Churchill, culture and soft power

November 2015

Tomorrow’s world leaders should understand culture if they are to be effective influencers.

2015 is the 50th anniversary Churchill’s death. As part of the Churchill Global Leaders Programme to mark the occasion, the British Council has produced a report  in collaboration with the Barbican, the City of London, and the Creative Industries Federation, including the recommendations arising from public debates on the subject of Churchill and soft power that it co-hosted in London and Washington DC. The report explores the valuable role culture plays in soft power and the vital role soft power plays in international relations. It argues that future leaders should learn from Churchill the importance of culture for persuasion.

The Soft Power underbelly

The great warlord and leader was as much a persuader as a fighter.

Winston Churchill was a hard power leader with a soft power underbelly.  With his image, his writing, and his rhetoric, the great warlord and leader was as much a persuader as a fighter. He played up his own image until it was a symbol of resistance to tyranny. He was the only statesman ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. And he mastered the English language so well that President Kennedy (quoting Edward R Murrow) later described how ‘he mobilised… and sent it into battle’. He also Championed English in the cause of building the peace, supporting the development of a simplified ‘Basic English’ as a language for world diplomacy, culture and commerce after the war. These soft power skills helped Churchill persuade Britain to fight on and America to help Britain at a time when UK hard power was fully stretched. His interests in art and culture also arguably gave him, during his 1930’s ‘wilderness’ years, both refuge and realisation of what was at stake in the coming war. As Professor David Cannadine describes: ‘By sheer force of eloquence and personality, he made Britain seem bigger… nobler and more important than it had the… capacity in reality to be. Churchill made soft power sing… he made soft power work.’

Making soft power sing

As Churchill put it prophetically in 1943, ‘The empires of the future are empires of the mind’

Soft power has always been important to UK foreign policy. But this is truer than ever in today’s globalised, digital age, when mass-communication has vastly expanded the ability of artists, writers or other leaders to interact with millions around the world. With the power to influence spreading from elites and more interactions occurring on a people-to-people level, the ability of individuals to influence culture and of culture to influence individuals has never been greater. As Churchill put it prophetically in 1943, ‘The empires of the future are empires of the mind’.

The arts are ideally suited to engaging with huge global audiences and influencing people on a deep emotional level. Increasingly they do this beyond the reach of political elites.  Indeed, attempts by politicians throughout history to use the arts instrumentally have tended to fail. It is the nature of cultural connections that they are incremental and of artistic responses that they are indirect. Countries seeking to control their creative output are often seen as indulging in cultural bragging or propaganda. Those supporting their creative output at arms’ length achieve enhanced international influence through the resulting soft power.

Empires of the mind

The magic of the arts is that their nuances and empathies get in deep under the skin and suggest common bonds of humanity and alternatives to division and extremism. Indeed all culture in one way or another addresses what it means to be human. That is why it has such power to influence and change people’s perceptions of themselves and of each other. That is why one of the new report’s key recommendations is that policymakers should invest in the arts as vital soft power assets in a national ‘toolbox for influence’.

The report also found that the UK’s cultural sector faces its own challenge. It has been largely successful at embracing digital technology and producing world-leading products, brands and institutions. But policymakers sometimes lack an appreciation of the arts and the vital social, economic and diplomatic value they create. The sector must therefore develop a more convincing narrative about its contribution to soft power and its importance in the furtherance of national interests. It would be a mistake to think that the arts and soft power were of limited importance to political leaders.

Certainly Churchill understood their value, basing much of his diplomacy on appeals to common culture, values and language. In 1937 he was even approached about becoming Chairman of the British Council, though on consideration he declined on the grounds that he might soon be needed for other things. In the circumstances this was fortunate and the rest is history. But it is worth remembering that even Britain’s great war leader also understood the importance of culture and soft power, and that future leaders will need similar skills as they face the challenges of the future.

 

Alasdair Donaldson, Editor