national debate in recent years, says Owen Hatherley.
Britain is in trouble. Politically polarised, economically stagnant, poorly housed, precariously employed, internationally ridiculed. Luckily, the designer Scott King and writer Matthew Worley have a solution: Britlins.
Modelled on the principles of the UK's famous, ironically-admired holiday camps of the post-war years, like Butlins and Pontins, nowadays occasionally used by metropolitans for alternative music festivals, Britlins demands we make life in Britain more like a holiday. That is, like holidays as they were once practiced, with neat little chalets, grass you were meant to keep off, organised entertainments and perfect predictability.
"Life should be fun, like it used to be. Life should be slower, safer and a little bit cheeky," reads the text written by King and Worley. "We must recover our values: we must make a new older Britain."
In a country where "no longer do things only get better", they suggest that: "Perhaps, the only way forward is to go back. Forcibly."
Britlins demands we make life in Britain more like a holiday
So their Britlins brochure advocates a series of measures to make post-Brexit Britain like a permanent holiday camp. "Low-income, high-unemployment and religiously non-assimilated communities" that are "impossible to turn around", like Bradford, Leicester and Luton, are to be subject to "total floralisation". Workplace slides will make work fun again. A series of rebrandings will help de-industrialised towns get their identity back. Some towns will receive the "prestigious royal prefix" – Royal Ayr, Royal Bognor Regis, Royal Skegness. Others will get "the desirable On The Wolds suffix" – Canvey Island on the Wolds, Merthyr Tydfil on the Wolds, Wigan on the Wolds. The capital will be moved to Blackpool, with rootless cosmopolitan London surrounded by the "London partition". HELLO Agriculture work camps will provide work for "school leavers and those newly arrived on our shores", along with "those who can't find a home on the Britlins model".
Photographs show giant bright beach balls bouncing above the skylines of Manchester and Edinburgh. These are part of "the Friendly Fire plan", where we will "recreate the Blitz spirit – in a fun way". A series of town plans for a series of Britlins new towns are shown – Saxnot, Balder, Frigg, Loki, arranged like seaside Milton Keyneses. These will then be connected via special heritage lines and segregated roads, "the greatest proposed single investment in Britain's infrastructure since the Victorian age".
Like many of Scott King's works, the satire is so poker-faced that you could easily imagine it being taken totally seriously – there's just a slight tilt too far that gives it away.
King is best known for a series of posters and designs satirising the public art and regeneration tat of the New Labour era, aimed particularly at the work of Anish Kapoor and Antony Gormley. One exhibition included a series of mounted quotes such as the following, purporting to be from Kapoor: "Antony is too modest to repeat this, but the chief constable of Northumbria Police assured him that alcohol-related crime on Tyneside has gone down by 14 per cent since Angel was erected... Employment has risen by an incredible 26 per cent as a direct result of Antony's sculpture. Temenos will be 28 metres taller than Angel: so one can only begin to imagine the effect that it's going to have on the people of Middlesbrough."
The most obvious continuity from these works about public art to Britlins is the addition of "a balloon for Britain", a literally vacuous giant balloon that would float above a given stricken post-industrial town, on the model of the Angel of the North and its various imitators.
The satire is so poker-faced that you could easily imagine it being taken totally seriously
But Britlins is less about these now-mostly-discredited ameliorative boondoggles that were expected to "turn around" impoverished areas, and more about the nastier, more anxious tone of public debate in the last six years, when all those lottery-funded galleries, museums and centres were replaced with austerity and nationalism.
A lot of the phrases in Britlins could have been taken straight from the handbook of Nick Timothy, the recently fired election strategist of prime minister Theresa May. The ideas also resemble those of David Goodhart, the Etonian analyst of a Britain divided between somewheres and anywheres.
These people became gurus in the year between the Brexit referendum and the recent snap election. Britain, they asserted, was – aside from London, Scotland and a few university towns – a country where people knew their place, and wanted to be put back in it. It was not racist, but it was sure something had to be done with all those Eastern Europeans, or maybe all those Muslims, or maybe both.
They didn't like to travel, these people, they stayed firmly put rather than moving from town to town, they were upset about the present and terrified of the future. What they wanted was strong and stable leadership in the national interest that could, as the Daily Mail headline put it, "crush the saboteurs".
This unnerving Keep Calm and Carry On world was inescapable in adverts and debate in the run-up to the election. The solution, it asserted, was to become once again a great island nation, firmly separate from the continent, but trading with our brothers in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, Donald Trump's America...
The alleged "anywheres" of London and Brighton and the "somewheres" of South Wales and the Northeast vehemently rejected these ideas in favour of an optimistic, social-democratic manifesto
And yet, surprisingly enough, all this failed at the polls. Rather than increasing her electoral majority, to "strengthen her hand" in negotiating Brexit, Theresa May lost it. The alleged "anywheres" of London and Brighton and the "somewheres" of South Wales and the Northeast vehemently rejected these ideas in favour of an optimistic, social-democratic manifesto.
Scott King's designs capture with awful accuracy the sadness and hubris of Brexit, and the politician who now has to execute it. You could imagine the prime minister looking now with profound sympathy at Britlins, as she spends her summer trying to run a country that is much less scared than she evidently thought it was. "Britlins knows that history has taken a wrong turn somewhere. It's all become too much."
She too would feel the attraction of Britlins promise that we will "exist – perennially – in a better Britain, a Britain where you can have a laugh without causing offence, where you can trust your kids not to get in with a bad lot, where your neighbours don't move. So pack your beach ball and dust off the deck chair. Britlins land is freedom land. You know it's common sense".
Photograph is by Mark Blower.