Even though he is now a pillar of the Establishment, or perhaps a cornice, Lord Saatchi seems understandably sensitive about the foundations on which his rise to status and esteem were built.
He was not elevated above the multitude and ennobled in recognition of a distinguished career in law, medicine, science, art or learning. His ermine is owed to a illustrious career devoted to putting the sizzle in the sausage, which is as good a definition of advertising as any. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that: commerce and industry would be poorer and life infinitely duller without the rude mechanical crafts of the image weaver and slogan-wright. But there persists, particularly in the Conservative Party, an ancient snobbery which decries the honourable trade of sizzling.
And since Lord Saatchi’s allegiance is to the Conservatives, he is understandably irked when party colleagues scorn the tools of his trade, or rather the methodologies and practices of his calling. While the Tories were in office, the detractors were subdued, but since Labour came to power they have been in full cry, and Lord Saatchi has had it up to here. Last week he broke. He could no longer stand idly by and watch the mistress he loved trampled under the hooves of the ignorant Mongol tribesmen in his own party. He took up his pen and sallied forth, breastplate and greaves a-jangle, to do battle in the public prints.
“In Conservative circles,” he wrote, “it is now a well-worn critique of this Labour Government that it is run by focus groups, soundbites and other cynical superficialities of that kind. Tories who say this would not want to get les mains sales with that type of thing.”
Since what follows purports to be an dissertation on “the most powerful political tool of all: language”, it is curious that Lord Saatchi should break into French in his opening paragraph. Are Tories of a critical disposition so fastidious that they clothe their thoughts in an alien tongue? What’s wrong with “dirty their hands”?
At any rate, these same Tories are quick to ridicule Labour’s attempt to rebrand Britain. One senior member of the party, says Lord Saatchi, dismissed it as a silly phrase. (Une locution folle). A government, he added, is not an advertising agency. (Un gouvernement, ce n’est pas un bureau de la publicitÃ©).
Well, if it isn’t , that’s news to Lord Saatchi who goes on to list in enthusiastic detail Labour’s rebranding tactics. “They launched a typically coordinated programme of events: first, a film about creative, design conscious, technologically advanced modern Britain…followed by a speech on creativity and entrepreneurship to the Design Council; followed by the Spectator lecture on the same theme; followed by an Anglo-French summit atop Canary Wharf, culminating in, lo and behold, a new campaign from the Sun newspaper on feel-great Britain.”
That Lord Saatchi can describe all this not merely with a straight face but also with approval, shows just how deeply – and paradoxically – he is imbued with the value of surface over substance. Are we seriously being invited to believe that the world’s oldest nation state is akin to a brand of fishpaste that needs repositioning? And, still more preposterously, that this consummation is to be wrought by the creepy Mandelson and the grinning Blair? And, stretching credulity to breaking point, that this can be achieved by a video about design conscious Britain, a speech to that august body the Design Council, a high rise luncheon, and, gawd help us, the Sun?
Some of us have heard it all before. In the Sixties, Harold Wilson brought Labour to power with the promise to be “tough, gritty and purposive” and to “forge a new Britain in the white heat of the technological revolution”. The nation stood back, shielding its eyes from the searing glow and ducking the flying sparks, as slowly the furnace doors slid apart to reveal a burnt Yorkshire pudding.
What a nation wants from its government is tediously simple to express and fiendishly difficult to accomplish. It is sound economic management. Everything else flows from that. Mrs Thatcher pulled off the trick and was rewarded by unprecedented electoral success. But then, lured by the siren appeal of world statesmanship, she took her eye off the ball and allowed Chancellor Lawson to shadow the Deutschemark and effectively unravel her earlier triumphs.
Managing the economy is not only difficult, it is also technical, dull, and, owing to leads and lags, slow to win applause. Blair is fortunate in having inherited a fairly sound economy near the peak of the cycle. He can therefore indulge in the fun and games of pretending he is the brand manager of something called Modern Britain. When the economy turns sour, as it inevitably will, we may hear less of the design conscious, technologically advanced, new young Britain, since such vapouring is the short-lived diversion of a government new to the toys of office.
Lord Saatchi, however, conjured his very personage from the swirling dry-ice clouds and spangled razzmatazz of communications, and is easily besotted by the message. Labour, he says, was allowed (by the Conservatives) to control the meaning of the word “new”. Now it has set its sights on the conquest of another word “modern”. Whatever next? The brutal rape of the word “pivotal”?