COMMENT: French leftists would do well to learn from Cornish flag-bearers
Late one night a couple of decades ago, in the bowels of this newspaper's original central Plymouth headquarters, a "partied-out" editor committed an act of unilateral re-branding.
Taking a compositor's scalpel, he slashed at the paper's masthead. With a slurred cry of "off with its head!", The Western Morning News became a truncated Western Morning News, ending 130 years of tradition.
The editor could not have envisaged the tidal wave of protest that followed, with lifelong readers threatening to give up their subscriptions unless the decapitation was reversed. As it was, the letters and calls (it was in the pre-email era) soon abated, the executioner stuck to his guns, and "The" Western Morning News was no more.
Modernisation was cited justification for the change and, apart from that flurry of early protests, it had no long-term detrimental effect on the title's sales or profile.
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The same cannot be said for other examples of re-branding in recent years. When Tropicana orange juice rolled out its new carton design in 2009 the consumer backlash was immediate. The London 2012 logo was also roundly rejected by the British public and there are countless other examples of re-brand flops.
Like the distinctive WMN masthead, which can still occasionally be seen on tin advertising signs in the more rural areas of Cornwall and Devon, branding a product or organisation with a strong logo or symbol is a vital tool in getting a message across.
This week the French Communist dropped the hammer and sickle symbol, saying it "wasn't relevant to a new generation of communists". It does seem an odd move when you consider the far-left group continues to be a strong force in French politics, boasting 10 MPs. Is it another case of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it"? As with opposition to the guillotining of the WMN masthead, the backlash was quick and ferocious, with leftist traditionalists accusing the party's leadership of outright betrayal and selling out to reactionary forces.
Emmanuel Dang Tran, the party's Paris secretary, said: "Everyone is shocked. The party is allowing itself and its values to be swallowed up. The hammer and sickle represented a historic element in resistance against the politics of capitalism for the working class of this country."
National secretary Pierre Laurent, meanwhile, defended the decision to abandon the symbol, saying it no longer represented present-day realities and "isn't relevant to a new generation of communists".
What is interesting for us on this side of the Channel is the drama currently being played out amongst left-wing elements of French politics is in direct contrast to what has happened in Cornwall over the past 20 years. Rather than reject an ancient symbol in order to present a more modern society, we adopted – or rather re-adopted – one. The black and white Cornish cross of St Piran is today flown from public buildings and churches as a mark of distinctiveness and pride. It is used to brand everything from food and clothing to music and solicitors. Crucially, it is no longer the political preserve of Mebyon Kernow, having been adopted to a greater or lesser degree by all parties west of the Tamar. It is on car bumpers, in shop windows and embedded in school uniforms.
The ubiquitous nature of a symbol long regarded as subversive – even revolutionary – would have been unthinkable a couple of decades ago. Until the 1970s, St Piran pin badges were the almost exclusive preserve of underground nationalists, Hell's Angels and punks. To wear it was a statement of rebellion, of putting two fingers up to the establishment. How times have changed.
The widespread use of the Cornish flag since the 1990s has had countless benefits, not least in terms of the pride it engenders when flown on civic buildings and at public events.
It has even spawned a copycat – though unlike the laughable Devon "flag" dreamed up by a PR man, Cornwall's black and white cross is rooted in history. Carried aloft at the Battle of Agincourt as early as 1415, the flag has a long pedigree which may go back to the time of the Crusades. More recent records include its use at the funeral of Queen Mary in 1694 and its inclusion in a 19th century stained glass window at Westminster Abbey. Although the popularity of the simple white cross on a black background might have waned over the centuries, a look up any Cornish high street appears to indicate it is here to stay this time.
Only time will tell whether the French Communist Party was right to drop the hammer and sickle. As for that scalpel-wielding editor, he went on to greater things... as, of course, did the WMN.