The British Council (originally called the ‘British Committee for Relations with Other Countries’) was founded in 1934. Our first overseas offices opened in 1938.
The early 1930s was a time of growing global instability and there were increasing threats to British prosperity, security and influence. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 led to the Great Depression of the early 1930s with a huge drop in international trade, falls in living standards, and high and persistent unemployment.
The balance of power was shifting and extreme ideologies were gaining ground. The October Revolution of 1917 had brought the Bolsheviks to power in Russia, while in 1922 Mussolini had taken charge of Italy. This was followed by the rise of Nazism in Germany, with Hitler coming to power in Berlin in January 1933. In Spain, the civil war that would bring Franco’s Falangists to power was shortly to begin. Across Europe and the wider world, Britain’s influence in trade and diplomacy was under significant challenge.
One of the ways that the government reacted to the growing threat to British interests was the creation of the British Council. It began operations in 1934. The organisation’s original aim is set out in this extract from our 1940-41 Annual Report:
“The Council’s aim is to create in a country overseas a basis of friendly knowledge and understanding of the people of this country, of their philosophy and way of life, which will lead to a sympathetic appreciation of British foreign policy, whatever for the moment that policy may be and from whatever political conviction it may spring. While in times of danger this friendly knowledge and understanding becomes vital to the successful prosecution of war (that is the Council’s place in the war effort), in times of peace it is not less valuable".
This was a time when the status of the UK was changing dramatically. We were established to build new international relationships, based on mutual understanding rather than political or military dominance.
In 1940 we were granted a Royal Charter
Our mission in the Royal Charter was stated as: “promoting a wider knowledge of [the United Kingdom] and the English language abroad and developing closer cultural relations between [the UK] and other countries”.
Although the way we carry out our work has changed, the mission laid down in the Charter of 1940 still resonates today. 80 years on, we continue to create ‘a friendly knowledge and understanding’ between the people of the UK and wider world by making a positive contribution to the countries we work with, and in doing so making a lasting difference to the UK’s international standing, prosperity and security.