Time to boost Britain’s soft-power arsenal

The ability to influence others without resort to arms is a key British strength. As Brexit nears, we must tell the world a winning story

Tristram Hunt

“I am an enthusiast on the subject of the arts,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison, from Paris, in 1785.  “But it is an enthusiasm of which I am not ashamed, as its object is to improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, to reconcile to them the respect of the world and procure them its praise.”

Since then, this question of soft power—the ability of both state and non-state actors to appeal to international audiences—has become a great deal more codified. As the American foreign policy analyst John Arquilla rather less poetically puts it: “In today’s global information age, victory often depends not on whose army wins, but on whose story wins.”

Today, the United Kingdom urgently needs a winning story. Somewhere beyond the ardent Brexiteers’ vision of a Global Britain unshackled by the corporatist strictures of the European Union, and the Remainers’ fear of an insular, nationalistic Great Britain, resides a different vision of Britain’s forthcoming place in the world. A Britain without an empire, without the collective embrace of the EU, but still with ambitions to punch above its weight on the global stage, with its nuclear armoury and seat on the Security Council, its Commonwealth and diplomatic expertise, requires a credible identity and coherent narrative.

What is more, civil society is going to have to provide that account, because the UK political system currently seems unable to do so. One of the unfortunate consequences of the last few years’ flurry of referendums, indecisive general elections, and the controversial prorogation of Parliament is that the aura of the British democratic system has taken a pummelling. The 19th-century radical John Bright might have called England “the Mother of Parliaments,” but that brand has been compromised. As Westminster sinks into a constitutional quagmire and Whitehall faces years of EU withdrawal gridlock, the task of explaining the UK to the world will fall to business, charities, educational institutions, and, above all, our cultural industries.

For as Jefferson realised, the arts have a unique capacity to increase a nation’s reputation and procure it praise. Perhaps to the disappointment of some who yearned for Brexit to herald a return to a more structured, mono-cultural past for the UK after the angst of globalisation and mass migration, the story which our creative community probably wants to tell about modern Britain will be of a profoundly cosmopolitan, disruptive and meritocratic set of islands closely bound to the Continent as well as to more global networks. It should be a finely judged piece of national projection which mixes a new sense of humility with confident creativity.

Thinking hard about our soft-power assets will also fulfil a broader calling. We are witnessing the decline of multilateralism and the emergence of an era of hardmen and authoritarian politics. Vladimir Putin has lauded the collapse of Western liberalism, in Hungary Victor Orbán is promulgating a new creed of “illiberal liberalism” and in Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro we have that heady mix of populism and chauvinism which increasingly marks modern leadership. Soft power—with all its nuances and complexity, beauty and hybridity—becomes a vital antidote to some of the reactionary tendencies of the day. 

The good news is that the UK remains a soft-power superpower. Sir Simon McDonald, Head of the Diplomatic Service at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, believes that: “This is down to the quality of our education system, our culture—literature, music, fashion, the visual arts—our creative industries, sport, science and technology, as well as our institutions and our democratic values and freedoms.” As the Brexit debate busies itself (not unreasonably) with the impact of leaving the EU on Welsh farmers or Aberdeen fishermen, it is worth reflecting on the significance of our creative economy. In 2017, it exported £32.7 billion of services, accounting for 11 per cent of all UK service exports with a growth rate of over 120 per cent since 2010. To take just one example, British recording artists produce the greatest number of top 10 selling albums in foreign countries. In crude employment terms, the government estimates that the creative economy comprises some 3.12 million jobs, or one in 11 of the workforce.

Around the world, that translates into hit global tours by Adele and Ed Sheeran; a growing audience for the BBC World Service; Premier League fans from Karachi to Lagos; blockbuster Tate Modern exhibitions in Shanghai; Stella McCartney shaping the fashion world; and that is before we get onto JK Rowling, David Hockney, Lewis Hamilton, or HM the Queen.

Within this landscape of Britishness, the role of museums and galleries is vital. When the French Republic established the Louvre in the 1790s, the painter and revolutionary enthusiast Jacques-Louis David, in terms similar to Jefferson, described its founding purpose: “The museum must demonstrate the nation’s great riches . . . France must extend its glory through the ages and to all peoples: the national museum . . . will be the admiration of the universe.”

Yet whereas once the great encyclopaedic museums of the Enlightenment stood as bastions of imperial prowess—demonstrations of “hard power” displaying plundered cultural riches as shows of state hegemony—today that relationship is subtly shifting. Established arts institutions, like the Guggenheim and Pompidou, are now leveraging their cultural capital to support outward-focused global aspirations. Whether it is Louvre Abu Dhabi—with its conscious ethos of partnership between West and East, old Europe and new Gulf, Christian and Muslim—or the activities of the British Museum in Tehran, Benin or Kabul—museums can offer a distinctively civic notion of art and culture, with an ability to connect people in ways that politics cannot. In the coming years, ensuring that UK museums assume a full and active role in current debates around provenance, repatriation and curatorial partnership with the Global South is an essential element of this cultural diplomacy.

At the V&A, we have sought to express a certain idea of Britishness through our international programming. When the image of the UK can too often be confined to a nostalgic sepia past, our array of travelling exhibitions have celebrated the disruptive creativity of David Bowie and Alexander McQueen, the subversion of Aubrey Beardsley and the contemporary achievements of designers Thomas Heatherwick and Es Devlin. And in the UNESCO-designated Design City of Shenzhen, on the border of Hong Kong, we have established a series of galleries for a young, tech-savvy and culture-hungry Chinese audience exploring the values of design through our collection. A similar tale of cultural ambition could be told of the Tate Group, the Science Museum, and the National Galleries of Scotland.

Yet we do so in a crowded field. As Britain has been turning in on itself to debate the results of the referendum, France, Germany, Russia and China have been surging ahead with soft power initiatives. It is always a mistake to think of soft power as a policy tool able expertly to be deployed by government ministers, but there is no doubt that strategic state investment can foster conditions for its effective deployment. Whilst the British Council has seen its budget reduced in recent years, the number of Confucius Institutes, Russkiy Mir Foundations, and Instituts Français have expanded markedly. President Xi Jinping has spoken of his determination to “increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China’s message to the world”, and recent data from the Pew Research Centre has, for instance, pointed to the growing popularity of Chinese music, television and film in Nigeria and Ghana. At the same time, the Chinese government’s main news agency, Xinhua, has opened up scores of new foreign bureaus and launched China Global Television Network as a new international media service to rival the BBC, CNN and Al-Jazeera.

One only needs to look across the Channel to see how a sustained focus on cultural leadership can transform an international profile. If the reputation of France was in the doldrums under François Hollande, with President Macron’s Jupiterian leadership its global image has soared.  Today, France is the most popular country in the world for international tourists, with some 90 million annual arrivals, whilst Macron’s focus on educational partnerships, global health, environmental commitment and rebooting of the relationship with la Francophonie has secured France a new level of admiration (if not, internally, for the President). France’s central position within the European Union does not in any way seem to have hindered its reputational reach. 

What future for “Global Britain”? Given that the current government has yet to conclude its soft-power review and there is a likely prospect of more political turbulence to come, the responsibility falls to civil society. Our world-class diplomatic service, military personnel and intelligence agencies will continue to provide the necessary geopolitical infrastructure, but it will be up to the likes of the BBC, the Music of Black Origin awards (MOBOs), Edinburgh University, the National Trust, and Liverpool Football Club to explain Britain abroad. And that message should be one of openness and multi-culturalism, built on a culture of associationalism, the rule of law, financial probity, intellectual creativity, and political freedom. Part of the global success of the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex—with two billion viewers tuning in—was predicated on the multi-racial and consciously modern sensibility of Harry and Meghan.

In the absence of a coherent soft-power architecture, there are funding decisions and policy reforms which could help promote a vibrant British identity. This would include investments in the British Council, the World Service and in national museums and arts organisations like the Manchester Festival, so they may tour more of their work internationally; taking student numbers out of the immigration targets; or using the Department for International Development budget to support cultural infrastructure and soft power partnerships abroad. 

There are some potential quick wins, such as encouraging the Premier League to start holding a few fixtures (not just friendlies) in sub-Saharan Africa or the Far East, and to think very carefully about the proposed £120 million Brexit Britain festival scheduled for 2022. And, finally, wrestle with some more strategic questions such as the future of the GREAT campaign under which all official British international activity is branded; the worrying state of creative education within the British schooling system; and using the upcoming Commonwealth Games in Birmingham to work out what we really think our relationship with the Commonwealth should be, in a post-Brexit landscape.

The cultural sector is waiting to understand the upside of Brexit.  Many national museums and galleries rightly responded to the vote by increasing their partnership programmes outside London and challenging in-built metropolitan bias. But the aftermath of the referendum has put off talent coming to Britain, increased costs for museums and galleries, contributed to a steep decline in European visitors, and limited access to research funding streams. We nonetheless remain a country which is remarkably open, creative, innovative, entrepreneurial, and comparatively honest. And those are all highly valuable attributes.

Let us return to Jefferson and Madison. One of the nations that has suffered the sharpest fall in popular perception over recent years has been America under Donald Trump’s presidency. His immigration policies, aggressive nationalism, and high-octane unilateralism have negatively affected the global reputation of the US. And yet, at the same time, one of the most influential works of soft power of recent years has been the musical Hamilton—that incredible, lyrical chronicle of the political ideology and personal fissures in the early years of the American republic, set to slam-poetry, soul and rap, and populated by a Hispanic, African-American and Latinx cast. It embodied all the heroism and humanity of the founding fathers, with all the creativity and progressive urgency of its author, Lin-Manuel Miranda. To hundreds of thousands around the world, it is Hamilton which has fulfilled the ambitions of Jefferson by procuring praise and earning respect. Our own soft-power challenge comes down to this: in an age of political stasis when Britain needs a new story to tell, who will write our Hamilton?   

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