Whenever I hear someone complain that Britain no longer creates and exports products, I remember the Premier League football shirts (mostly Manchester United) that I saw everywhere in July 2009 in Sangin, Iraq, and the impact of British culture and brands in what might seem to be unexpected places.
In 2015, Portland Communications placed Britain top of its Soft Power 30 index and in 2016, Britain came second. In other reports, Britain repeatedly comes in the top three, celebrated for its unprecedented reach in major global organisations, the reach of its culture and the English language. Britain’s soft power was significantly boosted by the excellent 2012 Olympics.
The government’s recent efforts to promote Britain’s soft power is one of its greatest successes which has received very little attention, buried under headlines of manufacturing and military presence. But soft power, while difficult to definitively measure, is a very powerful and underused tool.
We have the means to do so.
Take for example the digital economy, which in Britain has the highest percentage of gross domestic product of all European nations. It grew 2.5 times as fast as the economy as a whole from 2003 – 2013. It’s a real money maker for the UK and it’s something we absolutely must take advantage of. In an age of digital growth of music, film and TV, Britain’s huge archive of material will allow it to not only extend Britain’s cultural reach, but also to generate much needed export revenue. Matt Hancock, at a conference fringe meeting with the BBC on the future of the digital economy, spoke of the great opportunities for the BBC to grow revenue and profits from its vast back catalogue of excellent material. Not only do we have a great archive, but we are still excellent at creating new, innovative material. The Great British Bake Off has been a huge success, as have other TV shows which are going against the trend of many millions of people watching TV programmes after they are broadcast on catch up TV. The decision some years ago to ensure the BBC picked up material from small production houses boosted the quality of material, along with ITV and Channel 4’s desires to try new, edgy material.
We shouldn’t underestimate the ability for our cultural material to have a powerful diplomatic effect; in Top Gear’s 2011 Middle East special, the three presenters discovered that not only did Syria show Top Gear, but the presenters were extremely popular. British singer Adele was named by IFPI in February this year as the most popular recording artist across the globe in 2015. Our arts and culture are able to penetrate and influence areas traditional power measures are unable to do.
Retaining the 0.7% of GDP to international development also helps us maintain our soft power presence, although that resource could be much better controlled and distributed. Priti Patel, whilst not being the greatest advocate for that department’s existence, is right in saying that it should be more cleverly used. Her presence at Save the Children UK’s Conference reception, along with Conservative star Ruth Davidson, shows how important the use of aid is to the Conservatives. With someone like Ruth advocating for Britain’s role in helping internationally displaced children, we have a chance of being known as a heavyweight post-Brexit in protecting the rights of the weakest. This is a critical influence tool we would be wise to retain and maximise.
Britain’s universities and educational institutions are another great example of cultural influence generating soft power. The current Iraqi Prime Minister graduated from the University of Manchester, whilst countless leaders from around the world (mainly from the Middle East, areas we desperately need greater influence) studied at our military academies. Three UK universities are listed in the top 10 of world universities, with Oxford University scoring the coveted first place. These institutions have a huge lasting influence on those who attend.
There are, however, great risks to Britain’s place as a soft power superpower. Portland said of the UK’s weaknesses in 2016 “Brexit, the rise of UKIP, and increasingly incendiary rhetoric on immigration continue to send a message that the rest of the world is not welcome in the British Isles. While the Department for Business Innovation and Skills seeks foreign students in large numbers, the government’s immigration message suggests otherwise – much to the chagrin of British Universities”. Sadly, since the referendum vote this warning has not only become real, the recent party conference indicates a desire to increase this rhetoric. Being out of the EU club means Britain will no longer have a voice in the world’s largest economic group, meaning we risk seeing a commensurate reduction in soft power. As Portland said, “a post-Brexit Britain would certainly see a decline in its soft power stores”.
Britain gains the number 1 university slot, but rhetoric around cutting non-UK student numbers and their ability to work here after finishing university means many of those students will turn to other global educational powerhouses such as the USA or Germany. Even China. Not only will that make it harder for our universities to fund themselves with high fees for foreign students, but we’ll lose the ability to influence the future leaders of the world when they no longer attend one of the 12 UK universities in the world top 100.
Our ability to continue producing globally impactful cultural material and new artists will stall if we don’t do more to support a diverse group of artists. A survey in 2010 claimed that 60 per cent of chart pop acts were privately educated, while this year an employee of the UK Music Association believed 80-85% of new artists signed attended public school. In acting, a report earlier this year from the Sutton Trust found that 42 per cent of Bafta winners over all time were educated independently, while 35 per cent attended grammar schools. Similar statistics are seen even in sport. The Sunday Telegraph found that of the 440 (of 542) athletes for whom they were able to determine their place of education, 20 per cent went to independent schools (88 in total), compared with 68 per cent who are state-educated (300 in total). If we are to create new material in music, film and other arts, creating great British culture which influences the world to the advantage of the UK, we need diverse talent. As with other sectors, we cannot have 7% of the UK population dominating every single aspect of the job market. If we don’t do more for young artists from poor backgrounds, our ability to create new and interesting content will erode. Cultural advocates Damian Collins and Matt Hancock have all spoken on the vital need to retain and grow diversity in our artists to continue making great content, and Theresa May’s plan to ensure Britain works for everyone will need to find resources and determination to make this happen.
Finally, we mustn’t forget the digital economy and its influence on the world. Britain has been able to create this digital economic growth by keeping a hands-off approach and not putting in place regulations from a non-digital age designed to protect an industry. To do so would prevent Britain being a fulcrum for innovation. Driverless vehicles, for example, are the future of Britain’s transport network, and it would be quite easy to regulate this too heavily to keep human drivers in jobs. The Government’s mindset should be ‘How do we help this business to thrive and grow to the benefit of the consumer?’ rather than, ‘How do we stop this business because it is disrupting established industries?’. But the government must try to ensure devolved authorities don’t try and stop them, as has been the case of Uber in London and Northern Ireland.
Britain’s soft power has the ability to grow and grow, as our economic outlook and cultural position in the world changes over the next 5 – 10 years, but we must ensure we do not become nervous by imposing heavy regulations on the digital industry, rejecting foreign students and preventing working class kids becoming music and film stars. We should also think more about how we use this soft power tool; instead of the diplomats, perhaps we should send in the artists?