Preventing violent conflict

The UK’s biggest weapon? It’s being nice to people (and parliament agrees)

Today the House of Lords released its long-awaited report Persuasion and Power, looking at UK soft power and influence in today’s topsy-turvy world. I say long-awaited, I have been waiting for it. My colleagues and I contributed to the inquiry that underpins the report on behalf of our research centre, so naturally I was curious to see how much of our priceless wisdom would make the cut.

The report makes for interesting reading (no, really). It confirms, presumably for the sake of anyone who’s had their head in a bag for the last decade, that to exercise power on the global stage governments now need to make love, not war. In fact, being nice to people in order to get our own way, as oppose to roughing them up, might actually be our biggest weapon.

Because we like a bit of jargon in international relations (it excludes the uninitiated), we call this being-nice-to-people approach ‘soft power’. When we provide UK study opportunities to foreigners we are ‘projecting soft power’. The same goes for when we run BBC news services in foreign countries, pitch in to help out in times of crisis, give people a laugh through our distinctly British film and TV programmes, and host major sporting events like the Olympics and Paralympics. (Note to Russia – this can backfire if you’re not actually a good host, as these photos of grotty and bizarre hotel rooms in Sochi attest).

Time was that soft power seemed a bit, well, soft. But times they are a-changing. In the 19th century we were the world’s biggest power. In the 20th century, we were the darling child of the new world leader, America. And in the 21st century… well who knows, but it ain’t looking good if we keep going about our business as before. To put it simply, the assets that allowed us to punch above our weight in the past (our military hardware, colonial ties, wealth) are not as important as they used to be. So we need to find other ways to be influential.

Cue our ‘cultural assets’. Happily, we’ve accumulated quite a lot of these over centuries of poking about in other people’s countries (sometimes by invitation, sometimes not). The British Council is present in hundreds of countries, promoting English language, education and the arts. The Beeb does a sterling job providing impartial news and analysis in countries where national news outfits are an affront to their breed. I can’t tell you the amount of people I meet who tell me “When I hear it on the BBC, then I know it’s true”. We’re also very good at providing development assistance, giving generously and effectively.

There’s a perception about Brits that we’re quite reserved, but the truth is we’ve always been quite the exhibitionist really. And it’s paying off in spades.

But here’s the bad news. Just as we’re beginning to realise the importance of our cultural assets going into unknown tomorrows, these are coming under fire like never before. The UK has been tightening its belt pretty much across the board, and institutions like the British Council and the BBC are no exception. We’re also showing a bit of a nasty streak. Far-right parties are growing and as a nation we’re becoming more unwelcoming and mean-spiritied towards immigrants. It doesn’t look nice, because it’s not nice.

And this is why the report is so important. It’s the clearest declaration yet of how ill-advised the retrenchment in our spending on cultural assets is. It also sets out a clear mission for how we should marshall our soft power in the future. The aim should be to make the UK the best-networked country in the world. And it’s possible. It’s really, really possible.

So here’s to a great report. Timely, important and hopefully a game-changer. And here’s to being nice. Long may it continue.


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