As the cross-party British Council APPG publish their latest report, 'Influence and the Integrated Review: Opportunities for Britain’s Global Vision', exploring the role that soft power should play in the Government’s Integrated Defence, Security, Development and Foreign Policy Review, we publish the report’s preface from APPG Chair, John Baron.

Mr Baron argues that the Integrated Review represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reset and articulate the UK’s vision and strategy for defining our place in the world and the way in which our soft power assets and capabilities of attraction and influence should be utilised. 

The first year of the decade has already proven to be challenging. Yet it is often when under pressure that organisations, nations and people show the best of themselves. The COVID-19 pandemic may be the headline of 2020, but it too is set against a background of shifting geopolitical sands.

A more assertive China with frostier relations with the West; diplomatic changes in the Middle East after years of deadlock; a changing Europe with an increasingly disruptive Russia on its doorstep and a global economic shock from which it will take many years to fully recover. 

On many levels it is fortuitous that the UK has chosen this moment to engage in the most fundamental review of foreign policy and defence in a generation, reassessing not only our policy stances on issues, specific nations and themes, but also the capabilities we need to deliver them.

The Foreign Secretary has already set out the high-level ambitions: enabling the UK to act as a force for good in the world, equipping it to lead on tackling the grand challenges of our age and to champion open and connected trade and exchange. The Integrated Review is the ideal springboard to level-up the UK’s foreign policy assets and provide it with the capabilities it needs.

The opportunities for an ambitious global Britain are exciting and could help pave the way for British leadership and prosperity, while countering the grave threats on the horizon. As ever, in looking to capitalise on these opportunities we will need to use each of the assets available to us, including our considerable soft power capabilities in culture, education, media, sport and tourism.

New technology will allow us to reach more people than could ever have been thought possible in the recent past. Whether it be promoting English lessons on Facebook in Afghanistan, beaming the Premier League onto screens across Sub-Saharan Africa or bringing live performances of Othello or King Lear to our friends across Europe, it is now possible to connect more people with UK flair and creativity than ever before.

However, while making sure that our future strategy uses this new technology to maximum effect, it is also important that we do everything we can to maintain and reinvigorate our traditional strengths. Our world-class universities are one stand-out example, and so are our institutions. 

While perhaps sometimes underappreciated in the UK itself, the British Council is cherished around the world as an authentic and effective partner. Established in the 1930s in response to the rise of fascism, it is the familiar and enduring face of Britain around the world.

Whether that be teaching English to a young girl in former Yugoslavia who grows up with a lifelong love of the UK, working with Education Ministries in Africa, South Asia and MENA, even against the backdrop of appalling violence, to develop effective teaching systems, or using film to show members of the LGBT community in Russia that they are not alone, the soft power and influence that it generates for this country is considerable. It is an institution whose loss would represent a genuine national tragedy. 

As the Foreign Secretary collaborates with colleagues from across Government on the Integrated Review, I urge him, and others, to place the UK’s soft power assets at the heart of its thinking. By supporting and investing in our strengths, I am sure that the UK can continue to work as a respected, considerate and authoritative voice on the world stage, guaranteeing the interests of its people and providing inspiration, education, leadership and hope to its friends and partners around the world.

The Integrated Review is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reset the UK’s vision and strategy for defining our place in the world and the assets and capabilities it needs to deliver that ambition. Such an opportunity needs to be seized upon, particularly when it comes to the UK’s soft power and the accelerating global contest for influence. 

John Baron is the Member of Parliament for Basildon and Billericay and Chairman of the British Council APPG.

Read the full APPG report