Cartoon of Gillray's musicians' supper
'A bristly, self-organizing Britishness'. Gillray’s Musicians’ Supper. Photo ©

CC Creative Commons, adapted from the original

September 2017

Following the recent publication of the latest ResPublica report on ‘Harnessing the soft power capital of UK institutions’, the British Council’s Martin Rose makes a personal case that the independence of our associations and habits of mind, which we often take for granted, are both unusual and fundamentally important to our national culture. 

The Englishman’s home (and club)

A few years ago I took a delegation of North African university presidents to a Scottish university, where they spent the day at a series of presentations. The last presentation of the day was by the president of the Students’ Union. He spoke of bars and restaurants, travel agencies and buddy-schemes, editing support, sports facilities and insurance. My Maghrebi guests were very impressed and asked enthusiastic questions. Finally one president asked,

“What law does it depend on, this students’ union?” to which the reply was

“I don’t quite understand your question.”

“Well – does it exist under the national education law, or the university law?”

“Oh, neither really. It’s a private association.”

“So how could the university president close it down if he needed to?”

“Well … I suppose he actually couldn’t – it’s an independent organisation. At a pinch he could withdraw funding for the one post that is university-funded. But otherwise, nada.”

There was consternation, mixed with interest, and a lively discussion followed. But what interested me was the conceptual problem that these highly educated men had with the notion of independent, or private, organisations. I suppose that this is primarily a déformation of the French ‘Protectorate,’ spawn of the Code Civile and a colonial administrative centralism that seems to the Anglo-Saxon, virtually obsessive. It is caricatured in the wry joke, “In England everything that isn’t forbidden is allowed: in France everything that isn’t allowed is forbidden.” But it fits well into the centralising, authoritarian mentalities of the current pouvoirs of the Arab world – and indeed elsewhere.

It set me to thinking about the fundamental cultural differences that this story illustrates; and in turn about the central role of independent organisations in shaping British culture. Their relative absence, or at best their qualified autonomy, in much of the rest of the world is I think a matter of real significance. Several years ago I read an article suggesting that the single most significant book ever published in English in terms of export and worldwide influence is the little manual of committee rules used by parish councils and cricket clubs, student unions and history societies. There is real truth in this. It is the engrained, private rights and private codes, the sense of a lively and indomitable private sphere, that are so characteristically and obstinately British. The Englishman’s home (and his student union) is his castle. Searching the web for guidance on setting up clubs, I find this beautifully significant sentence: “The most common and simplest structure for a club is an unincorporated association … It involves drawing up a set of rules, known as its constitution, to regulate the relationship between the members of the club and it usually provides for a committee to run the club's affairs.” We forget, all too easily, that in much of the world this statement is dynamite, a meme that runs silently and powerfully before the leading-edge of British Soft Power.

It is this longstanding tradition of independent self-organisation that shapes what we think of as a British ‘mentality.’ So ingrained is it that we are virtually unaware of it, let alone of its importance. But this behavioural tradition, this series of linked assumptions about what we can do together without the interference of authority, protected by common law, is one of the main planks of our national culture. Institutions are certainly important (and the think-tank ResPublica has recently published a very interesting report on just this, called Building Global Britain: The role of institutions and the renewal of soft power). But I would suggest that while institutions are vital, mentalities and habits are even more so. 

A bolshie individual autonomy is vital to the cultural capital, the Soft Power, that gives us leverage in the world

The ResPublica report almost says as much, highlighting “the power of example within an institutional framework.” It stresses (and this is a truth more often overlooked than understood) that “Soft power is a resource first, and an instrument second,” and goes on:

It cannot be “deployed” or “wielded,” but rather is generated by government and other agencies in the form of cultural capital, based on the attractive qualities – the ideas and values, together with the behaviour, credibility and moral authority – of the agent. In this way, questions such as how British society is organized, its fundamental value system, and the (foreign and domestic) policies its Government pursues, all affect the UK’s capacity to generate soft power.

This is absolutely spot-on, with one curious exception: the suggestion that cultural capital “is generated by government and other agencies” is rather limp travesty of a process that in a healthy society goes much wider, generating cultural capital through the collective action of individuals who have not given up, or lost, the right to organize themselves. Transparency and accountability are highlighted in the ResPublica report as morally compelling features of our society. So is the independence of our great institutions, the BBC, the universities and “groups such as co-operative movements, trade unions and charities.” It is here that the institutions and the mentalities of British culture leach into one another. It is here too that the habits of mind, the assumptions of independence, that make Britain not unique, but preciously unusual, shape the unconscious self-image that ResPublica calls “cultural capital, based on the attractive qualities of the agent.” 

Habits of mind, assumptions of independence

It is the historic understanding on the part of British governments that not only can they not control everything, but that they should not want to, that has allowed this bristly, self-organizing Britishness to develop over centuries. This same understanding, though, may be at risk of dwindling, with what some see as steady encroachment not just on the institutions that ResPublica highlights as vital; but upon the inviolability of the private sphere. We should worry about the cumulative consequences of all this, not just because privacy is an indispensable part of a healthy society, but because a bolshie individual autonomy is vital to the cultural capital, the Soft Power, that gives us leverage in the world. Think of the little frisson caused, in conversations round much of the world, by the realisation that Britons not only don’t have to carry any kind of ID with them in the street – but even more astonishing, that we can drive without carrying our driving licences with us. That’s cultural capital.

For now, the habits of independence linger on like the smile on the Cheshire Cat, but are we as quick to defend our rights to be objectionable, untraceable and invisible as we once were? Or to insist on our right to silent self-organization? 

When we discuss what it is that makes Britain attractive, that gives us our lion’s helping of Soft Power, we must be very careful to insist that it is as much about what government doesn’t do, as about what it does

When we discuss what it is that makes Britain attractive, that gives us our lion’s helping of Soft Power, we must be very careful to insist that it is as much about what government doesn’t do, as about what it does. An erosion of the private sphere, perhaps our most valuable invisible asset, risks damaging that cultural capital. While it is still largely true that in England everything that isn’t forbidden is allowed, much more is forbidden than used to be. We must not let our cultural capital shrink to the level where everything that isn’t allowed is forbidden. 

Martin Rose, Senior Advisor - Cultural Relations, British Council 

See also