The Government’s new commercial approach to the British Council risks tarnishing the institution’s hard-earned reputation, as well as reducing it to a purely English-language teaching institution. It is so much more than that, argues John Baron MP.
As Chairman of the British Council All-Party Parliamentary Group, I have had the pleasure and privilege of a close insight into the work of one of the UK’s key soft power institutions. Founded with a mandate to foster better knowledge and understanding between the people of the UK and other countries, for 85 years the British Council has shared the UK’s culture, language and values with the world.
Last November I saw this being put into practice at first hand, when I joined the British Council’s Chief Executive and his delegation to the ‘Creative Central Asia’ Forum in Kazakhstan. The Forum is a large international conference focused on the creative sector organised annually by the British Council and British Embassy in Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana).
I was very impressed not only by the high calibre of the British and locally-engaged staff, both at the British Embassy and at the British Council’s Kazakhstan office, but also by the extraordinary reach of the conference – delegates travelled from across Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to engage with some of the brightest and best from the UK creative sector. As an indication of how important the Forum was considered, it was even featured on the Kazakh television evening news.
The Forum is an excellent example of soft power, bringing together people from different countries to exchange ideas and learn from each other. In the long-term, the aim of soft power is to build trust and thereby persuade others to ‘want what you want’, to both parties’ mutual interest. When correctly nurtured, soft power can give a country the opportunity to inform opinions as well as to frame and shape debates on important issues.
Soft power tends to lose out to more traditional ‘hard power’ – such as military force or financial sanctions – because it is intangible, much less immediate and its effectiveness can be difficult to measure. However, its usefulness is not disputed, and the success of the British Council is most readily shown by the fact that so many other countries have since founded their own versions, such as the Institut Français, the Goethe Institute and the Instituto Cervantes.
Indeed, countries such as Russia and China are rapidly expanding their networks of cultural institutes, and are investing large sums to this end. The Chinese Government alone has established over 500 Confucius institutes in 140 countries since 2004, with the intention of founding 1,000 by 2020. Countries are also increasingly investing in their own English-language international news services, such as RT, France 24 and Iran’s Press TV.
Britain punches well above its weight when it comes to soft power, and in the recent authoritative survey by Portland Communications was judged to be a ‘soft power superpower’, leading the global rankings for the strength and depths of its soft power offering. This is not just due to the work of the British Council, but also takes into account other factors such as the BBC World Service, which was once described by a former UN Secretary-General as ‘perhaps Britain’s greatest gift to the world in the 20th Century’. At a time when the reliability of news is increasingly questioned, the value of an impartial and trusted news outlet can not be overstated.
The UK’s soft power strength is also due to our world-class universities, as students absorb our culture, values, and how we see the world, and (hopefully) return with positive memories of their time in the UK. Indeed, during my visit to Kazakhstan I had the opportunity to meet students who had studied in the UK, many on FCO scholarships. A 2015 survey revealed that 55 world leaders were educated in UK Higher Education establishments – a key advantage for Britain’s international engagement.
Soft power works best when governments adopt a hands-off approach, but they do have an important role in creating the environment in which it can flourish. Whilst it is encouraging that the British Government is taking soft power seriously – the FCO has an excellent soft power team in place, and is feeding in soft power considerations into the overall international engagement strategy – the support and resources it gives to nourish this component of our foreign policy can be precarious and at times lacking.
In recent years the BBC World Service has benefitted from an increase in Government grants. This allowed it to boast its ‘biggest expansion since the 1940s’, and enabled it to start broadcasting in 11 new languages. However, the continuation of these grants is uncertain, and it is possible that these new language services may not be able to be maintained when the current grants are exhausted.
Similarly, the British Council is working within ever-tighter constraints when it comes to spending its Government funds in non-ODA countries. Every pound lost in grant must be made up in profit and multiples of revenue. This is no easy task, and an increasingly commercial approach risks tarnishing the British Council’s hard-earned reputation, as well as perhaps reducing it to a purely English-language teaching institution. It is so much more than that.
Given the expense that hard power invariably entails – sanctions and conflicts are immensely costly, both in money and lives – soft power is a sound investment. It builds bridges and understanding between peoples even when their governments have a difficult relationship, and in this way probably pays for itself many times over. For these reasons, the Government would be well-advised to reverse course and boost our soft power still further.